The Great American Tear: America and the Gun

In light of the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in America, we are choosing to make the chapter on gun violence from Julius Bailey’s Racism, Hypocrisy, and Bad Faith: A Moral Challenge to the America I Love available for free on our website (opens as a PDF).

For a short excerpt from the beginning of the chapter, read on.

Cover image of Racism, Hypocrisy and Bad Faith.

On 6 September 1949, Howard Unruh walked out of the three-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother and began walking down a busy commercial street in Camden, New Jersey. A decorated marksman, Unruh had returned from the war with a very particular set of skills that simply didn’t translate into civilian life. He felt alienated and underappreciated. He kept records in his diary of those who had offended him, fantasizing about “retaliation,” which would, he said, come when the time was right.

That time came on the morning of 6 September. Unruh rose, dressed himself smartly in a summer suit complete with polka-dot bow tie, and had his breakfast with his mother. After breakfast, he descended to the basement, where he had a makeshift shooting range and a cache of rifles, handguns, and ammunition. When he emerged from the apartment, he was holding a loaded Luger P09 in his hand. In his pockets were a second loaded clip, 16 loose cartridges, a tear-gas canister, and a six-inch knife. It was just after 9 a.m., and within a few short hours, newspaper hawkers all over the country would be shouting his name on street corners. A “quiet, well-dressed young man” had, said the Leominster Daily Enterprise, gone “on a maniacal shooting rampage,” killing a dozen and injuring five in only 12 minutes. It was Unruh’s Walk of Death—America’s first modern mass shooting.

Unknowingly, when Unruh exited his apartment, his Luger hanging slackly at his side, he was introducing a new kind of toxin into America’s bloodstream. We were a gun-obsessed nation long before Unruh’s Walk of Death, but we hadn’t yet crossed that threshold—hadn’t yet had our eyes opened to the kind of carnage one determined man could produce if armed with twentieth-century firepower and a pocketful of ammunition. Unruh exploded our notions of what was possible. He lifted the bar for the killers who came after him. He lived (confined in a mental institution) until 2009—long enough to see the kind of killing spree he inaugurated become woefully commonplace, long enough to see mass shooters like himself become vivid and recurring features of modern American life, long enough even to see the Columbine killers push America into its new and grisly age of the rampage killer.

In all these long years bridging Unruh’s Walk of Death and today, we could have done something to address the true roots of the problem: the combination of our national obsession with the gun as a symbol of unlimited personal freedom and the widespread availability of guns. We could have adopted (at any point, really) sensible gun control, but we have not done so. As a nation, we have sat on our hands because we are enthralled with the gun and with all that it evokes (freedom, masculine power, and personal protection). Because we accept these connections reflexively, we have allowed bad-faith arguments to turn our heads, allowing the NRA and its talking heads to turn each new tragedy into yet another opportunity for gun manufacturers to push more and deadlier weapons into American consumers’ hands. The personal firearm is, we have decided, quintessentially American, and any attempt to regulate the manufacture or the purchase of firearms is therefore un-American to its core. This is the bad-faith argument we have allowed to frame the gun debate, and, quite literally, it’s killing us.

Posted on June 23, 2022