Do nations have personality traits? Are Germans industrious, Chinese mathematical, French aloof, Swedes stoic? If shreds of truth abide in those and other impressions, then what trait best describes Americans?

Here’s something to consider: Since mid-December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Americans have purchased an estimated 5 million guns legally, and probably millions more illegally. Altogether, we are thought to have amassed nearly 300 million privately held firearms, nearly one gun per person. That’s by far the highest ratio in the world. The question is: Why?

Fear is the most likely answer. Americans feel safer with firepower. After all, someone might break down the door any minute and threaten the household. Someone might jump in and steal the car at gunpoint. A terrorist sleeper cell might be lurking down the block. Bureaucrats might be working overtime to restrict the sale of guns while prying deeper into the private lives of law-abiding gun owners. And, of course, there’s the clear and present danger of government confiscating all firearms as part of some tyrannical plot against liberty.

“If the government has automatic weapons and is coming after me for my guns, I want automatic weapons to keep them away,” one reader recently wrote to this page. Another pleaded for the right to engage maximum firepower “against enemies both foreign and domestic.”

Could it be that individually and collectively, Americans are a tad paranoid?

Not only have we assembled the world’s largest private arsenal, but we also spend more on defense than all other nations combined. The Pentagon budget, now at $700 billion, has doubled since 1998 and, in adjusted dollars, stands higher than at any point since World War II.

Yet we live in a time of declining crime and, according to historians, remarkable safety despite our capacity for mass destruction. “We are probably living in the most peaceful time of our species’ existence,” says Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker, who has charted the sharp decline of violence going back to Biblical days. Moreover, we tend to misjudge actual threats. The chance of getting robbed and murdered, for example, is far less than that of suffering a fatal head injury after slipping in the bathtub.

Modern media are the biggest drivers of fear. They warn relentlessly about the dangers of crime, storms, taxes, faulty consumer products, defective medicines, obesity, bulimia and so on. But Americans had a rich culture of fear long before the 24-hour news cycle. Richard Hofstadter, in his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” recounted a string of conspiracies launched against the nation by (in rough order) European monarchs, Masons, ­Jesuits, abolitionists, Mormons, international bankers, Jews, one-worlders, New Dealers and communists. More recently, Hollywood liberals, illegal immigrants and Muslims have joined the list of threats.

While the political right often feasts on conspiracy, the left is not immune. At various points, liberals have feared that Wall Street manipulators, the religious right and the Tea Party have cast a spell over the nation. And liberals often dismiss all conservative thinking as anti-intellectual — a claim that borders on paranoia.

At the moment, paranoia’s greatest beneficiary is probably the $32 billion-a-year gun industry. It’s often explained that guns are part of the national culture, and surely that’s true. More than a century after the wilderness was “tamed,” millions of us cling to the frontier identity, even if most of the danger is imaginary. No American myth is so enduring as that of the rugged frontiersman standing tall and self-reliant — and willing to shoot if that’s what it comes to.

Through the fog of myth, culture and paranoia, it’s hard to have a cool, rational discussion about the real dangers that still beset our world, about the kinds of weapons that should be legally available to the public, and about who among the public should be legally able to obtain them.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)