Gundamentalist: A person who goes beyond the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and takes his or her unrestricted right to bear arms as a tenet of religious or quasi-religious faith. A portmanteau of “gun” and “fundamentalist.”
Jay Heinrichs, a rhetorician and author of books and a blog about figures of speech, used gundamentalist in his response to the mass shooting of children last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. In his post, “It’s Not a Tragedy” (“‘Tragedy’ implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre”), Heinrichs wrote:
Keep the focus on the children. This was a massacre of children. Gundamentalists will try to focus on the shooter. That allows them to make a reasonable-sounding case for school prayer: As our morals deteriorate, more sick people will do horrible things. Frame the issue around making it harder to massacre children. You can’t pray away legally acquired assault weapons and large-capacity ammo clips.
In a comment, Heinrichs defined “gundamentalists” as “gun-loving fundamentalists with an unusual interpretation of Jesus’ peace message.”
Heinrichs didn’t coin “gundamentalist”; in fact, the word has been around for more than 80 years. I found a citation in the July 31, 1926, issue of The New Yorker in the “Of All Things” column, an un-bylined collection of news items (paywalled):
Down in Texas the shouting Baptist has evolved into the shooting Baptist. Rev. J. Frank Norris has now reached the position of America’s leading gundamentalist.
(Some context: In her 2006 book Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South, Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews identifies Edgar W. Knight, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, as the person who pinned the “gundamentalist” nickname on Norris, a flamboyant preacher who assailed alcohol, Catholics, Communists, and “that hell-born, Bible-destroying, deity-of-Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution.” In July 1926, Norris shot and killed an unarmed man in his church office. He was tried for murder and acquitted on grounds of self-defense, although no gun had been found on his victim or presented as evidence in the trial.)
“Gundamentalist” lay dormant and possibly forgotten for many decades. Then, about five years ago, it began appearing again – this time in connection with groups, not individuals, and with a new shade of meaning: not necessarily a religious fundamentalist who pulls a trigger but any person who venerates guns.
In 2007, Reverend Rachel Smith, founder of the God Not Guns Initiative, wrote in “A Meditation for God Not Guns Sabbath” that “Gundamentalism” was “a spiritual problem”:
Gundamentalism is a spiritual movement without spiritual grounding. It is rooted in the sale and promotion of violence.
Gundamentalism willfully ignores the loss of nearly 30,000 lives each year to gun suicide and gun homicide. The mantra, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” is a magnificent half-truth that attempts to absolve gundamentalism of responsibility for the uniquely American epidemic of gun violence.
Smith has also written of gundamentalism:
Its adherents believe that nothing is as important as the right to own a gun. Or many guns. Or many kinds of guns.
In 2008, Washington Post religion reporter David Waters wrote about a Baptist church in Oklahoma City that planned to give away a gun at an annual youth conference. Waters concluded:
I see people who are products of our gundamentalist culture, people who drape the cross with a flag, people who believe the Second Amendment should be one of the Ten Commandments, people who seem to have more trust in guns than in God.
“Gundamentalist” has occasionally been claimed with pride by those it’s meant to shame:
Today I was called a Gundamentalist.
I think it was meant to be insulting or belittling. The more I think about it, the more I find it charming. – We the Armed, 2009.
Oh and I love the term “gundamentalist.” I’m so stealing that. – The Truth About Guns, 2011
For more on America’s veneration of guns, see “Our Moloch,” Garry Wills’s December 15 essay in the New York Review of Books.
And for additional context, see Pro Publica’s roundup of “The Best Reporting on Guns in America,” originally published in July 2012.
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