IN the 1970s about half of Americans had a gun. Today only about a quarter of Americans own guns – but the average owner has three or four. Fewer than eight million people, only 3 per cent of American adults, own roughly half the guns. Members of that tiny minority of super-enthusiasts own an average of 17 guns apiece. Americans who own guns today keep arsenals in a way people did not 40 years ago. It seems plain to me that that’s because many of them have given themselves over to fantasies.

The way I did as a child and still do on the rare occasion I shoot, they imagine they’re militiamen, pioneers, Wild West cowboys, soldiers, characters they’ve watched in movies and on TV, heroes and antiheroes played by Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson and the Rock, like Davy Crockett or Butch or Sundance or Rambo or Neo (or Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor). They’re like children playing with light-sabers, except they believe they’re prepared to fight off real-life aliens (from the Middle East, from Mexico) and storm troopers, and their state-of-the-art weapons actually wound and kill.

Why did gangsters and wannabe gangsters start holding and firing their handguns sideways, parallel to the ground, even though that compromises their aim and control? Because it looks cool, and it began looking cool after filmmakers started directing actors to do it, originally in the 1960s, constantly by the 1990s. Why are Americans buying the semi-automatic AR-15 and rifles like it more than any other style, 1.5 million each year? Because holding and shooting one makes them feel cooler, more like commandos. For the same reason, half the states now require no licence for people to carry their guns openly in public places. We are actors in a 24/7 tableau vivant, schlubs playing the parts of heroic tough guys.

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Spectacular mass killings happen in America far more often than anywhere else, and not just because we make massacre-perfect weapons so easy to buy. Such killers are also engaged in role-play and are motivated by our besetting national dream of overnight fame. Experts say that most mass killers are not psychotics or paranoid schizophrenics in the throes of clinical delusion; rather, they’re citizens of Fantasyland, unhappy people with flaws and failures they blame on others, the system, the elitists, the world. They worry those resentments into sensational fantasies of paramilitary vengeance, and they know that acting out those fantasies will make a big splash and force the rest of us to pay attention to them for the first time.

Beyond the free-floating American myths underlying law-abiding American gun love – the frontier, bad-ass individualism, action movies – there are the specific frightened scenarios driving the die-hard ferocity concerning gun regulation.

The least fantastical is the idea that if a criminal threatens or attacks tomorrow, you want a gun handy to kill him. Being prepared for a showdown with a bad guy is the main reason gun owners give for owning one, and that answer has doubled in the surveys since the 1990s. During the same period, the chance of an American actually having such an encounter has decreased by half. In New York City, where restrictions on owning and carrying guns are among the strictest in the US, the chance of being murdered is 82 per cent less than it was in 1990.

Keeping a handgun for protection may be foolish, but it’s not irrational. Even though violent crime has dramatically declined, in a country where every fourth person owns a gun, the hankering to be armed is understandable.

But beyond the prospect of protecting oneself against random attacks – and by the way, among the million-plus Americans interviewed in 10 years of Crime Victimisation Surveys, exactly one sexual assault victim used a gun in self-defence – several outlandish scenarios and pure fantasies drive the politics of gun control. One newer fantasy has it that in the face of an attack by jihadi terrorists, armed random civilians will save the day. Another is the fantasy that patriots will be obliged to become terrorist rebels, as Americans did in 1776 and 1861, this time to defend liberty against the US government before it fully reveals itself as a tyrannical fascist-socialist-globalist regime and tries to confiscate every private gun.

This uprising scenario, when it appeared in the 1960s, stirred people only on the farthest fringes of American politics. It is now deep in the mainstream, thanks in large measure to the work of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its affiliated hysterics. How did that happen?

When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they envisioned a very small permanent national military. If Americans needed to fight wars, the states would assemble their militias. And so the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” For more than two centuries, the Supreme Court avoided making any sweeping decision about what the Second Amendment meant.

The court okayed prohibiting certain kinds of firearms, such as sawed-off shotguns. In 1980 a decision passingly noted that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to have a gun only if it bears “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”. States and cities that wanted to restrict gun ownership did, and occasionally Congress enacted modest regulations. Meanwhile people who loved owning guns could indulge their love in the United States more freely than almost anywhere else on Earth.

But after the NRA’s apoplectic-fantasist faction took control in the late 1970s, it became the centre of a powerful new political movement that opposed all regulation of firearms – the types and numbers of guns and accessories and ammo people could buy, who could buy them and how easily, registration, licensing, even a requirement to use safety locks.

Nevertheless Congress in the 1990s managed to enact two laws – one requiring most gun buyers to pass an FBI background check to screen out criminals and another banning the manufacture of certain semi-automatic guns and of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

In 1995, the NRA responded by sending a hysterical fundraising letter to its members. Signed by its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, the letter argued that the new assault weapons ban “gives jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us ...”

That letter was the moment the NRA inarguably settled in deepest Fantasyland. It seemed demented even to Republicans, dozens of whom had voted for the assault weapons ban in Congress. Former president George HW Bush resigned from the NRA in protest. Just days after the letter went out, the anti-gun- regulation activist Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.

LaPierre and the gun rights zealots, however, did not rethink or walk it back. They sought total victory, so needed to convince a majority of the Supreme Court to ratify their new everybody’s-a-freelance-militiaman interpretation of the Second Amendment once and for all.

When the ban on semi-automatic weapons expired in 2004, it was not renewed. In cases in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court finally agreed to decide the fundamental meaning of the Second Amendment. Four of the justices still interpreted it the old way. But in both cases, five justices went with the new reading. Now our Constitution does indeed guarantee each one of us the right to own firearms.

So that’s how we got here. The NRA has won. Yet they and their compatriots seem no less paranoid or angry, still convinced that tyranny is right around the corner and that federal agents are coming for their guns. The wholesale confiscation of guns was never seriously bruited in the United States. Through the 1980s, even most conservatives considered the fear of confiscation to be screwball paranoia, relegated to self-published tracts like Behold A Pale Horse, which imagined a “patriot data bank” kept by the government, “consist[ing] of information collected about American patriots, men and women who are most likely to resist the destruction of our Constitution and the formation of the totalitarian police state under the New World Order”. Now, however, thanks to the NRA, it’s the rare Republican leader who doesn’t encourage the confiscation fantasy.

LaPierre says FBI background checks “are just the first step in their long march to destroying our Second Amendment-protected rights”. Thus the NRA made sure that current federal law requires that the record of every gun buyer who goes through a background check be destroyed. Nevertheless one of LaPierre’s lobbyists has noted that if the government did maintain “a database or a registration of Americans who are exercising a constitutional right”, that’d be “just like [if] they ... maintain a database of all Methodists, all Baptists, all people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds.” Extreme American gun love really is a lot like American religious faith. So one unlikely possibility, a federal registry, leads to a supremely implausible fantasy, confiscation of guns. And that leads to an even more fantastical narrative – after the full police-state erasure of liberty, the final SHTF dream, well-armed Americans obliged to launch an uprising against the US government.

Such fantasies have become respectable. It was a milestone when, at the beginning of this century, the NRA’s president – a movie star famous for playing 19th-century American soldiers – urged members “to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away”, then lifted a replica of a Revolutionary War rifle and snarled “fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed ... ‘From my cold, dead hands!’” In other words, Charlton Heston was saying: You’ll have to kill me if you try to take away my guns.

After that, the threat of armed insurrection became more explicit. Instead of ignoring the first half of the Second Amendment, the gun rights movement embraced the idea that civilians needed guns for paramilitary purposes. And finally the Supreme Court agreed. One of the decisive opinions, written by Justice Scalia, says that the Second Amendment allows everybody to have guns so that they can spontaneously form militias when necessary – that is, to make “the able-bodied men of a nation ... better able to resist tyranny”, to join an armed “resistance to ... the depredations of a tyrannical government”, to shoot and kill members of a US “standing army” they don’t like. Scalia even acknowledged that such contingency planning is absurd, given that in this day and age “a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms” and “that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks”. But so be it: the Constitution gives every American the right to amass an arsenal to prepare to enact that doomed fantasy.

Are the gun zealots like dogs who catch the car but don’t want to stop barking and snarling? Or the child who threatens to hold his breath until he dies? Despite their essentially total victory, they demand more: the freedom to fire dozens of rounds without reloading; to carry guns anywhere they please, like cops or soldiers; a still greener green light to shoot people if they feel threatened.

Reasonable people hoped that after the massacre in 2012 of the 20 first-graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the delirium might begin to break. The killer’s mother, who home-schooled him, “had a survivalist philosophy, which is why she was stockpiling guns”, according to her sister-in-

law.

The stockpile consisted of seven firearms, including the rifle with which her son murdered her. To murder the children and teachers, he used her semi-automatic “modern sporting rifle”– that’s the term preferred by the national gun industry trade association, which happens to be headquartered in Newtown. The killer brought 22 high-capacity 30-round magazines with him to the school.

All the guns had been legally purchased by his mom. According to a Connecticut state report, she “seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son”, even near the

end, “when [she] noted that he would not leave the house and seemed despondent”. Yet the sister-in- law defended her on this count – she “wasn’t one to deny reality. She would have sought psychiatric help for her son had she felt he needed it”.

She wasn’t one to deny reality. Right after the massacre and ever since, conspiracists have fantasised alternate realities about what happened. Maybe it involved an international banking scandal, and maybe Israeli intelligence was involved, but in any case the killings and cover-up were obviously undertaken by the government and media to gin

up support for gun regulation.

Some decided it hadn’t actually happened at all, that it was all ... a staged fantasy, with actors playing grieving parents on TV. Or else the shooter was a hireling, a pawn, a Manchurian Candidate or a Lee Harvey Oswald. The father of one of the murdered children devotes himself to debunking the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories; in 2016 one of the pro-gun fantasists was indicted in Florida for threatening to kill him.

Two months later, the same day President Trump spoke to the right wing’s big annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Wayne LaPierre delivered an address too. They had completely won. So how could he keep the madness going? By presenting an even crazier new fantasy of armed patriots’ self-defence. “Right now,” LaPierre told them, “we face a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us ... some of the most radical political elements there are. Anarchists, Marxists, communists, and the whole rest of the left-wing socialist brigade.”

After 39 years with the NRA, is he really itching for an actual civil war, or are his horrific movie-trailer visions just good for business? “Make no mistake, if the violent left brings their terror ... into our homes, they will be met with the ... full force of American freedom in the hands of the American people and we will win.”

This is an edited extract from Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen, published in hardback by Ebury Press on Thursday, October 12, £20

ABOUT THE AUTHOR ... AND FANTASYLAND

Kurt Andersen is a novelist and journalist who contributes to Vanity Fair and The New York Times and is host and co-creator of Peabody Award-winning public radio show, Studio 360. His new book, Fantasyland, is a New York Times bestseller that's been described by Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, as "the indispensable book for understanding America in the age of Trump". In his ambitious history of the past half-millennium of US history, Andersen demonstrates that the "fake news" era in which we live is not new at all, but the ultimate expression of America's national character.

From the Salem witch trials to Scientology and the wild-and-crazy 1960s, from Americans' fetish with guns to their obsession with extraterrestrials, he argues that his country's peculiar love of the fantastic has made the US what it is and asks: has the great American experiment in liberty gone off the rails?

In the words of Matthew d'Ancona, author of Post Truth, Fantasyland is "a must-read for anyone interested in the age of post-truth, fake news and how we got here.