While training as a playwright, I was taught that any gun brought onstage must go off. Anton Chekhov said, ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.’ But thinking of firing is not enough. The gun foreshadows the action that will – that must – occur. Its appearance is a contract with the audience. The gun becomes the story, the conflict, and the resolution due to its presence and our expectations. If ‘all the world’s a stage’ it is most noticeably in America where the gun is downstage, front and centre. Its firing has become our narrative.

In a nation founded by religious radicals, it is no surprise that the right to freedom of worship is in our Bill of Rights, the first of our amendments. The second amendment, of course, protects our right to keep and bear arms. Since America’s origins, the Bible and gun have been the symbols of our history and intent, our passion and power. In the growth of our nation, the gun has been used to defend and enforce our faith – and our faith has justified our use of the gun.

It is twenty years since the deaths in Waco, Texas, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms laid siege against a well-armed faith, a splinter sect of the Seventh Day Adventists. Had the ATF done their homework, they would have known the Branch Davidians were a people with nothing to lose. They had been waiting for the end of the world since their faith’s beginning. They had a stockpile of weapons and had raised their children to believe they would die young in a battle with the evil government they called “Babylon”. When the end of their world came, the faithful of Waco used their cache of guns to shoot back at the government, and then to shoot each other and themselves. This violence is the narrative of eschatological faiths and death cults. Once a leader is in place who claims to be the Messiah, the faith starts the countdown to the Apocalypse. It has to come, or the leader is not divine.

The leaders of faiths and death cults in the last half of the 20th century seemed content to destroy themselves in pursuit of the afterlife, and to fire on outsiders only as self-defence, but the 21st century has seen a change in both the use of weapons and the direction in which they are pointed. From the airplane attacks on the Twin Towers to the recent firework-ignited pressure-cooker bombing at the Boston Marathon, the weapons used are as iconic and American as handguns, albeit deadlier. Notable in the coverage of the Tsarnaev brothers during the house-to-house search that led to an armed stand off was incredulity that they ‘only had one gun,’ a Ruger 9mm semi-automatic used to fire on police officers. Journalists have expressed outrage at the brothers’ apparent betrayal of an America that ‘took them in’, providing education, opportunities and welfare cheques, not dissimilar to the hostility towards immigration officials who, it was felt, had not adequately queried the legality of the visitor visas issued to the 9/11 hijackers. Somewhat less legal is the handgun the hijackers are reported to have brought on board beside their box cutters.

In custody, the younger brother Dzhokhar said their actions were motivated by their extremist Islamic beliefs, and that they ‘were not connected to any known terrorist groups.’ When a people of faith have nothing to lose, they are not afraid of guns or weapons or, indeed, the end. Was their plan in Boston an attempt to support jihad, raise awareness for Chechen separatism, or to get back at America, a country of whom the elder Tamarlane said, ‘I don’t have a single American friend.  I don’t understand them.’ If their actions were due to a dissatisfaction of America, this, too is American, as American as patriot Timothy McVeigh whose fertilizer bomb was meant in retaliation for the massacre at Waco. McVeigh was a lapsed Catholic who accepted last rites from a priest prior to his execution, but his greatest faith was in the American firearm. ‘The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people,’ McVeigh said.

In recent raids on the Texas compound of Warren Jeffs, President of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) and their newest Messiah figure, a large cache of weapons was found in a storeroom beneath their temple. How long had they been arming themselves, as a faith, and what was the plan for their use? Even now, Warren Jeffs keeps resetting the countdown for Armageddon from a payphone in the prison where he is currently serving a life sentence for child sex abuse. The Mormon church, like the Seventh Day Adventists, was founded in a time of millennial fervour, the Second Great Awakening. Both have been waiting for the world to end since the 1800s. Unlike Christianity’s eschatological faith leaders, no leaders of Islam claim to be the Messiah. The Mahdi will come to begin Armageddon and the living Jesus, Isa, won’t appear until before the Day of Judgement. Their holy war is not to defend their vision of the end of the world, but to right wrongs they believe have been done to their people and faith.

The feeling of persecution and the bearing of arms is a dangerous combination. It set David Koresh’s temple, Ranch Apocalypse, alight. It created the stand off in Watertown, Massachusetts and, perhaps, the bombings. It could have triggered a siege at Jeffs’ Yearning For Zion Ranch. Who knows where the next Armageddon will be staged? Odds are it will be in America. The star of the show will most certainly be there – the gun. And it will go off.

Peggy Riley is author of Amity and Sorrow, which is published by Tinder Press (£14.99). You can our review of the book here.

Tags: America, drama, Guns, Literature, Religion