American Guns, American Music
Bang Bang - Nancy Sinatra
Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang Bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down
Facts: This song graced the number two spot on Billboard charts for a week, becoming Cher’s biggest solo hit of the 60’s. The lyrics are acted out in the opening scene of the movie Kill Bill, which used Nancy Sinatra’s cover version.
Lyrics about guns: Two children play, pretending to shoot each other with guns. Guns are a metaphor for passionate but dangerous play between lovers, and the narrator is figuratively shot in the heart when left at the altar as an adult.
Position: All is fair in love and war.
Grandaddy’s Gun - Aaron Lewis
He handed it to me on the day I turned 13
With a half shot box of shells and a kit to keep it clean
I keep a pic in the case of that sweet old man and me
Facts: This was the only song on Aaron Lewis’ debut solo album that the former Staind singer did not write himself. In an interview with Electric Barnyard, Lewis said, “You don’t hear very many songs on today’s country radio though about guns and gunpowder and family tradition.”
Lyrics about guns: A boy recalls the day his grandfather passed his gun down to him, a family heirloom with sentimental value and still in working condition.
Position: Guns are part of a deep-rooted sense of tradition and identity for many American families.
Love is a Good Thing - Sheryl Crow
Video: Scene from A Christmas Story, a 1983 film about a boy who wants an air rifle for Christmas.
Watch out sister watch out brother
Watch out children while they kill each other
With a gun they bought at WalMart discount stores
Facts: This song was one of several on Crow’s studio second album that confronted controversial issues like abortion and war. The album was banned from Walmart in 1996 because of this song’s lyrics criticizing the giant retailer’s gun sale policies. The album went platinum, won Best Rock Album at the 39th Grammy Awards, and graced the number six spot on Billboard’s Top 200.
Lyrics about guns: Crow vocalizes concerns about easy access to guns and accidents involving children.
Position: Current gun control measures are inefficient.
Whorehoppin’ - Eagles of Death Metal
Video: Actual footage from the night of the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan theatre.
I said, shit goddamn, I’m a man
Ride lightning fast for fuel
Cross the desert at the speed of sound
I’ve got the night and I’ve got my gun
I can’t lose cause I’m the Devil’s favorite son
Facts: The band played at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris where 89 people were killed in a terrorist attack. In an interview with French channeliTELE, the band’s lead singer, Jesse Hughes, questioned strict gun control laws in Paris – “”Did your French gun control stop a single fucking person from dying at the Bataclan?” asked Hughes.
Lyrics about guns: The lyrics express the sense of invincibility and masculinity that come with guns.
Position: Guns are part of manhood.
Side of a Bullet - Nickelback
Video: News footage from Damageplan’s 2004 concert in Columbus, Ohio where guitarist Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed. After shooting the guitarist, the deranged killer then attempted to take a hostage and began to fire more shots before a police officer shot him.
Uncle Sam taught him to shoot maybe a little too well
Finger on the trigger, loaded bullet
He hit the stage so full of rage
And let the whole world know it
Six feet away, they heard him say
Oh God, don’t let him pull it
Please God, don’t let him pull it
How could you put us through it
His brother watched you do it
Facts: A tribute song to Dimebag Darrell, a member of Pantera and Damageplan, and one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time according to Rolling Stone.
Lyrics about guns: Lyrics of pain and anger are directed at the killer, but without talk of physical revenge.
Position: Grieving a loved lost to gun violence.
Coward With A Gun - Marky Ramone
Video: Scene from The Dark Knight Returns Part 2, a 2013 animation film where Batman returns to crime-ridden Gotham after a long absence. The superhero addresses a crowd of men gathered to fight with him, and surprises them by breaking a shotgun in half, because, “These are loud and clumsy! These are the weapons of cowards! Our weapons are precise and quiet! In time, I will teach them to you. But for tonight, you will rely on your brains and your fists.”
Now that you’re a real big man
You got more guns than Uncle Sam
Doberman pinschers at your side
A nine millimeter you have to hide
Tinted windows on your car
A 12-gauge shotgun will take you far
You’re a coward with a gun, always shooting at someone
You’re a coward with a gun, never liked by anyone
Facts: Solo song released in 2006 by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Marky Ramone, drummer for The Ramones. The band’s members were politically polarized, with Marky on the left.
Lyrics about guns: The lyrics challenge the idea of guns as masculine weapons.
Position: Guns have little to do with manhood or courage.
18 and Life - Skid Row
Video: Courtroom scene from the 1964 independent film, One Potato, Two potato. Footage from Rikers Inside and Out, a 2011 documentary by Muralla Media Works about life inside the infamous New York prison.
18 and life you got it
18 and life you know
Your crime is time and it’s 18 and life to go
Accidents will happen, they all heard Ricky say
He fired his six-shot to the wind
That child blew a child away
Facts: This song reached number four on the Billboard charts, making it the heavy metal band’s most successful song. The band released a fresh recording of the song in 2015 with a new vocalist.
Lyrics about guns: Consequences of gun use for a young shooter in the aftermath of an accident.
Position: 18 is the legal age at which a U.S. citizen can purchase and possess firearms. He is legally able to possess and use handguns, but also legally eligible to be tried as an adult for accidentally shooting someone.
Bullet In Your Head - Rage Against the Machine
They load the clip in omnicolor
Said they pack the nine, they fire it at prime time
The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz
And mothamfuckas lost their minds
Just victims of the in-house drive-by
They say jump, you say how high
Facts: Rage Against the Machine is a Grammy-winning rap metal band well-known for leftist lyrics that criticize oppressive governments and promote revolution.
Lyrics about guns: The bombardment of media bytes projected at media consumers are like psychological bullets paralyzing people into inaction and dismantling public opinion.
Position: Raises questions about the psychological effects of violent media. Also raises questions about public opinion’s relevancy to the policymaking process, because, as journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, Americans neither “understand nor influence the very events upon which their lives and happiness are known to depend.”
Gunpowder and Lead - Miranda Lambert
I’m going home gonna load my shotgun
Wait by the door and light a cigarette
If he wants a fight, well now he’s got one
And he aint seen me crazy yet
He slapped my face and shook me like a rag doll
Don’t that sound like a real man
I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of, gunpowder and lead
Facts: Single from the album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, released in 2008. The song was Lambert’s first Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 2008 and went platinum in 2010.
Lyrics about guns: A woman takes revenge on a man for physically abusing her.
Position: Use of guns for self-protection in domestic violence cases.
I Gave You Power - Nas
Video: Scene from Goodfellas, a 1990 mob film. A woman is distraught that her mobster husband is unfaithful to her and holds him at gunpoint.
Damn! Look how muthafuckas use a nigga
Just use me for whatever the fuck they want
I don’t get to say shit
Just grab me, just do what the fuck they want
Sell me, throw me away
Niggaz just don’t give a fuck about a nigga like me right?
Like I’m a, I’m a gun, shit, it’s like I’m a motherfucking gun
Facts: Widely regarded as one of Nas’s best songs. In an interview with Complex magazine, Nas said, “I was around a lot of guns then. Guns were in my sleep, in my car, in my home, guns were on my person, guns were on my friends. That’s how much they were around. There was so much around me that I rapped about it.”
Lyrics about guns: Told from the perspective of a gun.
Position: Despite its devastating power, the gun is not the one in control – only the wielder of the gun is.
Who Shot Ya - The Notorious B.I.G.
Didn’t I tell you not to fuck with me?
Look at you now, huh?
Can’t talk with a gun in your mouth huh?
Bitchass nigga. What? (6 Gunshots)
Facts: One of the most controversial diss tracks from the days of the East Coast, West Coast hip hop rivalry. The media is often credited with adding fuel to fire. About five months after Tupac was shot and killed, Biggie Smalls was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in March 1997.
Lyrics about guns: The song implied that Biggie and his crew either knew about or were involved in the mugging and non-fatal shooting of Tupac in the lobby of Quad Recording Studios. Biggie Smalls and crew responded that the label recorded the song long before the incident.
Position: Explicit implication of willingness to use gun violence.
Hit Em Up - Tupac
Biggie Smalls and Junior M.a.f.i.a. Some mark-ass bitches
We keep on comin’ while we runnin for yo jewels
Steady gunning keep on bustin’ at them fools
You know the rules
Facts: Tupac responded to Who Shot Ya with his own diss track. The rapper was fatally shot in September of 1996 in Las Vegas, while riding passenger-side in a car with his record label executive, Suge Knight.
Lyrics about guns: Tupac claims to sleep with Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans, and threatened to hit the entire East Coast crew including Biggie, Bad Boy Crew, Mobb Deep, and Chino XL.
Position: An eye for an eye. Gun violence must be answered with gun violence.
9 Shots - 50 Cent
Video: Unknown source, footage from a 50 Cent interview about the shootings he has survived.
Sam said, “You a young boy, why your clothes look so old?
You don’t need fish, little nigga, you need a pole
You don’t need no new kicks, you need an “O”
Chop that, bag it, get right back at it.”
(Gunshot) That touched me, it hit me in my heart
I’m a hustler homie, you was giving me my start
I am what I am, Sabrina’s only baby
Practicing in the mirror, pulling out my .380
Facts: The Billboard Chart topping award-winning artist survived multiple shootings, including one in the face from which he developed his signature slurred speech.
Lyrics about guns: The narrative is an account of the times the artist was shot.
Position: Born into gun violence.
Fuck tha Police - NWA
Video: Scene from Fly by Night, a 1993 film about a NYC rapper who lives his lyrics.
Put in my clip, yo, and this is the sound (sound of two gunshots)
Yeah something like that, but it all depends on the size of the gat
Taking out a police would make my day
But a nigga like Ren don’t give a fuck to say
Fuck tha police (4x)
Facts: The NWA has said that police tried to discourage them from playing this song and that plain clothes cops tried to disperse the group’s 1989 concert in Detroit with gunfire.
Lyrics about guns: The lyrics are antagonistic to police, reflecting tensions between poor urban communities and the police.
Position: There is a vicious cycle of defensive and distrustful relationship with police exacerbated by violent encounters.
Hands up - Uncle Murda ft. Maino and Jay Watts
Video: News footage of the St. Louis Rams football game where players staged a moment of silence with their hands up to express solidarity with protests over the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Cause I’m black, police think they got the right to shoot me
No jail for them, their punishment is desk duty
They’re either killing us or throwing us in the cage
Martin Luther King is rolling over in his grave
Time to start killing these coppers
If Malcolm X was alive, he’ll be next to me with them choppers
By any means necessary, let’s make ’em respect us
These cocksuckers supposed to protect us
Killing unarmed black men, making mothers holler
And this who the government paying with our tax dollars
All these unjustified shootings
Then they call us animals when we start looting
Those kids ain’t had no gun and the police knew it
Facts: This song was released in 2014, in response to the highly publicized deaths of Mike Brown, Sean Bell, and Eric Garner, all killed by police. The rappers aimed guns at a policeman’s head in the opening scene of the music video. Two lawyers from the Bronx Defenders were reprimanded by the city for participating in the video. The law firm issued a public apology on their website.
Lyrics about guns: “By any means necessary, let’s make ‘em respect us” advocates for self-defense against police brutality, conflicting with police advice for citizens not to resist during arrests, no matter what.
Position: Self-preservation with a gun if necessary, from the view of a minority male that feels subject to systemic racism.
Self Destruction - The Stop the Violence Movement
I heard a brotha shot anotha
It broke my heart, I don’t understand the difficulty, people
Love your brotha, treat him as an equal
They call us animals, mm mm, I don’t agree with them
I’ll prove them wrong, but right is what you’re proving ‘em
Facts: KRS-One, a rapper from the Bronx, created the Stop the Violence Movement in 1989 to restore , after hip-hop artist Scott La Rock was killed in a shooting. All proceeds from this single went to youth programs at National Urban League, a civil rights organization. The song featured Boogie Down Productions, Heavy D, Doug E Fresh, Public Enemy, and other artists.
Lyrics about guns: Promotes tighter-knit communities and criticizes black on black violence.
Position: Stop promoting gun violence to the black youth and communities.
We As Americans - Eminem
Video: Footage from 2014 protests over the killing of Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri. Riot police advise journalists in the video to move to a safer area.
They took away my right to bear arms
What I’m supposed to fight with bare palms?
Yeah right, they’re coming with bombs
I’m coming with flare guns
We as Americans
We as Americans, us as a citizen
Gotta protect ourselves, look at how shit has been, we better check ourselves
Facts: In 2003, before the official album release, this track was leaked to the public and MTV reported that Eminem could be the subject of investigation by Secret Service if the lyrics – “I don’t rap for dead presidents / I’d rather see the president dead / It’s never been said but I set precedents” – were found to be a credible threat to then President George W. Bush.
Lyrics about guns: The song begins with an anecdote about an intruder in the house, where police can’t hear the victim, with a following anecdote about getting pulled over by a cop and searched for weapons.
Position: The right to bear arms is vital to self-survival.
American Skin (41 Shots) - Bruce Springsteen
Video: Source unknown, footage of neighbors reacting to the police shooting and killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo outside his apartment in the Bronx.
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for livin in your American skin
41 shots (4x)
Facts: Tribute song for Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old West African immigrant shot to death 41 times outside his apartment door in the Bronx by four plain clothes officers who claimed to mistake Diallo’s wallet for a gun. The NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called for a boycott of the artist’s show at Madison Square Garden in 2000.
Lyrics about guns: The repetition of “41 shots” in the lyrics makes a point about the excessive number of shots fired. The four officers were acquitted of all charges in 2000, a year after the tragedy.
Position: 41 shots went beyond the call of duty. Skin color can get you killed in America.
Knockin on Heaven’s Door - Bob Dylan
Well Mama this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door
Facts: Made the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. One of the iconic American songwriter’s most well-known and frequently covered songs.
Lyrics about guns: A deputy sheriff dies of a gun wound and says his last word to his mother.
Position: The consequences of gun use do not escape officers of the law.
Stag-O-Lee - Mississippi John Hurt
Video: Scene from Natural Born Killers, 1994 film about serial killers who are lovers.
Boom boom boom boom with a 44
When I spied poor Billy de Lyon, he is lyin’ down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stag-o-Lee
Gentlemen of the jury what do you think of that
Said Stag-O-Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat
Facts: One of several covers of a classic American folk song about the 1895 murder of Billy Lyons by Lee Shelton, popularly known as “Stagolee” in St. Louis, Missouri.
Lyrics about guns: Tells the story of the true story about a man who killed his rival and acquaintance over a trifle.
Position: Consequences of gun use, and how unpredictable situations can lead to trigger-happy reactions.
Crossroads- Tom Waits
You think you can take them bullets or leave ‘em, do you
Just have a few for your bad days?
Well, we all have those bad days when you can’t shoot for shit
The more of them magics you use, the more bad days you have without them
So it comes down to finally all your days being bad without the bullets
Facts: Tom Waits is one of Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Singers of all time. Alcohol, guns, and wayward characters are common themes in the artist’s works.
Lyrics about guns: Making a habit of carrying a gun develops anxiety without it, turning a protective measure into a liability over time.
Position: Consequences of gun use. Guns are subject to the volatility of human elements.
Don’t Take Your Guns to Town - Johnny Cash
Video: Scene from The Song of the Birds, a 1935 cartoon about a young boy who regrets shooting and killing a bird.
Don’t take your guns to town, son
Leave your guns at home, Bill
Don’t take your guns to town
Facts: This internationally renowned artist’s single topped the Billboard charts for six weeks in February 1958.
Lyrics about guns: A cautionary tale about situations created by guns, or situations that could have ended with far less permanent and damning consequences without guns.
Position: Guns in uncontrolled environments with more people and high energy are a liability.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun - The Beatles
Video: Source unknown, footage of an elderly woman in a wheelchair with a shotgun.
Mother superior, jump the gun (6x)
Happiness is a warm gun
Facts: John Lennon wrote the lyrics to this song. The song title was inspired by a headline in a gun magazine, but was given numerous interpretations. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said that “mother” was an allusion to Yoko Ono, and that false rumours about a reference to heroin in the lyrics got the song banned in the U.S. and in England.
Lyrics about guns: In the lyrics, “happiness is a warm gun,” warmth refers to the heat of a gun that has just been fired.
Position: This song used to be the National Rifle Association’s slogan.
The birth of America, as told in its national anthem, was, from the beginning, a bold affair with rockets and bombs bursting in air. The original garrison flag from the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Key Scott’s poem about a “star-spangled banner” survived 25 hours of enemy fire in the Battle of Fort McHenry. Thereafter, the memory of the nation’s battered flag, waving defiantly amidst fiery combat and bloodshed, was deeply embedded in America’s identity.
Guns are sewn into the fabric of the country. And there is a dark side to that thread, one that seems more visible in recent years. The total number of gun deaths from 1970 onward, including accidents and suicides, has surpassed the total death count from all U.S. wars, while the Second Amendment has found itself at the center of heated debate. In New York City, high crime rates led to some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but illegal handguns still find their way from southern states into the belly of the beast through smuggling routes.
Perhaps it is no surprise that guns in every form pervade American music, films, and news media. The impact is debated, but that there is an impact is evident. On one end of the spectrum we honor our soldiers or folk heroes who used guns to stand their ground, like Davy Crockett. On the other, we see monsters. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine High School shooters, posted song lyrics with references to gun violence on a website the day that he and Dylan Klebold executed twelve classmates and a teacher.
Times of tragedy, especially, tend to divide the public and its elected officials on things like gun violence in the media and the scope and interpretation of the Second Amendment. Yet at sports events or presidential inaugurations, for a few moments when people hold their hands over their hearts and listen to the national anthem, the melting pot becomes one collective identity, with varied but shared visions of the American dream.
It’s a dream that includes guns.
Consider, for example, our music. Here’s a sampler of some of the lyrics in that music, an eclectic list open to interpretation—a snapshot of gun culture and politics in America. — Lana Lee