Column: Republicans are buying guns in response to COVID-19, but they won’t wear masks. What?

An American flag-masked man.
A mask wearer in Missouri.
(Associated Press)

Sometime around 845 BCE, a general named Naaman commanded armies in Syria. He was routinely victorious.

But he also had leprosy. In the Bible story, he gets a simple treatment plan: Bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Bah. Routine hygiene! Naaman storms off. He wanted heroics. He’d rather die than bathe.

Back in February, Gabrielle Blair, a designer, parenting blogger and devout Mormon, wrote a compelling Twitter thread inspired by Naaman. She was perplexed by the professed willingness of tough Republicans to go to any lengths to protect their families, where “any lengths” always seemed to mean brandishing assault rifles.


Laundry and handwashing, observed Blair, a mother of six, are what protects kids from an awful lot of what threatens them.

But evidently washing is too dull or motherly — or is it just too effective? — to appeal to the Mad Max fatherhood fantasists.

Blair’s thread came before the coronavirus seized America. But as COVID-19 blazes through American communities, infecting some 3.5 million and counting, her elevation of the mundane heroics over the comic-book kind seems positively prophetic.

The pandemic kicked off a rush on, of all things, guns. In locked-down states, gun stores were declared as essential as groceries. Widespread unemployment and then the George Floyd protests may have added to the rush to arms. In any case, according to the Wall Street Journal, unprecedented numbers of Americans purchased guns between March and June, and the FBI processed a record number of firearm background checks: 7.8 million.

It’s not clear what guns might do against microbes or joblessness, but maybe it’s axiomatic in America: When afraid, buy guns.

Alex Jones, the unhinged far-right conspiracist, went even further. In late April, he was prepping for cannibalism.


“I’ll admit it,” he said. “I’ll eat my neighbors. I’m not letting the kids die. ... I’m literally looking at my neighbors now going, ‘Am I ready to hang them up and gut them and skin them and chop them up?’ You know what? I’m ready.”

This kind of thinking evidently strikes some in the far-right crowd as a sensible response to a virus. Light, wearable sneeze guards, on the other hand? Social distancing? Bah. The illogic is Naamanian. It’s also staggering.

Perhaps we should expect nothing less from brain-addled President Trump, who only recently donned a mask (once) for a photo op and instead has been pushing everything from hydroxychloroquine snake oil to IV bleach and martial law to cure the country’s ills.

But mask avoidance is nothing but galling in slightly saner state governors, who are closer to the action of mounting deaths and overtaxed healthcare workers.

Even with a sophisticated program of testing and tracking — and thanks to Trump’s lack of leadership, nothing like that is on the horizon — masks, handwashing and social distancing are by far the strongest defense against the contagion. That should be extremely good news. Cheap, easy, no side effects, nonviolent.

Still, on Monday, the conservative-leaning Orange County Board of Education refused to require masks and social distancing in schools, while insisting they reopen in the fall. “It’s frankly politically driven,” said one local school district president.

This partisan folly is starting to border on murderous. At least Naaman was primarily risking his own life.

On Wednesday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, canceled the orders of at least 15 local governments mandating masks.

Georgia cities including Atlanta have seen COVID-19 cases soar since Kemp insisted on reopening the economy last month. The mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has been sick with the disease, along with her family. Like so many of the afflicted, Bottoms told CNN this week, her husband has barely been able to walk.

And yet Bottoms is now banned from requiring Atlantans to take the simplest hygiene measure: masking up. Worse, on Thursday, Kemp filed a lawsuit against her over her mask ordinance. Like Van R. Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, and many mayors in states with anti-mask-mandate Republican governors, Bottoms is still making it clear to Atlantans that they must mask up.

Some Republican governors have recognized their own recklessness in banning mask orders. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had lifted such orders in April, did a U-turn last week and mandated them for most of the state.


The wisdom of such an about-face is probably dawning on Kevin Stitt, the Oklahoma governor who welcomed an unmasked Trump rally in June in Tulsa, and yesterday admitted he was “pretty shocked” that he had contracted the virus. So far, though, he’s sticking to his guns: no mask requirement in his state.

Ultimately, even Naaman listened to a servant who told him he was being a suicidal dolt not to bathe as directed. He dunked in the river, and his skin cleared up.

For Bible readers, Naaman represents a valiant warrior who is also a vain, self-defeating fool. For those of us suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s a genius of biblical proportions compared to the gun toters, Dr. Fauci haters and Trump lovers who would ban or defy mask orders.