Guns and chips (on shoulders)

There comes a point in the collective conscience when one has to wonder when enough is enough. I have been pleasantly surprised by many brothers and sisters in the church as to how they have been expressing grief and sympathy for those killed or otherwise affected by the Orlando shooting on Sunday—that even when we do not agree with the choices these individuals make, that this act of violence and terrorism is an outrage. This is what we say. We show support in our various ways, posting a Facebook status if that is all we are able to do ourselves.

But then, come the morning, and immediately the familiar defenses rise: this is a terrible thing that happened, but don’t take our guns.

The shooting at Pulse in Orlando on Sunday morning was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. It is also, by many accounts, the deadliest terrorist act to have been committed on American soil since 9/11. It was perpetrated by an extremist Muslim against gay people specifically. These are the details we are focusing on. What is much less emphasized is that this man, who had no apparent history of mental illness, though he was of a violent temperament, legally purchased two guns less than two weeks before this shooting happened—and he used an AR-15, which is an assault rifle he also purchased legally, in the actual attack.

So before I say anything else, it stands absolutely clear that the usual cop-out answers don’t work in this case: clearly, it isn’t enough just to restrict the purchase of guns to the mentally fit. Clearly, the mentally fit can still perpetrate terrible acts of evil. Similarly, it is not enough to drum up any other screening methods, because those would smack of discrimination: we can’t restrict Muslims from buying guns in this country, which is so obvious that it isn’t even coming up in the national conversation. And we can’t restrict people of “violent temperaments” from doing so either, for how would we plausibly ascertain and regulate a screen of that nature? And what qualifies as a “violent temperament,” anyway?

The issue is not the person, but the gun. Various outrages in world history have been perpetrated by human beings who have simply given themselves over to sin—in particular, we who call ourselves Christians ought to know exactly how liable any of us is to do horrible things without the Spirit holding us back. We know full well how wicked we are, and we are not surprised by wickedness. But that begs the question of how it remains morally acceptable to advocate continued possession, circulation, sales, et cetera of a machine whose sole purpose is to kill. It begs the question of how a person could be both pro-gun and pro-life, especially when there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting even the legal presence of guns in a society correlates with more violence and death.

Just as obvious is that guns are far from the only thing that can be categorized as a facilitator of wickedness in which Christians allow themselves to partake. Alcohol is a good example, here: I go to a church with a deep Free Will Baptist tradition, and there are a significant number of teetotalers in its congregation, who hold that stance not out of legalism or fanaticism but out of what essentially amounts to this argument in practice. It’s not that drinking alcohol is a sin: it’s that for them, it may be. At the very least, it does nothing to further their witness, and since it may prove a stumbling block to others, they simply believe it best to abstain altogether.

This is not crazy thinking. There is no point trying to argue someone who holds a conviction that some non-explicit sin issue—having a glass of wine with dinner, say, compared with something expressly prohibited in Scripture, like drunkenness—is not a sin for them, if they have personally chosen not to partake in it. Everyone’s convictions are different. We see this most explicitly spelled out in 1 Corinthians 8, using the example of meat that has been sacrificed to idols. And we’re called a step further than this: not only are we to figure out our own convictions, but we are to cater to those of our Christian brothers and sisters. For example: I enjoy a glass of wine or a good craft beer every now and then. But I have many friends here in front of whom I’d never drink, probably not even if they said they were okay with my doing so in their company, because they have convictions not to drink at all—and neither of us is wrong.

Where the attitudes of many Christians toward guns troubles me is essentially in this issue. Many believe it to be their constitutional right to own and carry firearms; many do so out of a belief it will keep them safe, acting as a deterrent to those who may harm them. But there are many issues with these mentalities. Desiring to protect oneself against harm is a fundamental human impulse, but there is a clear proportionality issue in play when one believes the only way to keep oneself safe is to use a gun. The constitutional issue is a separate one entirely, and one that really merits its own post. For now, it is enough to clarify that the second amendment was never intended to be used for personal vigilante protectionism, but was actually rooted in the fact that the newly liberated United States barely had a military at the time, and it was primarily designed to make it easier to fight for the state should the need arise.

I do not believe that my gun-advocating friends are violent, protectionistic vigilantes. And I do believe that most of my friends who are against gun control know how to operate their firearms safely and would never intentionally harm a person who was not threatening them. But I also believe that many people who cling to their guns in belief they need them for self-defense would not be able to use them effectively in the kinds of situations people cite as reasons we need concealed carry. Most people simply do not think that quickly—and most people who do are military servicemembers or police officers who are trained precisely for those situations.

I would very, very strongly encourage my friends who are so against gun control to take a look at why that is the case. Even more so, I would like these friends to also consider whether the continued perpetration of acts of violence like the one that happened in Orlando might be cause for tighter gun control—not an outright elimination, I don’t think what Australia did in the wake of Port Arthur in 1996 would be possible in this country—but a little more. This is especially the case for anyone who believes what happened on Sunday was wrong: if you believe it was wrong, are you willing to change your actions? Are you willing to sacrifice a small amount of personal protection—say, that which an assault rifle might confer—in compliance or solidarity with a larger national push to keep these things out of the wrong hands?

This goes back to the question I asked in the beginning: while probably none of my friends, not even the most macho of the lot, would ever even contemplate harming someone with a gun who wasn’t threatening them or someone near them, how can we as a society ever be sure we’re keeping the most dangerous things out of the most dangerous hands? How can we screen out those who are safe enough to have them, and be sure that the dangerous things won’t find their way into the wrong hands anyway? We can’t—which is why it might be better to just get rid of them altogether. There will always be those who have them illegally, yes. But when so many mass shootings happen by those who obtained guns legally—can we really make an intelligent argument that that matters?

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