It’s hard for me to think of any biblical reason for desiring the use or availability of weapons. Yet conservative Americans, including many Christians, and indeed friends of mine, argue against gun control.
It baffles me.
I don’t have as much personal interest, experience or detailed knowledge as others in this debate. I will make a few high level comments, though.
The Second Amendment to the US constitution provides for ‘the right to bear arms.’ Now I don’t have any additional personal insight as to why the founding fathers thought that was important to put there. There are a variety of views held by people who know a whole lot more about it than I do. There were no doubt a number of relevant contributing factors.
But I do put forward two thoughts for consideration:
- If the founding fathers were alive today, and they were creating the constitution in today’s world of weapons of mass destruction, they may well have written the second amendment differently, if at all. If you find yourself recoiling at that idea, then consider the following.
- Even if those particular individuals would have written it, in light of today’s weaponry, exactly as they wrote it over 200 years ago… so what? The fact that something is in a nation’s constitution does not make it sacred. It does not mean that it shouldn’t be questioned, reinterpreted or even changed. Although it does make it more legally complicated to change course.
It saddens me that Christians, usually of the conservative camp, appeal to the constitution or the founding fathers as though the second amendment were sacred. It’s almost as if it were on the level of the Bible or a fundamental and inalienable human right.
One of the pilgrim fathers, Pr John Robinson, said something of enduring significance:
“I Charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.
“The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.”
Could it be that there is more light and truth available today than what was originally captured in the second amendment?
Solutions invariably reflect the way a problem is framed. The issue of gun violence can be framed in a number of different ways:
- Big government versus small government. Going along with the conservative ideology that big government is bad, it is easy to conclude that more regulation of firearms is therefore bad. More regulations require more regulatory bodies and law enforcement resources. Further, an armed citizenry is a potential check against tyrannical government. So under this framing, minimal governmental gun control is the logical solution.
- Rights and freedoms. Assuming that individual freedoms are more sacred than anything else, gun control can be readily viewed as undesirable. However, a rights perspective introduces some tension. The right to life complicates matters, as that presents a direct conflict with the second amendment’s right to bear arms. Rights are only as protected as the legal frameworks that protect them. There is an obvious tension, as to ensure individual freedoms as well as protection of human life (in today’s world) requires some sort of government, laws, regulations and the enforcement of those. It may also arguably require some sort of weaponry, whether defence forces, militia or armed individual citizens.
- Protection of human life. If preservation of human life is the most sacred objective, and government control to achieve that is welcome and assumed to be benevolent, then suddenly gun control is the logical solution. Of course this assumption of benevolent and necessary government intervention is not widely shared in the US, preventing any likely solution any time soon. Interestingly, however, it was a similar assumption that led many supporters of gun ownership to paradoxically support US government intervention to limit supposed WMD ownership in Iraq, leading to what now is seen as a largely unnecessary war. Talk about tyrannical government!
The solution all depends on how the problem is framed. How it is framed depends on the values and ideology of the person doing the framing. And sometimes also on the information at hand, but that seems secondary in this debate.
When someone says that others are framing the problem incorrectly, or are forgetting how it was originally framed by the founding fathers, they are often just arguing that their values and ideology are more important or more correct than someone else who chooses to frame the problem differently.
Is that fair?
Sharing your views on how you think a problem should best be framed can help enlighten someone who may not have considered the problem from your point of view before – especially if there is a knowledge gap. I have to admit I have changed my perspective on filling some of my own information gaps, and still have many more gaps.
But to expect someone to adopt your problem framing after becoming aware of the same information is hardly a selfless thing to do. After everyone has absorbed all the relevant information, perspectives will still differ because we all place slightly different priorities and hierarchies on our respective values.
Isn’t this clash of values at the root of most marriage conflict? Rarely is the solution found in both parties simply adopting one set of values over the other.
Christians can look to the Bible for some helpful guidance to help resolve value conflicts. Of course the Bible does not give definitive answers on every issue, though.
The ideology and values of relevance to gun control that I believe resonate most with those of the Bible centre around the protection of human life. One of the Ten Commandments says: “Thou shalt not kill.”
The Bible has very little to say about big versus small government. It does, however, uphold respect for the role of government (e.g., Rom 13).
Regulation of Other Killers
A common catchcry of conservatives is that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” While this has truth, it is overly simplistic. The implication is that regulations should not focus on the objects but on the behaviours of people.
Yet there are so many regulations about everyday objects that present safety hazards. We now almost take these for granted. For example, it could be similarly argued that electric wiring doesn’t kill people. Yet regulations require shielding to prevent people from accidentally being electrocuted. The regulation makes sense; it has saved countless lives.
Electricity supplies aren’t designed to kill people. But guns are. Their purpose is to kill, maim, or at least threaten to do so. Electricity has utility outside violent conflict. Guns do not. (Unless you turn off the light in the same way as Mr Bean.)
Does it make sense to only regulate behaviours relating to objects which may pose a safety hazard to human health or life, and forego any regulations about the design, location or availability of the hazard itself? I think the answer is, clearly, that doesn’t make sense.
The Right to Bear Nukes?
The Bible and 18th century America do have some affirmative things to say about bearing swords (in Bible times) or guns (around 200 years ago).
But the technology of violence has moved from hand-to-hand combat capable of killing one person at a time to weaponry capable of wiping out entire nations at the push of a button.
Would anyone in their right mind want to allow all their neighbours to carry nuclear bombs?
However, on the other hand, nobody would want to make it illegal for anyone to carry a kitchen knife.
Both the nuke and the knife can be used to kill if placed in the wrong hands. But some weapons are clearly a whole lot more dangerous than others.
So it makes sense to have regulations limiting the dispersion and availability of the most dangerous of modern-day weaponry. The key question should be where to draw the boundaries so as to maximise quality and quantity of life.
Countries without anything like the second amendment are not, so far as I am aware, suffering abuses because of that lack. Therefore, in my opinion, questions about the role or size of government in light of a 200-year-old constitution should surely be secondary.
There are many factors to consider. It is never so simple as comparing the statistics of one country against another. There are other differences beyond the level of gun control regulation.
However, the statistics must surely tell a significant part of the story, even if not the complete story. And the statistics from the Human Development Report do not look good for America. The US tops the pile for the gun violence, with daylight second:
- #1: USA: 29.7 homicides by firearm per million people per year
- #2: Switzerland: 7.7 homicides by firearm per million per year
Australia has just 1.4 homicides by firearm per million per year. And significantly, the rate here halved since tightening of gun laws in 1996.
So I continue to have a hard time understanding why some Christians (or anyone else, for that matter) argue against tightening gun control in the US.
More than just numbers
According to the CDC, 11,208 Americans needlessly lost their lives in 2013 due to homicide by firearm. If the rate of deaths by firearm could be reduced to the level in Australia, that would save 10,680 American lives per year.
These are people like you and me. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers. For each life needlessly lost, countless more are affected by the loss.
While gun control is not the only relevant factor it is by far the most obvious.
The conservative right was quick to take advantage of government power in response to the loss of 2,977 innocent lives lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many now view that government response as tyrannical. The United States excused their declaration of war on Iraq by alleging significant hidden stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction that still have yet to be found.
The tyranny of government over-reach isn’t just felt in the Middle East. There is widespread recognition of loss of rights and personal freedoms through heightened internal security measures. Some would say it is oppressive or abuse. The world is a different place since 911.
But in the face of ongoing loss of life numbering an order of magnitude higher due to domestic (US) gun violence, the conservative right tend to ignore the numbers, human suffering and loss. They appeal to the second amendment. It seems they place a higher value on individual freedom to own weapons as a check against a perceived threat of tyrannical government abuse.
I am not arguing for or against a particular political party or policy option. I am not at all partisan. It’s not hard to find both good and bad on both sides. They’re all as human as the founding fathers, you and me. I.e., prone to mistakes. I simply care about human life.
For me to be prepared to elevate the value I place on an armed citizenry being a check against tyrannical government, I would need someone to point me to an example of a nation or state where the lack of a ‘second amendment’ type of legal provision has led to tyrannical government abuse. Until then, I will place a higher value on avoiding the needless violent deaths of 11,208 Americans every year.
11,208 human beings with families, friends, emotions, hopes and plans. Like you and me.