A year ago, I was talking with a friend about how I wished the Tucson shootings were a one off, an ending point, how I wished that this gun violence, finally, would lead to some meaningful change in our policies about fire arms.
I knew it wouldn't. Not because the Tucson shootings weren't horrific. Not because further gun violence shouldn't be prevented.
But because the availability of guns and ammo-all kinds of guns and ammo-is tied up in the rights language that Americans find so compelling instead of the responsibility language by which religious people claim to live. It's virtually impossible even for people who claim the Christian faith to see why the massive availability of guns-and the spread of laws that permit people to shoot other people if they feel threatened-are the least Christian things imaginable.
Now, a year later, there have been other massacres, other instances of gun violence that really shouldn't have happened. Not counting all those murders and assaults that haven't commanded the public eye, in July of 2011, Rodrick Shonte Dantzler reportedly killed seven people in Grand Rapids, Michigan before turning the gun on himself. In October 2011, Shareef Allman reportedly killed three people and wounded seven more in Cupertino, California before shooting himself. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, more than twenty events of school gun violence-accidental shootings, planned shootings, near shootings-have been recorded in the news media since last January.
A month ago, in an incident still commanding nationwide attention and real outrage, Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who reportedly felt threatened by the unarmed boy. The Florida law that allowed the shooter to fire if he had a reasonable fear of danger has allowed him to avoid any responsibility for his action-and, incidentally, led to a massive jump in justified homicides since the law was passed in 2005.
And most recently, this week a gunman opened fire on students at a Christian university in Oakland, California, killing at least seven people.
I drew on my reflections about the Tucson shootings for this column in writing my new book Faithful Citizenship, and here are some of the thoughts I have about Christian faith and the right to bear arms.
First, I reject the so-called Holy War tradition we associate with the Crusades, and with Christian triumphalism today. No reading of Revelation will convince me that Christ is a warrior; it stands against the entire witness of his life. Christians can never do violence in the name of God; it is a negation of everything we are.
The Christian tradition does contain a Just War strain that suggests that violence may be employed to protect the innocent-or to protect oneself. This pragmatic strain could justify gun ownership and the use of a gun to protect oneself, one's family, or someone else in imminent danger.
Another prominent Christian approach to violence is that of pacifism. Following Jesus' example of refusing to use force even to preserve his own life, many theologians argue that pacifism should be the true Christian response to violence, and some suggest that Just War theory grew out of Augustine's and Aquinas' attempts to accommodate the relationship between a once-pacifistic Christian faith with the Empire and later states that claimed it as an official religion.
The conclusion I've reached about gun ownership and gun violence over the last year is this, and I'll quote at length from the book, since I think it represents my most-refined thinking on the issue:
The example of Jesus' life is that we should trust God and not fear violence, as counter-cultural as that example remains, as counter-intuitive as it may be. I do believe that, as Dr. King said, violence is a dead end, and that it should not be celebrated, even when it makes me less afraid, even if some part of me believes it is deserved.
The Christian tradition presents these three possibilities [Holy War, Just War, pacifism], at least one of which suggests a legitimacy to resist violence with violence in some cases. One question remains: Does the tradition suggest that guns be widely available in America, as those arguing an absolute right to bear arms suggest?
I don't think so. Using the "I am third" rubric that models Augustine's Two-Fold Commandment for us, there seems to be no warrant for so many guns to be available to so many. Bob Herbert, who says we live in an "insanely violent society," cites the disturbing statistic that in the years since 9/11, 150,000 people have been killed by gun violence in America-the equivalent in murders of a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl or the atomic destruction of a small city. We've suffered more than a million American murders since 1968, that horrible year when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were just the most high-profile victims.
Love for our neighbors suggests that we may-and should-accept restrictions on some absolute right to bear arms in order to protect our neighbors. The NRA and its allies are fond of the slippery slope fallacy-the argument that banning, say, assault rifles, or enormous ammo clips such as [alleged Tucson shooter] Jared Loughner is accused of having employed in the Tucson shootings, will lead to Americans losing their hunting rifles or target pistols. It's called a fallacy for a reason: controlling armaments that have, as the New York Times put it, "no legitimate purpose outside of military or law enforcement use" does nothing to prevent Texans or Tennesseans from hunting deer.
I come from a ranching family in Oklahoma. I have shot targets-and animals. I know card-carrying members of the NRA, and love some of them. And I believe they are simply wrong about this slippery slope-which is a freedoms argument, not a faith argument, in any case.
In similar fashion, requiring potential gun owners to undergo a real background check seems to me to be another obvious example of loving our neighbors. If, as with Mr. Loughner, the Tucson suspect, we were to discover that someone had a history of police encounters, mental disturbances, and had been turned down as unfit for the military, would we, in all good conscience, still say that a cursory check (or at a gun show, no check) was suitable in his case? Would we, thinking of his example, still argue that anyone who wanted a gun should have one?
Of course not. Protection of our neighbors from those who would use guns badly (including using them upon themselves) also appears to be a Christian duty.
Now, where does this leave us? I don't know. I remember telling a sympathetic Rowan Williams that I feared that this outrage in Tucson would wash over us and leave us where the last massacre did-in exactly the same place. It has happened before, too many times. It will happen again. "This is an American ritual," Bob Herbert wrote, "the mowing down of the innocents."
Few American politicians seem willing to stand up to the gun lobby, even to propose sensible restrictions on gun ownership. But we the people could stand up-individually, collectively-and demand better. We could argue from our faith tradition that love of our neighbors demands that we protect them from preventable violence. We could acknowledge that controlling guns and accessories designed to kill people does not mean gun-lovers can't continue to hunt and shoot skeet.
And, if there's one thing we could learn from Arizona, it's that we could accept disagreement without vilifying those with whom we disagree.
I've acknowledged widely that I may not be capable of Christian pacifism if those I love are threatened.
But here's the thing: those I love are threatened-every day-by the widespread availability of guns.