How Should Christians Think About Gun Control?
There’s a long and distinguished tradition of British people crossing the Atlantic and telling Americans that they should lay down their arms. We’re having this conversation just a few hundred yards from the Capitol building and the Presidential Mansion that my ancestors burned down two centuries ago. So it is probably worth clarifying that this paper is not motivated by a desire for you to surrender your empire, become loyal subjects of Her Majesty, and give us back our tea. If anything, it is motivated by the desire to save American lives, especially those of the most vulnerable in society, rather than to take them.
You all know the statistics, I’m sure. America is a striking outlier amongst rich countries when it comes to gun deaths, and indeed homicide rates in general. Over 100 people are shot and killed every day in this country. 25 times as many people are murdered with firearms than in other rich countries, and 28 times as many women. Guns appear to substantially increase the total number of homicides: last year, there were as many murders in Philadelphia as in England, despite the population of England being thirty times the size. These deaths are disproportionately clustered amongst poor communities and African Americans, with black Americans ten times more likely to be shot dead than white Americans. One million American women have been shot at by a domestic partner. Firearms are the leading cause of death for American children. And so on.
I doubt there is anybody here who is not grieved by these statistics, or who does not see them as a serious problem. The question is whether anything can or should be done about them, and if so, what.
Australia faced that question in 1996. After thirty-five people were killed in a mass shooting in Tasmania, the government took robust action, banning all semi-automatic and automatic weapons, imposing longer and stricter waiting periods and more rigorous licensing and storage restrictions, and requiring a “genuine reason” to own a gun (which included hunting and target shooting, but did not include self-defence). Since then the government has bought back one million semi-automatic weapons, halving the total number of gun-owning households in the country. The number of gun homicides has dramatically reduced in that time, and the overall homicide rate has halved.
I mention the Australian example because Australia seems to me to share a number of cultural traits with the USA which European countries, including mine, do not—low population density, dangerous animals, a legacy of hunting, a Wild West, a popular culture of rugged masculinity—as well as a tragic recent history of mass shootings, and (interestingly) high popular support for tightening firearm restrictions. Of course there are additional political and legal obstacles to reform in the US which do not exist in Australia. But that will not trouble most people in this audience. Pro-life Christians in this country have a track record of advocacy for what they believe is right in the face of congressional and/or juridicial intransigence.
My case today involves four claims, and I have already made the first two:
1) Gun violence is a large and tragic problem which afflicts America far more than comparable nations, and disadvantaged Americans more than anybody else. This is a grievous injustice.
2) International examples suggest that this injustice could be reduced if tighter gun restrictions were applied. Domestic examples do too: regression analysis comparing US states has shown that greater restrictions are strongly correlated with lower gun deaths, although unsurprisingly there is plenty of debate about the whys and wherefores of that.
3) The benefits of tighter gun controls, both for potential victims and the communities in which they live (and die), outweigh the limitations on personal freedom that they involve. (I will save #4 for now, for fear of losing my audience!)
Let us assume for a moment that nobody here is talking about an absolute ban on all potentially deadly weapons for all citizens. I don’t propose a ban on carving knives, baseball bats or moving vehicles, even though they can be used to kill people. I don’t even propose a ban on hunting rifles or target ranges, both of which are legal in the UK, and both of which I have used myself.
At the same time, I will assume that nobody here believes there should be no limits on the potentially deadly weapons that an individual can own. I would be amazed if anyone here thought private citizens should be allowed to own nuclear devices, cluster bombs, howitzers, or VX gas, on the grounds that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.
In other words, I suspect most of us already believe that citizens have the right to bear some “arms,” and that the right to bear other “arms” should be infringed, no matter what the second amendment says. Put differently, there is a spectrum, with carving knives at one end and weapons of mass destruction at the other. At the light end, we might issue a warning on the packaging, refuse to sell them to children, or restrict their carriage in public spaces. At the heavy end, we would arrest anyone found making or owning one on suspicion of domestic terrorism.
The “rights” in each case are not absolute. They are balanced with the “right” of other people to cut up steak or play baseball—or the “right” not to be blown to smithereens while walking home from work. We think the benefits of using carving knives are greater than the risks of being stabbed by them, whereas the personal freedom to own Molotov cocktails (?) is dramatically outweighed by the chance of killing and maiming innocent people. Our assessment of where something sits on that spectrum, I suggest, is a function of lethality (how many people it could kill), teleology (what it was designed for), and utility (what it is typically used for).
So let me ask this: Where on that spectrum would we put assault weapons? Machine guns? AR-15s? The sorts of weapons that Australia banned 25 years ago? I put it to you that when it comes to lethality, teleology and utility, those weapons are clearly at the heavier end of the spectrum. They are designed to injure and kill people. They are used to injure and kill people, with appalling frequency. They are far more like a Molotov cocktail than a carving knife or a baseball bat. So if implementing Australian-style restrictions would half the number of innocent people being killed by them, or even close to it, then that benefit should take precedence over the personal freedom to own them.
Nothing I have said so far is uniquely Christian. My first three arguments are based on the common good, and can be used in the public square, regardless of whether the audience is evangelical or even Christian. But my fourth and final claim is more radical. 4) Christians should oppose the use of deadly weapons on principle, because we are committed to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the practice of nonviolence. Followers of Jesus should oppose the use of AR-15s or machine guns in self-defence for the same reason that we should oppose land mines, drone strikes, capital punishment and abortion: Christians should never kill people.
That’s a tricky case to make in sixty seconds, but here goes: Jesus never used violence against people, whether to defend himself or to defend the innocent. He teaches his followers to live the same way, not resisting evil, and turning the other cheek (Matt 5; Luke 6). Every time a disciple tries or threatens to use violence in the gospel, even in defence of the innocent, Christ rebukes them (Luke 9, 22; John 19). The apostles regularly present Jesus’s suffering as an example for believers to follow (Rom 12; Phil 2; 1 Pet 2). Disciples are commended for joyfully accepting the plunder of their property (Heb 10). Our struggle is not with worldly enemies or worldly weapons (Eph 6). Christians conquer not by killing but by dying: by the blood of the Lamb, the word of our testimony, and not loving our lives even to death (Rev 12). And every church father before Constantine who addressed the subject—Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Athenagoras—agreed that killing image-bearers of God is always wrong.
I’m not naïve: I know my audience will mostly disagree with me here. Be that as it may, there is a strong common good case for tighter gun controls in America, perhaps along Australian lines, which “Just War” advocates could also support. The stakes are high: ten Americans will be shot during this brief debate, whereas in Britain, we average one gun death per week. And the reason why, I submit to you, is encapsulated by Hilaire Belloc, albeit it in a very different context:
We have got
The Maxim gun
And they have not.