God Not Guns: Tucson Argues For Gun Limits to Reduce Violence

The question for people of faith is where we place our trust: with God or guns?
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In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting earlier this month, The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite wrote:

...responsible religious leaders need to speak out and say, without equivocation, that God and guns don't mix. When one of the disciples uses a weapon to defend Jesus from arrest, Jesus rebukes the disciple. God's own son warns us about what happens to those who live by weapons. What happens is they die by weapons."

Newsweek is reporting this week that President Obama will soon offer Congress new gun control proposals. The last two years has seen little evidence of a willingness on the part of the White House to delve into this politically charged topic -- much to the frustration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The New York City Mayor, along with family members of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, recently called for a new push for gun control in an open letter to the president and Congress:

Forty-three years ago, following the shootings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Congress passed a law to prevent dangerous people from possessing guns. The 1968 law bars felons, the mentally ill, drug abusers, and other dangerous people under federal law from possessing guns.

In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill, named for President Reagan's press secretary James Brady, who had been critically wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan. The Brady Bill created a system of background checks that helped to make real the purpose of the 1968 law.

But in the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, it is clear that the system is flawed and too many dangerous people are still able to buy guns. In Tucson and at Virginia Tech, the killers should have been barred from buying guns, but their records were not in the background check database as they should have been. At Columbine High School, the shooters went around the system by getting their guns through a purchase from an unlicensed seller at a gun show.

Altogether, in the years since 1968, 400,000 Americans have been murdered with guns. That's 34 Americans each and every day.

Specially, U.S. mayors are calling for fixes that would:

  • Ensure the names of all the people who should be prohibited from buying a gun are in the system
  • Close the loopholes in the background check system by requiring a background check for every gun sale

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, quickly re-affirmed after the Tucson tragedy the long-held Southern Baptist position of opposition to gun control:

"Gun control would not solve this problem. ... People who are crazy and intent on criminal activity will get guns. When you have gun control, the problem is that the only people who have guns are the crazy people and the outlaws. Guns are not the problem. Human beings with criminal intent are the problem."

What Land fails to note is that there was a 66 percent decline in assault weapon use after the 1994 passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Act.

For Christians debating this issue, are there theological principles that can be drawn from to inform the discussion? Ending Gun Violence: A Resolution and Call to Action by the National Council of Churches of Christ, U.S.A. offers a sound theological rational for supporting gun control efforts:

When thinking about the problem of violence, Christian faith is both "idealistic" and "realistic." On the one hand, there is a stream within the Christian tradition that counsels non-violence in all circumstances. A seminal text is the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew's gospel, where Jesus instructs his followers to bear violence rather than inflict it.

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. ... You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... (Matt. 5: 38-39, 43-44).

It is difficult to imagine that the One whose own Passion models the redemptive power of non-violence would look favorably on the violence of contemporary U.S. society. Present-day violence is made far worse than it otherwise would be by the prevalence of weapons on our streets. This stream of the Christian tradition insists that it is idolatry to trust in guns to make us secure, since that usually leads to mutual escalation while distracting us from the One whose love alone gives us security.

On the other hand, Christians also know, from both experience and scripture, that all humans are sinful, capable of acting with hostile aggression toward their neighbors. This "realistic" view of human nature also argues for restricting access to guns which, in the wrong hands or without adequate supervision, can make violence ever more deadly. Christians can certainly contend that it is necessary for public authorities to take up arms in order to protect citizens from violence; but to allow assault weapons in the hands of the general public can scarcely be justified on Christian grounds. The stark reality is that such weapons end up taking more lives than they defend, and the reckless sale or use of these weapons refutes the gospel's prohibition against violence.

As a minister in the United Church of Christ, I've preached on this topic and know that in our pews there is debate and disagreement about the right course of action to reduce gun violence. The National Rifle Association has a powerful hold on the American political system. The question for people of faith is where we place our trust: with God or guns?

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