Envisioning the not yet and then watching it take shape is one of the small miracles of the writing process. And each ensuing revision should not be seen as imperfection, but rather as a gift and as being one step closer to the final draft.
I have written this piece several times now. In the first draft, I wrote from the point of view of being a person of faith -- specifically as a Christian. It focused on what I see as the dissonance between being a follower of Christ and owning a firearm for protection. I explored the deep tension in following the Prince of Peace whose non-violent, enemy-loving, other-cheek-turning love seems deeply inconsistent with the notion of owning a gun and being ready to kill another child of God when feeling threatened. One's salvation and one's being a Christian certainly don't hinge on this issue, but I argued in this original version, that by owning guns we are straying from the path laid out by Christ. This is an important conversation to have especially as in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, groups like the NRA have been encouraging churches to have armed individuals present in the sanctuary for safety purposes.
The second draft attempted to frame our nation's deep struggle with gun violence and our ineptitude to do much about it from a Black Lives Matter paradigm. The racial aspect of the gun industry and gun lobby is an under-explored angle that disproportionately affects Black lives.
In the U.S., African Americans make up only 13% of the population yet account for 55% of gun homicide victims. Research is clear that in states with greater gun control laws, the number of deaths by gun violence is lower. Yet for various reasons, particularly a very strong gun lobby, legislative leaders seem reluctant to act. The inaction of state and federal lawmakers (bodies that are primarily White in every state and in both houses of congress) coupled with the influence of the NRA, (which is also comprised of a mostly White constituency) around an issue that Black communities bear the burden of seems very much like a Black Lives Matter conversation. In this second attempt I tried to encourage fellow Black Lives Matter activists to focus on issues related to guns during the next phase of the struggle not only around tighter gun control, but around giving particular attention to the possibility of police officers substituting non-lethal weapons for the lethal firearms that officers carry during community policing. Seeing officers carry weapons that can kill us can make building real community difficult and more and more fosters distrust and fear.
Had non-lethal means of stopping an individual been employed in Ferguson last summer, maybe Michael Brown would still be alive - maybe many of the others who have died from police shootings would be alive, as well. With the recent police deaths (horrible and unjustified tragedies), this is a difficult though nonetheless important conversation to have also.
I had been sitting on this piece for weeks experiencing writer's block in a way that I have rarely if ever experienced. It became so frustrating that I ended up speaking with my spiritual director about it.
As she and I were talking I had what I can only describe as a vision. I saw myself sitting at a large wooden desk writing. On that desk was a literal block which stretched to each end of the room and up to the ceiling. This block was translucent and light shone through it. In the vision I found myself standing up and tapping on the block and then suddenly falling through it to the world on the other side. I saw a family walking so I began to walk around as well. I was aware that the place wasn't perfect. It wasn't Heaven, but it was a cleaner, safer, and more peaceful world on that side. I kept walking and soon after turning around a corner I looked up at a billboard that caught my eyes. On it were the words "Gun Free World".
I rarely share dreams or things like this with others, but a part of what I got out of it was that this is not just an issue for the Christian or the religious world. Nor is this just for Black folks in the world to tackle. This is something that we each need to address. With 33,000 gun-related deaths a year -- that's around 92 a day -- we must do something.
Engaging our elected officials to pass common sense gun laws is important and can make a real difference. Stronger background checks requiring fingerprint licensing for all gun sales and gun transfers as well as a ban on the possession of military-style assault guns which allow the killing of greater numbers of people faster would indeed make a difference. But what if we didn't simply work for increased gun control - which might be the appropriate next step - but instead we worked towards moving to a gun free world?
Nuclear Free and Gun Free?
I recently read an article that spoke of how we can and should move to a nuclear free world. The author wrote of how the nuclear weapon is not only awfully destructive and terror inducing in ways that kill and traumatize multiple generations, but also of how clumsy a weapon it is. She goes on to say that:
Most civilized people likely wish that atomic bomb had never been invented...While technology can't be un-invented, it can be made obsolete - usually by better technology, but in some cases, by shifts in culturally shaped desires. After the iPod was invented, no one wanted a boom box. After the Reign of Terror, the guillotine lost its charm. In the midst of the Cold War, negotiation, was desired infinitely more than war. The desire to be peacemakers transforms our very way of thinking, being, and acting.
The same can and I believe will be true around guns and gun violence. We can't go back in time and un-invent the gun, but we can phase it out with new technology AND with the growing cultural shift around gun ownership and a desire for peace. Us moving to a gun free world is possible. It's not far at all. It's just a few steps away. And by way of technological innovation (some of which has already happened) and a change in cultural desires we can get there soon.
Rather than making it safer, having a gun in your house actually makes it more dangerous, especially if you have children. If security is an issue as it is for many, investing in a security alarm system is far more effective and safer than having a gun in a shoe box, under a pillow, or on a nightstand. So many of the in home tragedies that we hear about with children and guns happen because people had guns in their homes in the name of protecting themselves.
To me not having a gun for self-defense is a theological issue as I can't envision intentionally taking the life of another child of God. But for many the reasons go beyond religious or spiritual ones. Most experts are clear that arming for self-defense at home or in public rarely prevents crime, does not deter mass shootings, and does not prevent robberies. Adding more guns to a nation that already has more guns in the population (nearly 1 per citizen) than every other nation in the world will not at all decrease gun violence or make us safer. It would have the opposite effect. Instead, why don't work to decrease the guns in our population and get them out of homes where they are a great danger. Let's work to change the culture which tells us we need to be armed with lethal weapons to protect ourselves.
This is different than changing laws or revoking rights. This is an effort to change hearts. This isn't about taking away people's guns, but rather encouraging individuals to see that they don't need them for self-defense. To get to a world without guns, each of us as individuals will need to share our vision with others somehow. Maybe with your family. Maybe through social media. Talking about this "hot button issue" is just as, if not more difficult to discuss than politics or religion. And these conversations must be done in love and with hope. Shooting with words is just as destructive as shooting with bullets. But with upwards of 42% of homes in America having guns in them, we have to muster the courage to engage people in our lives around this issue.
And if/when you or those around you get rid of your gun make sure to safely get rid of it in a way that takes it out of circulation such as having it melted down or transitioned to a useful life-giving tool in the spirit of "beating swords into plowshares". One of the best examples of a group that does this work is RAWTools - an organization that will repurpose anyone's gun by turning it into a garden or household tool for free. They create symbols of change and symbols of peace, and are in a powerful way helping us move to a gun free world.
The innovation and technological advances that we are witnessing are helping us to make progress in so many aspects of society. Whether it's electric cars, video conferencing, medical advances, or access to healthier food we continue to finds ways to live together better. The same innovation can and should be applied to guns.
As mentioned above, might we explore replacing the lethal firearms that our police officers and security personnel wear with other forms of equipment that could be effective at stopping individuals without killing them? What might this do not only for decreasing the number of lives lost, but for relationships between officers and community members? The goal here isn't to leave police officers vulnerable and unable to enforce the law or deter crime, but rather to replace current technology with something just as effective though not lethal.
What is missed by a lot of people, including myself at times quite frankly, is that there are many gun owners who are responsible and possess guns not with the intent of ever using it on another person, but rather for sport. Many of these owners keep their firearms safely secured and locked away. And rather than being motivated by fear to own their guns, they are motivated by the joy of hunting outdoors with friends and loved ones. In so many ways their voice is the most needed one in our nation's gun debate. Hunters who want to work for decreasing gun violence are and will play a critical role in the years to come.
But what if there was a way to replace even their guns with safer ones that don't kill. If one is hunting for sport, than let it be in a way that is safer and with far less possibility of that same weapon being used to kill another human being. We were not made to kill each other.
If and when lethal guns no longer exist in our world - when they are relegated to museums - that won't end violence. That won't stop people from hurting and even killing each other. But there is no doubt that the number of murders and mass killings would greatly decrease. And our fear of having someone walking into a school, a movie theater, or a church and start shooting and killing would decrease greatly. Our current situation can't be the new normal. We can do better.
It's hard to see it, but I truly believe we'll get there. This, I think is one of the great gifts of our world religions. Nearly each of their founders helped to paint a vision so that their followers might be able to live in a new way and in a new world of peace, salvation, enlightenment, holiness - even while still inhabiting this world.
In my own tradition, Jesus came not only to save and give eternal life, but also to invite believers to take up residence in what He called The Kingdom of God -- even while walking through the Roman Empire. This was a profound calling - to move to a world where enemies were loved, where peace reigned, where all were valued equally as children of God, even while still living in Rome. This notion of moving to a gun free world is not a new religion. In so many ways it's simply a reminder of the invitation(s) already extended. We too can move to a different world even while still living in this one. Let's help to build the Kingdom of God, The Beloved Community, The Peaceable Kingdom. It's just over there. And it's not as far as you may think. The last word of our nation's painful story with guns and gun violence has not been written yet. Help write the next chapter. #GunFreeWorld