There is a t-shirt that has a picture of a Bible and a gun surrounded by the words "Two things every American should know how to use... neither of which are taught in schools."
The mixing of God and guns seems to be a uniquely American recipe. But it's not a good one. More people died this week in America, victims of yet more mass shootings. And the same conversations about gun laws, gun rights, mental health and how this is now normal in our country continue. But another mass shooting will occur today, and tomorrow and the day after that. We average more than one per day.
There are important moral, legal and social facts that can be brought to bear on this debate. Here, however, I'll discuss some religious arguments related to gun laws, in part because so many people attempt to combine guns and God, Christianity and a Colt .45. I think a strong religious argument in favor of more restrictive gun laws can be made, grounded in Christian ethics.
First, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament consistently conceive of God as being especially concerned with the poor, the outcast, the weak, and the vulnerable (see Isa. 32:15-18; 60:17-18; Rom. 14:17; and James 1:27). Gun violence is especially prominent in economically depressed areas. It is also prevalent in cases of domestic violence, where women and children are vulnerable and the victims. Surely these are good reasons, from a Christian moral perspective, to have more restrictive gun laws.
Second, the New Testament consistently opposes violence. As New Testament scholar Richard Hays puts it in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, "From Matthew to Revelation we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it." The New Testament teaches non-violent love for one's enemies (Mat. 5:38-48), that it is the role of government to "bear the sword," not individual persons (Romans 13), and that followers of Jesus should accept even the theft of their own possessions rather than using violence to defend them (Heb. 10:32-34).
I would add that it is hard to imagine Jesus, if he were present in our culture, carrying a gun. And as the exemplar for Christians, this is significant. Some deny this claim, based on a passage from chapter 22 of Luke's gospel. Prior to his betrayal and arrest, Jesus tells the disciples "If you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Gun advocates interpret this as a justification for the status quo. But when they do this, they ignore the context of the passage. Later in the chapter, a follower of Jesus uses a sword against a servant of one of the religious leaders involved in the arrest. Jesus tells him, "No more of this!" Moreover, the context of the passage reveals that the point of the exhortation to purchase a sword is to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy, not to use for violence against others.
I'm not a pacifist, and I am not an advocate for outlawing all guns. I think there are good arguments in support of the claim that we possess a right to self-defense. But this doesn't justify the current gun laws in the U.S. Common sense and Christian ethics lead to the conclusion that we need more restrictive gun laws in the United States.
Many are opposed to this, for a variety of reasons.
First, many pro-gun advocates argue that an unarmed citizenry will be helpless against a tyrannical government. While it is possible that tyranny may arise in our nation, this seems unlikely, given the existence of democratic institutions and a strong tradition of adherence to the rule of law. Moreover, when we take into account the military might of the United States government, it is not clear how an armed populace would prevent such tyranny. If such tyranny did arise, the people could successfully resist only if they had a stockpile of weapons capable of matching the state's firepower. It is not clear how a stockpile of guns would deter a drone attack, for example.
If the justification for the continued prevalence of guns in America is to deter or resist a possible future tyrannical state, then by the same reasoning there would also be a right to possess fighter jets, missiles, and perhaps even weapons of mass destruction, all of which would be needed to truly deter or reverse such tyranny. But surely this is wrong, because of the potential harm to innocent victims if these weapons were widely possessed.
Some argue that gun laws don't work, pointing to places like Chicago. It is true that Chicago, a city which has very strict gun laws, also has a high level of gun violence. However, the case of Chicago does not support the claim that restrictive gun laws are ineffective. Instead, it shows the need for more widespread laws. People who want guns can simply go outside of Chicago, obtain them with ease, and bring them back into the city. Consider the fact that between 2008 and 2012, Chicago police recovered 1,375 guns that were used in criminal activities. Almost 20 percent of these guns came from a single store, Chuck's Gun Shop, located a few miles outside of the Chicago city limits in Riverdale, Illinois. Strict gun laws in one city will be ineffective if the laws of the state in which that city is located are lax, as is the case in Illinois.
Third, the data show that strict gun laws reduce violent crime. For example, there is a correlation between restrictive laws and lower homicide rates with and without firearms, both within the United States and internationally. Moreover, a recent study published in the Southern Medical Journal found that the presence of a gun in a home is twelve times more likely to lead to the death of a member of the household or a visitor than an intruder.
Finally, consider a fact about the nature of rights: most are not absolute. That is, there are limits to their scope, and one of the most significant reasons to limit the exercise of a right is that doing so will prevent serious harm to others. This is why the right to freedom of speech does not include the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Most rights are conditional. The right to drive a car in is conditional upon successfully taking written and road skills tests. We should do something similar with gun rights.
What laws might be effective? Perhaps some or all of the following: a criminal and mental health background check, an assault weapons ban, a required safety course, competency with a firearm demonstrated via a skills test, a regular renewal requirement, a minimum age requirement of at least 21 (and perhaps older), and some form of gun liability insurance. This allows for those who are competent to own and use firearms for both sport and self-defense, and connects the right to own a firearm with the ability to properly and sensibly use it. This would make it more likely that each individual gun owner will be responsible, and that fewer people will die from gun violence.
For Christians who want to have a consistent pro-life ethic across all of the issues related to life and death, the status quo is unacceptable. There is much more to do than simply craft better gun laws, and there is likely no way to guarantee that such things will never happen again. However, we can certainly reduce the number of these tragic events. As followers of Jesus, we have the responsibility to try.
Michael W. Austin is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Eastern Kentucky University. He is currently working on a book entitled God and Guns in America, to be published in 2019. You can connect with him at michaelwaustin.com, on Twitter @michaelwaustin, and on Facebook.