Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is gun ownership Christian?

Lisa Miller in an eponymous Washington Post column asked, "Is gun ownership Christian?" She reported that 57% of white evangelicals live in households with guns and that 59% of them oppose gun controls. Then she asked how these Christians reconcile their actions and beliefs with their claim to follow a Lord who allowed the Romans to crucify him rather than engage in armed resistance. She identified several rationales that evangelical Christians use to justify their views about gun ownership. I list these below, along with my rejoinder why each rationale is severely flawed.

·         The second amendment is approved by God. Whatever cogency this claim may once have had is long gone. As my previous post emphasized, the second amendment no longer constitutes a bastion against tyranny; personal weapons are no match for a modern army (Mass murders and gun control).

·         Only prayer can conquer gun violence. This claim wrongly presumes that God acts unilaterally and that prayer is an acceptable substitute for human actions. Prayer, rightly understood, complements other human actions rather than being a replacement for those actions; humans cannot shift their responsibility to God (cf. Responding to a reader and What is prayer?).

·         Don't blame guns, blame a corrupt society. Guns obviously require human operators. However, we do not entrust individuals with nuclear weapons, confident that a few would abuse the responsibility to the detriment of the many. Similarly, we should not entrust all types of guns, and not every size of magazine, to everyone.

·         Curbing gun ownership is the gateway to curbing other rights. This claim entails two false assumptions. First, that people have a right to gun ownership. Although such a right may exist in U.S. law, there is no such natural right and most countries do not recognize a legal right to gun ownership. Law and ethics are different disciplines whose conclusions are not interchangeable. Second, curbing one right does not necessarily lead to a slippery slope. A classic example is that morally and legally people have no right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded auditorium when there is no fire. The imposition of that limit on free speech has not caused an erosion of the right to free speech.

·         Self-defense and love (and defense) of neighbor are biblical values. Christian theologians and ethicists debate whether self-defense is a biblical value. St. Augustine, for example, declared that killing in self-defense is morally wrong. Defense of neighbor is a biblical value. However, gun ownership is not essential for either defense of self or neighbor. Owners of guns are at a greater risk from suicide and having an accidental homicide in their household than are people who do not own guns. A community delegate responsibility for defense of self and neighbor to its police and military forces because this delegation has proven more effective and prevents more violence than does the alternative. Vigilantes, by any name, are immoral.

Miller concluded her column by quoting from a sermon that the Very Rev. Gary Hall, new Dean of Washington's National Cathedral, preached last week: “If we want to stand with Jesus and Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. . . . That may sound like a hard truth, but for a Christian, there’s no way around it.”

I am not opposed to all gun ownership. Hunting, in the absence of natural predators, is necessary to cull animal populations, prevent disease, and reduce the number of vehicular accidents caused by wild animals. Some people enjoy the sports like skeet and target shooting.

On most military installations, residents are not permitted to keep guns in their residence but must store the weapon (and often the ammunition) in the installation's armory. This policy should make anyone who owns a gun re-examine their reason for having the gun and the manner in which they store it. Anyone who owns a gun should keep the weapon and all ammunition under secure lock when not in use; they should only permit individuals who have taken the appropriate weapons safety courses to use the weapon. Guns inappropriate for hunting or sports belong in museums (not private collections!) or police/military custody.


Ted said...

As most people who defend the laws about guns and what is right and wrong they probably never were faced with deadly situations. Go watch the videos about looting and shootings in New Orleans after Katrina or other similar situations after Sandy. The homeowners in New Orleans had their guns taken from them, by force, and were never returned even with a court order to do so. The looters continued until 19,000 security personnel got involved.
As for nuclear weapons, there were many opportunities a person could take a nuclear weapon even with massive rules and security. It is only with good people who know right from wrong this tragedy did not or does not happen. The rules do not matter except to those in the highest authority who feel more rules make us safer. It’s the people who follow the rules and control the valuable and strategic items who make the system work.
I agree few, if any, people should have high powered weapons. A hunter killing an animal from long distance can not call themselves a sportsman. There is no reason for massive magazines or guns with kill ranges over a mile. One of the issues with the military is they enjoy wild shooting sprees, not understanding they have limited ammunition.
Definitely restrict weapons from police unless they have passed a stressful live fire situation where their actions could kill innocents. If they can not pass this test, then limit them to non lethal weapons.
I’m waiting for the news to report clerics of any religion and ethicists who have stood in harms way with upraised arms asking for peace between groups in deadly situations or on the front lines. The Pope rides in bullet proof vehicles and has lots of security. If he is a true Christian, then dying is God’s will.
After reading about St Augustine, I would not use him as my example of love and biblical values. Early in life he did many unethical deeds and had “a proud desire always to be first, even in evil”. This sounds more like Lance Armstrong.
I imagine there are unknown lethal weapons on most bases. In order to get your weapon from an armory or return it takes too much time. The same goes for most ammunition. Both of my brothers who were in the Army talk about the practice of throwing away ammunition as it was too difficult to return it.
We have great rules; but if they are not followed, then those who know how to bend, avoid

George Clifford said...

Ted, Here's an important addition to your comment about St. Augustine. One of the basic premises of Christianity, like most religions, is that people who repent receive forgiveness for previous sins. Augustine, the sinner, is like all of us; Augustine the saint is exceptional because of the degree of transformation evident in his life post-repentance for his early sins.

Anonymous said...

John said...

Couple of thoughts. That I am outmatched by the U.S. military doesn't negate the anti-tyranny rationale for the 2nd amendment. I'm certainly not going to storm the Pentagon/Bastile with my handgun, but then I'm also not going to be as easily whisked away in the night as countless victims of political terror have been in past centuries.

Yes, God certainly acts through humans. If a policeman shoots and thus stops an active shooter, is that un-christian? I see no difference morally between that and a homeowner shooting/stopping a criminal during a home invasion. We can say it's the lesser of two evils, it's regrettable, that God weeps for the criminal -- yes, that we, like Bonhoeffer, should confess it later as sinful -- yes. But how is it better to let evil have its way? Is it better to concede to the armed robber/rapist that I'll resist you with one hand-tied-behind-my back so I can have the moral high ground?

Did Augustine unequivocally say that killing in self defense is morally wrong? I'm asking here. I've seen quotes (on the internet -- HA!) attributed to Augustine that don't absolutely jibe with Miller's claim.

The claim that gun ownership is associated with greater probability of having it used against you is highly, highly debatable in academic circles. The suicide risk has some merit, but there is also academic evidence to show a substitution effect (i.e., fewer guns, same rates of suicide by different means). My point is, if we act by scripture, tradition, and REASON then there is 1) plenty of evidence to challenge the cited claims of the risk of gun ownership, and 2) plenty of evidence to document beneficial aspects of gun ownership in reducing crime.

Anonymous said...

John said... thoughts on Dean Hall's statement. Jesus practiced sacrificial martyrdom -- at a certain time. In that context he told his concealed carrying disciples to sheath their swords rather than to resist his arrest.

But previously Jesus avoided the stone-bearing crowds, because his time had not yet come. He elbowed his way back through the crowd above Nazareth's cliff. He often practiced the good self defense tactic of traveling around in a group. And at least several of his disciples carried swords, even during the last supper. Presumably this was a practical deterrent to banditry -- not even necessarily in their use, just maybe in their display.

My point here is that Jesus did different things at different times. I would not expect our lives to be any different.

Anonymous said...

John said... I respectfully disagree with the idea that government tyranny takes the form of jets, tanks, and battalions. The recent history of lethal tyranny has most often taken the form of a couple of security police knocking on your door at midnight, or a squad of einsattsgruppen showing up in your village. Tens of millions of unarmed people have thus been easily taken that way and killed, either violently or, more commonly, through starvation.

Hitler and Stalin were before my time, but Mao and Pol Pot did this during our lifetimes.

P.S. I tried to post the above in several other posts of yours. Likely due to my ineptitude, I may or may not have successfully submitted them. Please disregard/discard multiple postings -- I wasn't trying to bombard you.

George Clifford said...

Anonymous, One of the criteria for fighting a just war is a reasonable chance of success. An armed citizenry does not have a reasonable chance of winning an armed conflict with a modern fighting force. Therefore, engaging in that conflict is unjust and owning firearms unjustifiable based upon that rationale. Augustine was unequivocal: the Christian should die before killing in self-defense. Augustine, the originator of the just war tradition within Christianity, argued that killing was justified only in defense of others. The differences between police killing and a homeowner doing it are that the homeowner is more likely to be acting in self-defense, more likely to act in a manner skewed by emotion, and less likely to have sufficient training to shoot accurately with intent to wound. There is no evidence that Jesus' disciples carried concealed swords. Self-defense is a Christian value – up to the point at which it requires taking another person's life. The rationale for self-defense is to prevent the other person from committing grave moral sins, not self-protection, per se.