Timid Modifications to Gun Laws Are Not Enough

By Benjamin Perry 2-20-2018
Firearms are shown for sale at the AO Sword gun store in El Cajon, Calif., Jan. 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

On Friday, The Cut published a reflection from Parkland shooting survivor Carly Novell, in which she describes her hours-long experience cowering in a closet. On its own, her story is harrowing — the kind of trauma no child should endure. The kicker, though, is that Novell’s grandfather was also forced to hide in a closet as his parents were murdered during a 1949 shooting in Camden, N.J. Separated by 69 years, the bone-chilling similarity of their experience is a devastating indictment of a nation that has tacitly accepted ubiquitous bloodshed.

In the days that followed last week’s tragic shooting, we’ve witnessed a reprise of American gun violence theatre — a spectacle that’s become as familiar as it is depressing. Republican politicians studiously avoid using the word “gun” and lament another entirely preventable catastrophe as if it were unavoidable. Democratic politicians call for sensible gun legislation — assault rifle bans, magazine limits, stronger background checks, etc. — that stand little chance of becoming law in a Congress purchased by the NRA. Meanwhile, our country marinates in grief and rage, the vast majority endorsing commonsense, yet doomed, policy tweaks. At this point, it’s all so hauntingly rote. (The exception to this trend has been the fierce activism of survivors like Emma Gonzalez, who model the hardnosed, confrontational ethos we should all share when children are murdered.) What baffles me, however, is this: Faced with such calamity, why are timid modifications to a lethal scourge the only changes proffered? Faith leaders, in particular, must call for the one truly moral response to this parade of devastation: Ban all guns and confiscate existing firearms.

Now, before going further, I’d offer a couple caveats. I’m fully aware that — in a country that still can’t even take small steps like banning assault weapons — as a piece of policy, prohibition and confiscation would be dead on arrival. Moreover, it almost certainly runs afoul of the Second amendment. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t pragmatic reasons to call for banning guns. As Phoebe Malz Bovy describes for The New Republic, such a position can shift the Overton window, making it easier to pass commonsense gun reform. But, ultimately, we shouldn’t be motivated to demand total elimination because it’s smart politics. All of this — the impracticality and unconstitutionality — is beside the point. If religion is to mean anything, God’s commands must supersede humanity’s laws. Our moral imagination cannot be constrained by legality. God does not ask for moderate legislation intended to reduce body counts; God demands guns’ complete eradication.

What other conclusion can we draw from Scripture that calls for a world where, “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks?” (Isa 2:4) Can we learn a different lesson from the life of Jesus — a man so committed to nonviolence that he refused to defend himself when he was seized for crucifixion? Indeed, Jesus’ words in that moment seem equally suited to our own: “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) God speaks the simple truth: Proliferation of weapons leads to slaughter.

This theological claim has strong empirical support. Guns killed 38,000 people last year. Households that own guns are far more likely to be the site of murders, suicides, and accidental deaths. Spree murders like the one at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High school are at an all-time high. A recent New York Times investigation is unequivocal in explaining their rise, concluding, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.” The devastation that struck Parkland is simply not common in other parts of the world; it is a product of our nation’s sinful worship of firearms.

As John Thatamanil rightly notes, guns have unquestionably become American idols. “[They demand] from us blood offerings, and we oblige daily,” he writes, drawing a parallel between modern school shootings and ancient child sacrifice. “Every year, we offer up our children up to the god of the gun and to the NRA—the high priests of the American gun cult,” he laments. Indeed, the most common argument lobbed on behalf of firearms — that they’re necessary for self-defense — is a fundamentally idolatrous one. Far from God’s instruction that we should place our trust in the transformative power of love, it’s an attempt to find salvation in an agent of death.

People of faith and conscience must reject this entire premise and decry guns as unambiguously evil, a social cancer we must excise. To be sure, this is not a comfortable charge; it’s a radical position far outside the confines of current debate. Those who espouse it will be labeled dreamers, at best, but more likely as simply unhinged. However, its ideological distance from ongoing discussion cannot be used as an argument to silence this truth: Jesus didn’t call for half-measures to address evil, and neither should we.

Besides, all movements to dislodge deep-set oppression begin with courageous voices who argue for a moral solution, even when those solutions could never become law at the time they're uttered. None of the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery’s authors would see slavery’s end. No matter how movingly Olaudah Equiano described his own enslavement, his words could not end the brutal institution. Likewise, the fights for women’s and LGBTQ rights were led by people who demanded change that far outstripped the meagre gains they won through their life’s work.

By all means, support progressive politicians as they argue for gun control legislation we can pass right now; that is their domain. But, our ethical boundaries must not be dictated by what measures can pass through a Congress soaked in NRA blood money. Our moral vision must look further. Countries like Australia that confiscate and ban firearms have far fewer shooting deaths. That is goal; anything less is insufficient.

Generations of victims cry out from the ground, demanding we expel the weapons that tore through bodies God so fearfully and wonderfully made. To consign ourselves to the realm of what is immediately possible is to betray them, to ignore the moral claim their deaths make upon our lives. If we wish to honor their senseless sacrifice, we must pursue God’s call for radical change. Listen to survivors like Novell, whose wisdom far exceeds her years. “If there were no guns, I don’t understand what you would need to protect yourself from,” she says, adding simply, “I just don’t want to see this happen anymore.” Add your voice to this growing chorus; shout until your throat gives out, then continue to whisper, “Ban all guns. Every last one of them.”

Benjamin Perry is a Presbyterian minister. He received his Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where he works as the Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @FaithfullyBP.

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