According to a widely reported statistic, there are 89 privately owned guns in the United States for every 100 citizens. Other estimates place the number of guns as high as 101 for every 100 citizens. These are necessarily estimates since the US does not mandate gun registration. Citing the lower estimate helps to avoid unresolvable arguments that are tangential to the problem of gun violence.
Of course, 89 guns per 100 citizens does not mean that 89 of every 100 citizens owns a firearm. Many citizens own multiple guns. Others own no gun. However, the approximately 290 million privately owned firearms result in the US ranking number 1 globally for gun ownership, with almost twice as many guns per capita as Serbia, which ranks second with 58 firearms per citizen.
Enacting tighter restrictions on gun ownership, mandating background checks, and repealing the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) – all measures which I support – in many respects resembles closing the proverbial barn door after the cow has escaped. Legislation may reduce but will not end gun violence.
Nevertheless, actions by local, state, and federal legislative and regulatory bodies can help. Restricting access to guns is one vital step. A Florida law preventing 18-year-olds from purchasing firearms might have prevented the recent school shooting incident in Parkland. Gun registration, mandatory background checks, laws requiring locked storage of firearms, and other measures would almost certainly reduce the shockingly high levels of gun related domestic violence, suicides, and accidental deaths in homes. Allowing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund research on guns and gun related violence, now prohibited by federal law, would enable evidence-based government policies and programs intended to reduce gun violence.
However, those actions, regardless of their completeness or reach, cannot solve the problem of gun violence in its entirety. Reducing gun violence requires better laws but also changes in attitudes and culture.
In Switzerland, all healthy males between 18 and 34 serve in the national militia and keep their military firearm(s) at home. Many Swiss also own guns for target shooting and hunting. Overall, an estimated 20-25% of Switzerland’s population own guns (Switzerland does not maintain official statistics on gun ownership; hence the use of estimates). Switzerland’s level of gun violence is far lower than in the US. Gun related homicides, for example, occur in Switzerland at approximately one third the rate in the US. In short, the attitude of the Swiss and their culture significantly contribute to avoiding gun related violence.
Christians individually and through their institutional Churches can and should lobby for improved gun control laws. However, the precise nature of changes to laws and regulations most congruent with Christianity are not always apparent. Christians rightly debate these issues and speak in multiple voices. For example, not every Christian agrees with me about repealing the Second Amendment.
Christians do immediately and universally affirm that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The Prince of Peace did not advocate the violent resolution of conflicts. Indeed, he advocated just the opposite: giving a second garment to the person who stole one, turning one’s cheek to someone who attempts to start a fight, and so forth. The New Testament and Christian tradition are conflicted about whether these teachings apply to relations between nation states or only to individuals. While Christians may debate Jesus’ attitude toward hunting, the New Testament clearly shows that Jesus had no objection to fishing. Finding New Testament teachings to support or oppose target shooting requires creative eisegesis. Rather than be distracted by disagreements on national defense, hunting, and target shooting, Christians beneficially focus on Jesus as the Prince of Peace.
Consequently, as a priest, I consistently preach, teach, and counsel against violence, including gun violence. I attempt to model non-violence. I have done this throughout my ministry, including twenty-four years of military service as a Navy chaplain. In retirement, I financially support and participate in organizations that work to end gun violence and war such as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the Center on Conscience and War. These organizations welcome my involvement even though I, unlike some of their members, support the concept of Just War as a rare necessity to prevent evil triumph’s, e.g., to stop the Holocaust. In of my individual and cooperative efforts, I seek to emulate Jesus. That is, I aim to shift attitudes and our culture toward peace and away from violence, especially gun violence.
More generally, Christians and others can actively unite in efforts like these to change individual attitudes and aspects of our culture that support gun violence:
- Challenge widespread and sometimes entrenched insistence on individual rights over collective well-being as antithetical to the Prince of Peace’s ethic, e.g., challenge stand your ground laws and laws that value private property over a thief’s life.
- Refuse to perpetuate once arguably correct but now patently anachronistic ideas such as gun ownership constituting a crucial safeguard against tyranny. If that were still true, rebels around the world would not invariably beg the US and other nations to supply them with heavy military arms, all of which are presently illegal for US citizens to own, e.g., anti-air missiles, rocket propelled grenades, jet fighters, etc. Rebels recognize that these weapons are essential if they are to overthrow the oppressor regime.
- Expose mistruths and lies used to support a gun culture. For example, contrary to the NRA, gun ownership is not a basic human right. Indeed, limiting gun ownership promotes the most basic of human rights, the right to life.
- Not watch TV shows or movies, or play violent video games, that glorify gun violence or create unrealistic, mythic heroes (Rambo, the Terminator, and the Equalizer are among names on the long roster of these heroes). These plot lines explicitly use the hero’s invulnerability to promote violence as the preferred means of conflict resolution. Avoiding these activities keeps one’s mind free of images of gun violence while concurrently making a small dent (sadly, a very small dent) in the sponsor’s profitability.
- Assertively and vocally object when people voice pro-gun violence attitudes by politely identifying the attitude and then objecting to it.
- Oppose glorifying the military or its weapons. Most recently, I, like many veterans, viewed the proposed military parade in our nation’s capital as a deeply disturbing specter that promotes the wrong values and attitudes.
- Truthfully advocate for smaller defense budgets. More is not better. Bigger is not better. Illustratively, at least one leg of the nuclear triad that formed the basis of the US’s Cold War defensive posture is now obsolete. Missile silos, today easily targeted using available geospatial data, cannot be reasonably hardened against a nuclear strike. Meanwhile, politicians falsely assert that the US needs to update its nuclear triad. US land-based missiles create good paying jobs in sparsely populated Midwestern areas; updating nuclear weapons will pump one trillion dollars into the military-industrial-political complex, benefiting those same politicians. Alternatively, one trillion dollars would pay for roughly two-thirds of the identified backlog of vital, unfunded infrastructure projects. Defense is necessary. However, as President Eisenhower and others have observed, spending a single dollar more on defense than the absolute minimum required to ensure an adequate defense is unjustifiable and immoral.
- Resist the temptation to believe that more guns and more armed people will diminish gun violence. Arming teachers will reinforce the wrong attitudes, perpetuating the mistaken belief that guns and killing can end school violence. Ending “gun free zones” on military bases will similarly not end mass killings or diminish domestic violence but have the opposite effect by reinforcing the attitude that guns are the preferred solution to tough problems. The Prince of Peace points towards disarmament, not towards more guns and more armed people.
The time has come for Christians to lift high the Prince of Peace’s banner in public discourse. School shootings and mass murders are not indelible aspects of human attitudes or culture. With God’s help and working together, humans can change attitudes and our culture to promote peace instead of violence.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He blogs at Ethical Musings.