One of the questions coming out the tragedy in Connecticut is the issue of gun control. What is the Gospel response? First of all, we live in a country in which the ownership of guns is legal. In fact, it is almost ingrained in our DNA that we need to own guns to experience the American Dream. Guns are thought to offer protection and to serve as a deterrent to events such as was experienced in Newton, CT this past Friday. Plus, they are used by sports enthusiasts to hunt and target shoot. We have more experienced gentlemen and younger girls in our congregation, as well as plenty of individuals in between age-wise who own guns. Does that mean they are doing something wrong? Are they somehow bad witnesses of the Gospel of Christ?
Since the authorities give us the right to own guns, so long as we obey the relevant laws, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Christians owning guns. In the years that I have been here, those whom I know to own guns in our parish have been model citizen owners. All have gone through the required gun-safety classes. All have the appropriate licenses. As far as I know, none has discharged their weapon in a threatening manner. And I can think of at least one instance where an owner among us fulfilled the spirit or intent of the gun laws at great cost personally. Those who know me know I benefit from those owners from time to time. Most of my kids and I are known to wolf down our fair share of deer jerky--all of it provided by a legal gun owner, and we have been fortunate to trade some of that jerky for other “treats” bagged by other hunters that we enjoy.
But this shooting, and the Oregon Mall shooting, and the countless other mass attacks around the country have left this country considering whether our gun laws make sense. Yes, we are required to fill out applications to purchase guns, but what happens when the underlying conditions of the owner change. More often than not, we, the general public, must depend on the owner to recognize the change within themselves. Seldom does this ever work well. Just as those whose reflexes or physical conditions have caused reactions to slow behind the wheel are loathe to give up driving or those that suffer from mental illness are sometimes known to avoid their prescribed medication, those who suffer mental illness years after purchasing a weapon are often unwilling to give up their guns. This is despite the fact that the first question on the application is about mental illness. So, like driving a car or being certified in many professions, why don’t we have to re-qualify to own our weapons every few years? How is our right to bear armed infringed when the public simply tries to make sure that our qualifications for owning a weapon have not changed?
Perhaps those who suffer from mental illness feel specifically singled out. Unfortunately, psychologists and psychiatrists are unable to “guarantee” that those suffering from particular mental illnesses (for example, some forms of depression) will not use weapons to harm themselves or others. Since the experts cannot guarantee behavior, society has passed laws that those who suffer such diseases are simply disqualified from owning weapons in the interest of public safety. It may seem unfair. It may seem like a violation of rights. But it is not like we don’t do this in other rights. Anyone interested in giving the blind a driver’s license? Do we think we are infringing on the rights of others when we require our professionals, such as doctors and nurses and nuclear scientists and others, to pass certain competency requirements? Why should we not as a society think critically about gun ownership?
Thinking critically, of course, means not vilifying the person who holds a position contrary to our own. Thinking critically means that we engaged the other side, passionately to be sure, about what we believe to be rational safeguards or limits placed upon ownership, understanding that many among us can rightly believe that the second amendment is clear that gun ownership shall not be infringed, that gun ownership really does keep the government from taking liberty from its citizens, and that, in the grand scheme, nearly four times as many people are killed by automobile drivers each year than by the discharge of weapons in this country. Thinking critically in the public discourse means that people who use weapons legally, that people who have been victimized by the illegal use of weapons, that people who have been saved from a crime or threat to life thanks to the possession of a gun, that people who are charged with enforcing the laws regarding gun ownership and their use, that people who live in practical war zones in our nation’s cities, that people who are forced to clean up the messes, and even people who are terrified about the thought of owning a weapon will have a right to participate in the public discourse and determination of gun laws, just as will we.
A few months ago, I was asked at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese conference about my thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. They were debating forcing one side or the other to accept the terms of peace and what the Roman Catholic church’s position should be. My public thought was that no one can be forced into peace. My thought was that we Christians have done a horrible job evangelizing Israel and Palestine. Were we to be effective at sharing Christ’s Gospel with them, they would be drawn to The Table of their own free will. Accepting the Gospel would require that they see their enemy as their brother or sister in Christ. The only faithful response then, would be to love their neighbor as Christ loved them. That, I said, is how I think we in the Church end the Israeli-Palestinian fighting; forcing peace will never work.
I share that story because it is very similar to my thoughts on gun ownership. Some people own guns because they think they need protection from criminals, others own guns because they think they need protection from the state, others own guns because they protect against the breakdown of the social order, and still others own them for sport. No doubt the craziness of the world will cause some people to run out and purchase guns to protect themselves against the next attack like we have seen this week. The problem, of course, is that such protection is illusionary. Life can be snuffed out by a bad heart, a bad blood vessel, a texting driver, a drunk driver, or a criminal wielding a weapon or bomb in the literal blink of an eye. No weapon can protect against every threat.
As Christians, however, you and I proclaim a God who became human, a God who knows our fears and worries, a God who died for us that we might be justified, and a God who was raised from the dead demonstrating to us that He has the power and the will to redeem all things. As Christians, we should not seek the role of victim; but when it is thrust upon us, we should embrace it trust that He will redeem our suffering, particularly when it is unjust. Our Lord has promised that all His people will spend eternity with Him, that nothing, not even death itself can separate us from His love. Knowing that, and knowing that all in this world is temporary, are we really a people in need of such mundane protection? Do we really possess things that require such firepower? Are we a people that should depend upon our weapons to preserve us? Or should we, instead, trust in the One who overcame death and the grave to preserve our lives? Better still, should we not be in the business of encouraging others to trust in His love through our service of them?
Every time we gather as a people to break bread and to drink wine, we remind ourselves of this hope. Before sharing His body and His blood, however, we always say His prayer. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we pray to God that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. While it is true that neither the Gospels nor the Epistles mention anything at all about the second amendment, I am willing to bet that His love and glory and power make gun ownership in the next kingdom unnecessary. Maybe, as a church, we should begin to engage in the service and in the debate to make it so on earth, not because we have numbers and can pass legislation, but because His Spirit can circumcise all stony hearts, and make us all love our neighbors as ourselves. When that day comes, when we begin to love our neighbors as ourselves, there will be no need for any guns, but likely no sighing nor sadness, too! It is, admittedly, a dream. But then, doesn’t our reach always exceed our grasp on earth?
Whatever the outcome on the upcoming debate gun control laws, if indeed there is one, I would encourage each of you to participate actively. If you think you can make a sound argument for the ownership of even assault weapons, do so. If you think you make a sound argument for the limitation of certain rights now granted, do so. If you think Switzerland has it right in requiring males of a certain age to own guns and ammunition, make the case. If you believe in America that gun ownership in certain conditions is simply too dangerous, make the case. But please do the other side the courtesy of taking their argument seriously, recognizing that passions run high in this debate. You and I are called to be a non-anxious presence in the vicissitudes of the world. May that presence, His presence, shine brightly through us as this subject is discussed, long after the names of those 26 slain individuals are forgotten by the world.