It's Not Really About You

A working theology of gun control

It is the clear from Scripture that God desires that human beings should live in peace with one another. (Gen 1-3, Isa 2:4, Isa 11, Rev 21-22, Micah 4).

However, the world is caught in the throes of sin and disorder, far from God’s dream for us. (Gen 6:11, Rom 3, 6, Is 64:6, Ps 51).

As residents of a sinful world, followers of Jesus Christ are called to higher moral life that exudes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5). Nonviolence and sacrificial living – modeled after Jesus’ own willingness to suffer and die on our behalf – are paradigmatic of such a life, and these attitudes are repeatedly celebrated in Scripture as the quintessential characteristics of the Christian lifestyle (Philippians 2, Luke 22:24-27, Romans 12, Matthew 5-7, John 10:1-18, John 13-16). The purpose of this lifestyle is fundamentally redemptive and missiological, as Christians are called to be ambassadors to a broken world and to show Christ’s love to others as Christ has shown his love to us (2 Cor 5).

While Jesus’ example was one of nonviolence, such a posture may be impractical, or worse, fundamentally unjust when applied dogmatically to questions of public policy and social order. Police, military officials, and other socially-sanctioned institutions are vital brokers of a peace, just, and equitable society, and without them, the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast, and the oppressed would be ravaged by unchecked greed and violence (Isaiah 10:1-2). Modern Christians – especially those with a vocational responsibility to ensure the safety of others – may find it necessary to exercise varying degrees of force, physical and otherwise, to defend the defenseless, neutralize aggressors, and administer justice. Tellingly, even Scripture itself does not fully repudiate the use of force by God’s People in some cases and for certain purposes (Joshua, 1 Sam 17, Luke 12:42-46, John 2:13-16).

As firearms have been used in these capacities for centuries by Christians and non-Christians alike, firearms play a legitimate role in modern society, not only as tools for defense, but also for recreational purposes such as hunting and marksmanship disciplines. This fact notwithstanding, owning and operating a firearm presents risks that extend beyond the individual who chooses to operate a gun. For instance, thousands of firearms are reported as stolen every year, undoubtedly to be resold illegally or used in the commission of other crimes. Legally-owned and operated firearms also pose risks to individuals in mental distress seeking to harm themselves, to children who unfortunately happen to find a loaded gun, and to bystanders injured by accidental discharges or negligent handling of a gun. Even seasoned police officers with years of training sometimes mistakenly fire on unarmed citizens, leading to preventable injury or death.

In any case, a firearm has no intrinsic moral value in and of itself. The evil urge to do violence indeed flows from the sin-sick human heart and is never to be scapegoated onto any inanimate object, nor should debates about the classical notion of agency conclude that a firearm could ever possess any degree of instrumentality on its own. A gun is indeed a tool, just as Cain tooled a rock into a weapon to murder his brother Abel (Gen 4). In this regard – to invoke the modern vernacular – we indeed have a “heart problem” that precedes any subsequent “gun problem”.

However, it is a grave mistake to collapse firearms into a flat category with other innocuous “tools” and thereby ignore their heightened lethality. Compared to any modern firearm, Cain’s rock required substantially more time, effort, and internality to inflict harm. Yes, of course a human being determined to kill can use any tool to accomplish his goal – but quick and easy access to lethal means also increases the likelihood of casualties and loss of life in a rash ‘heat-of-the-moment’ attack. At the very least, other “tools” might afford an attacker the chance to momentarily reflect on the consequences of their actions before causing irreversible bodily harm to another person.

Since firearms are capable of inflicting lethal injury with minimal effort or forethought, gun control policy must be understood as a matter of public safety, and not merely a matter of personal freedom. Moreover, Christians are called approach gun control decisions with wisdom, sober judgement, and an attitude of sacrificial love expressed via a willingness to limit one’s own privileges and liberties for the sake of others. This attitude is consistent with Christ’s own willingness to limit his own freedoms to take on human flesh and subject himself to the agony of the cross.

As such, Christians are laden with several layers of responsibility related to firearms in order to maximize their value as instruments of peace and to minimize their potential for misuse and violence.

Individual responsibilities: 

  • Individual gun ownership is subject to one’s own conscience. But individual conscience is never the final criteria for owning a gun because spiritual, moral, and civic commitments supersede individual preferences in matters involving public safety and potential for catastrophic injury. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, however, Christians should never ridicule, disparage, or insult others who share differing views on gun control or the place of firearms in society.
  • Christian gun owners should be role models and leading proponents for gun safety and proper use of firearms. At a minimum, Christian gun owners should handle firearms with utmost care and caution, and must commit to consistently use gun locks, gun safes, and other devices to safely store and transport their weapons. This is especially important when children are present, or where guns are susceptible to misuse, mishandling, or theft.
  • Christian hunters and recreational marksmen, though participating in permissible activities, must recognize their choice of hobby may require them to submit to stringent policies and procedures as necessary to ensure public safety. Compliance with all federal, state and local laws pertaining to gun ownership can serve as a witness to others and demonstrate values of accountability and mutual respect.
  • Every human being, regardless of his or her behavior, is created by God, and is a reflection of God’s own nature. Discharging a firearm with the intent to injure or kill another person must only be done as a last resort, when serious bodily harm is imminent, when all other interventions have failed to disarm an aggressor, and only to the extent necessary to neutralize the immediate threat of harm.  Discharging a weapon to exact revenge, intimidate others, or express anger is contrary to the lifestyle of a Christ-follower. Similarly, firearms should never be brandished carelessly or used expressly to intimidate outside of a interaction where serious bodily harm is imminent and expected.

Cultural responsibilities:

  • Neither the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution, nor any laws, legislation, statues, or policies enacted by civic authorities override the Christian’s calling to pursue reconciliation and restoration in the world. Similarly, any rights conferred by civic documents are limited to the civic arena alone; that is to say, the legal right to bear arms has no bearing on one’s spiritual rights and privileges. Thus, for followers of Christ, any discussion of gun control must be grounded in Scripture firstly, and only subsequently in other legal and historical documents.
  • Christians are called to promote peace (Matt 5:9). Advocating for the accelerated proliferation of firearms is contrary to peace and is fundamentally detrimental to our nation’s shared goals of building a peaceful, safe, just, and equitable society.  Proliferation of firearms is particularity dangerous in light of thriving underground firearms markets which allow criminals to illegally acquire weapons stolen from responsible gun owners.
  • Moreover, the notion of “an armed society is a polite society” promotes a culture of fear and distrust among fellow citizens, and is contrary to the expectation of love and mutual support between fellow Christians.
  • In similar fashion, a call for a total disarmament is sadly both unrealistic and unhelpful. The sheer number of weapons already in circulation in the United States would make the cost of any large scale gun buyback program astronomically expensive, while a forcible seizure of firearms would surely result in violent, armed resistance and a bolstering of illegal underground firearm trade.

Social and civic responsibilities:

  • It is incumbent upon Christians to support broad-based efforts to ensure only responsible gun owners have access to guns. Legally purchasing a firearm should only be possible for responsible adults who have passed rigorous local, state, and federal background checks to screen for prior violent criminal activity, domestic violence, suicidal behavior, and other warning signs that a firearm may be used inappropriately in the future. Additionally, prospective gun owners should be required to undergo hands-on firearms training and/or demonstrate the skills necessary prior to owning and operating a firearm.
  • The general public has virtually no legitimate need for automatic and semi-automatic weapons, certain high-capacity weapons, or other devices (such as bump stocks) that enable individuals to fire excessive rounds of ammunition in a short period of time. As such, the sale of these weapons should be tightly restricted.
  • Gun laws should be enacted and strengthened to punish irresponsible gun owners who fail to properly and safely secure their firearms, or whose negligence is directly or indirectly related to  someone else’s injury.
  • Independent, nonpartisan gun violence research is severely underfunded, ostensibly because gun lobbying groups have successfully leveraged undue political influence to block public money. Future gun policy should be rooted in evidence-based, nonpartisan research, and Christians – as advocates for truth – should be leading supporters of ongoing, even-handed, and disciplined research. Similarly, Christians have a responsibility to publicly denounce any political figure or group that motivates action through fear. We are decidedly not called to be a People of fear – “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4).

Undoubtedly, guns will continue to be used illegally and for evil purposes regardless of any law or policy. Moreover, there are no perfect solutions to gun control, and likewise, no perfect theological stances on gun policy. As long as Christians are resident aliens in a world wracked by the effects of sin, our theology will remain imperfect and incomplete. Yet it should still strive to bridge the gap between the God’s dream for us and the lived experiences of lost, broken, fear-filled human beings. Most importantly, the gun control debate presents an opportunity for followers of Christ to demonstrate to a broken world that we can indeed work together – despite differences of opinion and life experiences – towards God’s dream of restoration and reconciliation in the world.

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