The recent shootings in San Bernardino, California are a toxic mix of the fears of American society rolled into one: gun violence and terrorism. As the news about the event became known, it looked more and more that this event was not your run of the mill mass shooting (as if mass shootings are run of the mill). I wanted to share some of the thoughts I’ve been thinking over the last few days on gun violence especially and the blind spots people can have on this issue. I also hope to offer a way for the church to respond. So let’s begin.
Why do we only talk about guns when a mass shooting happens? I’ve never understood why we only talk about guns in the aftermath of a shooting. People offer the same proposals to control guns, which would not have stopped the mass shooting. Facebook is filled with the same articles from Vox about guns in America as related to other countries. Someone is always talking about how Australia gave up guns after a mass shooting in 1996. But the thing is, both liberals and conservatives seem to ignore that most victims of gun violence are African American males living in the nation’s metro areas. ProPublica has a great article about how the current gun control debate ignores black lives. The mass shootings are high profile and get people’s attention, but the real problem takes place with young black men gunning down each other for various reasons. The ProPublica article talks about some initiatives that go beyond the gun control/gun rights debate that actually have lowered gun violence in various cities. Here’s a sample from the article:
Vice President Joe Biden had been meeting with victims and advocates all day, and he arrived so late that some in the room wondered whether he would come at all. When he finally walked in, the clergy started sharing their advice, full of pain, some of it personal. “The incidents of Newtown are very tragic,” Michael McBride, a 37-year-old pastor from Berkeley, California, recalled telling Biden. “But any meaningful conversation about addressing gun violence has to include urban gun violence.”
McBride supported universal background checks. He supported an assault weapons ban. But he also wanted something else: a national push to save the lives of black men. In 2012, 90 people were killed in shootings like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado. That same year, nearly 6,000 black men were murdered with guns. (emphasis mine)
But McBride wanted to share something that was reducing gun deaths in the inner city:
Many people viewed inner-city shootings as an intractable problem. But for two years, McBride had been spreading awareness about Ceasefire, a nearly two-decades-old strategy that had upended how police departments dealt with gang violence. Under Ceasefire, police teamed up with community leaders to identify the young men most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, talked to them directly about the risks they faced, offered them support, and promised a tough crackdown on the groups that continued shooting. In Boston, the city that developed Ceasefire, the average monthly number of youth homicides dropped by 63 percent in the two years after it was launched. The U.S. Department of Justice’s “what works” website for crime policy had a green check mark next to Ceasefire, labeling it “effective” — the highest rating and one few programs received.
Some of the ideas that are always proposed like background checks would work here and should be implemented. But the article shows that the gun debate is more a culture war battle for liberals and conservatives instead of a problem that can be solved.
Gun-related homicides are actually down. The gun conversation usually focuses on charts that show gun related deaths in the US compared to other nations. Compared to other industrialized nations we have way more gun deaths and it is a problem to be solved. But people tend to not mention that the rate of gun deaths in the US is down compared to 20 years ago. None of this means we can rest on our laurels, but it does show that some improvements are being made even without stringent gun laws.
Most of us (myself included) don’t really understand guns. If you are going to call for the regulation of a product, you might want to understand how it works. But the thing with guns is many who advocate for regulation don’t know a thing about guns. Take the ban on assault weapons. On its face this seems sensible. Indeed, why would anyone need such a powerful gun? Methodist Pastor Allan Bevere echoes those sentiments:
…there is no good reason for assault weapons to be legal. The purpose of assault weapons is to do nothing more than wreak destruction and perpetrate killing on a large scale. No an assault weapons ban will not keep all assault weapons out of people’s hands, but it will reduce the number of weapons that may prevent some mass shootings.
The problem is that the term “assault weapons” is a misnomer. Law professor James Jacobs explains the term:
Many people want to ban so-called assault weapons because they believe these firearms are uniquely dangerous, or the same as machine guns. They are not. Assault weapons—at least the ones available to civilians—are like all semi-automatics and fire one bullet with one pull of the trigger. What makes an assault weapon different than a regular rifle are the cosmetic “military-like” features, such as a bayonet mount or pistol grip and so forth, none of which have functional significance. Assault weapons are not more powerful, they do not shoot more bullets, and they do not shoot faster. We would not be a safer society if we could eliminate all of the assault weapons because people could substitute for them non-assault weapons that are exactly the same.
So, if we are going to look into regulating guns, everyone needs to understand guns. If you’ve never handled a gun, then it’s probably safe to say you don’t know anything about guns.
We don’t understand gun owners. We also don’t like them. One of the things I’ve noticed is how people around me don’t understand gun owners. They are called “gun nuts” in less charitable moments or we say that they are “compensating.” But we don’t actually try to learn why gun owners…well own guns. Earlier this year, a criminal justice researcher wrote why he owns guns. If you haven’t read it, please do. A self-professed progressive wrote in Politico on how she has come to understand her gun-toting Republican police officer and why he sees guns as a necessity:
It must be understood that gun-rights advocates, like many conservatives, tell a very different story about the world than we progressives do. In their narrative, the earth is an inherently dangerous, often hostile, and definitely competitive place. Unlike us, they do not take as given that deep down, all people are basically good. They believe there is evil in the world, that there will always be evil in the world and that evil must be consistently and stalwartly confronted. In their story, it’s up to every one of the good people to stand up against malice. Otherwise, evil gets the upper hand. So, when a mass shooting occurs, their view of American society as overly permissive, and therefore an insufficient bulwark against ever-threatening evil, is only confirmed.
Liberals scratch their heads at the NRA member’s passion for firearms. People like Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin—whose post-Sandy Hook letter refusing to enforce any additional gun regulations is now going viral—seem like callous monsters to us. We find it odd and twisted to be so attached, so passionate about an amalgamation of metal and explosives whose raison d’tre is destruction. What we don’t get is that for conservatives, and Second Amendment defenders especially, the supreme virtue is self-reliance. The unconscious story underlying much conservative thought is a tale of good versus evil. Think of movies such as the Dark Knight, or Braveheart, or Star Wars. The virtuous individual must draw on his own talent and courage to defeat evil within and without. He cannot rely on others to carry his weight for him, especially not the government, which is a greedy slug at best, a fierce tyrant at worst in the lore of the pro-gun camp.
So, why am I talking about this? What does this have to do with the church? Am I a closet gun lover?
Before I answer that, a story. In July, I was at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio. One afternoon, we were voting on a number of resolutions including one on gun violence. I thought it was a good document, but others didn’t think so. One pastor got up and asked that the resolution go back to committee to be revised with stronger language. I remember this pastor saying that some people loved the Second Amendment more than the Ten Commandments.
I’ve never fired a gun and I don’t know if I plan to. But the reason we in the church have to look at this with a more critical eye is that we have people who are pro-gun in our churches, especially in churches in rural areas or places like the South. They might be deacons or elders, they might run the property committee. They are people, not selfish gun-obsessed nut jobs. They have a different world view, but that by itself isn’t evil.
What I’m getting at is that far too often the church tend to talk down to these people. We think we understand the issue and dismiss these folks as dumb hicks. (We may not say they are dumb hicks, but believe me, we are thinking it.)
The problem of gun violence is a problem we need to look at. But we in church need to stop making this issue personal and singling out gun owners. I’m not saying we need to agree with them, but we need to be willing to listen to them and not just talk down to them.