Americans have long debated gun rights and gun control, but the discussion seems to have taken on a renewed intensity over the past couple of years. The debate is complex and multi-faceted. It has legal, ethical, and pragmatic dimensions; there is no consensus on any of the dimensions, and a person’s stance on the issue is more often determined by demographics than politics.
So, what stance should a Christian American take on this issue? What should be a Christian citizen’s aim in a coffee shop debate? What should an elected Christian legislator shoot for in terms of legislation?
To arrive at a well-informed conclusion on these matters, it is helpful for citizens to have a basic knowledge of the legal debate about the Second Amendment, the ethical dimensions of the debate, and the array of stances taken by public figures today. For that reason, I will briefly summarize those dimensions and a variety of policy stances before going on to offer five principles of my own.
The Legal Debate
The U. S. Constitution’s Second Amendment states, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The legal debate about the amendment centers on whether it, on one hand, protects the States’ rights to form militias that can hold the Federal government accountable or, on the other hand, also provides a right for individuals to keep weapons for self-defense.
Those persons who emphasize the first interpretation point to the 1939 Supreme Court ruling in the U.S. v. Miller. The Miller case determined that citizens should not be permitted to transport sawed-off shotguns across state lines because short-barreled shotguns are not essential for military service in the states’ militias. This interpretation served as the case law for subsequent lower court rulings over the next six decades. (For history, see this site)
Persons who emphasize the second interpretation point to the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. In a 5-4 outcome, the justices struck down Washington D.C.’s laws that banned handguns and required all long guns to be stored in-home disassembled and locked with a trigger lock were struck down. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion reasoned that the District of Columbia violated citizens’ rights by banning an entire class of firearms that are purchased most often for the express purpose of self-defense. In other words, the ruling determined that American citizens have a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms outside of the context of a state militia, even though the federal and state governments have a right to set boundaries on the type and proper use of weapons.
The Ideological Debate
The ideological debate centers on whether American citizens have a right to own firearms for such purposes as hunting, self-defense, and holding the federal government accountable. What the legal debate does not fully address, however, is how to reduce gun violence. As with many other policy issues, the debate often (though not always) piggybacks on the bigger question of the role of governmental regulation and oversight. Many American citizens think the best way to address social problems is top-down, via the federal government. Many other citizens do not.
The Ethical Debate
For many Americans, the question of gun rights and gun control raises is determined by their view of the ethics of violence and self-defense. Again, there is no consensus. Consider a recent debate between two Christian leaders, Michael W. Austin and Ron Gleason.
In the written debate, Austin, an ethicist at Eastern Kentucky University, argued for stricter gun laws. He cites global studies that he thinks demonstrate the effectiveness of gun control in reducing gun violence. Then, he argues that Christians should be willing to recognize limits on gun rights, especially when such limits would protect others from violence. After all, he argues, Jesus is the exemplar for the Christian life and a Christian ethic based on Jesus’ example should emphasize turning the other cheek.
Gleason, a pastor at Grace Presbyterian in Yorba Linda, CA, argues against stricter gun laws. He argues that Scripture allows Christians to defend themselves, and that weapons such as guns are acceptable instruments for self-defense. He further argues that empirical studies are not conclusive about the effectiveness of gun control in curbing gun violence. Finally, he argues that Jesus’ turning of the other cheek is a bad analogy with personal self-defense, especially given the Bible’s other teachings about living in a fallen world.
The Demographic Facet
One factor that many commentators ignore is demographic: it is quite possible a person’s stance on the issue is more often determined by demographics than politics. Urban voters tend to want stricter gun laws. Rural voters tend to want less. Consider Bernie Sanders, a very progressive Senator from Vermont who almost won the Democratic presidential nomination. As progressive as he is, he is a centrist in this debate, refusing to side with progressives who want strict gun control laws. His Vermont constituents are rural.
A Spectrum of Positions
Given the legal, ideological, ethical, demographic and other dimensions involved, it should be no surprise that there is a broad spectrum of positions that Americans take on this issue. Before I draw some of my own conclusions about gun rights and gun control, here is a brief summary of five representative views:
1. Michael Bloomberg (Very Restrictive)
Bloomberg is the former mayor of New York City and founder of Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit advocacy group that seeks to lobby for stricter laws on gun control. It styles itself as being at war with the NRA, and Bloomberg has committed well over $50 million of his personal wealth toward the effort. While Everytown’s policies envision a slow, incremental effort towards “gun violence prevention” through legislation on moderate positions, Bloomberg personally urges more rapid and strict legislation on gun control.
Bloomberg wants to require gun vendors do universal background checks at time of sale. He supports a registration database that law enforcement agencies can access quickly and remotely, and wants mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes. He wishes to keep criminals from obtaining weapons, oppose assault weapons and supports the ban on high capacity magazines, and confiscate firearms temporarily from persons who have restraining orders due to domestic violence.
2. Dianne Feinstein (Restrictive)
Feinstein is a Democratic Senator of California and has a long history of advocating for stricter gun laws. She famously donated a pistol she owned to be melted down to be sculpted into a cross and presented to Pope John Paul II in the early 1980’s. However, she is not as restrictive as Bloomberg.
Like Bloomberg, Feinstein supported anti-domestic violence legislature in the Pause for Safety Act, which seeks to allow the temporary confiscation of weapons in the case of domestic abuse. Unlike Bloomberg, however, she does not support harsher penalties for perpetrators of gun violence. Unlike Bloomberg, she did support the U.S. Senate’s Amendment 2774 (a.k.a. the Vitter Amendment) which rebuts the United Nations’ insistence that the United States register all gun owners and tax their guns.
Other positions that Feinstein supports include banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines of over 10 rounds, setting up a database to monitor and prevent gun sales to individuals convicted or investigated on charges of terrorism within the previous 5 years, seeking to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in D.C. v. Heller, allowing victims of gun violence to sue gun manufacturers, and requiring universal background checks for gun shows and private sales transactions.
3. Bernie Sanders (Moderate)
Sanders is an influential independent senator from Vermont. He straddles the line between conservative and progressive positions on gun control and gun rights, ostensibly because of the predominately rural demographics of his constituency.
Sanders thinks the states—rather than the federal government—bear the burden of adjudicating gun rights; victims of gun violence should not be able to win suits against gun manufacturers; assault weapons and high capacity magazines should be banned as hunters have no use for such types of firearms; gun sales should include background checks; and studies should be undertaken concerning a possible link between gun violence and gun control. Sanders is outspoken in his stress that individuals have the right to buy guns, and that sensible regulations should be implemented to help protect this right, not infringe upon it. Additionally, Sanders voted to allow firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, a bill that Feinstein voted against.
4. Susan Collins (Permissive)
Collins is a Republican senator from Maine. She represents a position to the right of Sanders in that she stresses greater protections for gun rights. She supported the Supreme Court’s ruling in the D.C. v. Heller case, affirms the right of citizens to own assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and wishes to prohibit victims of gun violence from suing gun manufacturers. Yet, she is not as permissive as the NRA would like.
Consider Collins’ proposal of the Terrorist Firearms Prevention Act (which did not receive the votes needed in the senate to pass, though it did receive majority support in the senate). This Act called for the US Attorney General to block the sale of firearms to individuals on existing terrorist watch lists, and called for the FBI to monitor gun sales through background checks, which would alert authorities on attempts to purchase guns if an individual had been on one of the government watch-lists in the previous five years.
This would have the effect of restricting firearms from being purchased by individuals who are currently under investigation, and on a broader plane, to alert local authorities to the purchase of guns by suspicious individuals without the need to ban sales to such individuals altogether. What the bill would therefore accomplish is a greater awareness of gun sales without the restriction of sales to all individuals with criminal records or all those reported by tips to law enforcement agencies, thus protecting 2nd Amendment rights while putting in place new regulations to address gun violence and domestic terrorism.
5. Wayne LaPierre (Very Permissive)
LaPierre is the CEO of the National Rifle Association. He is against nearly every form of gun control at the state or federal levels. , and famously quipped, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He has called for a debate between himself and former President Obama on gun rights and gun control, and has been accused of harboring a conspiracy theory directed at the Obama administration concerning winning over gun rights advocates in order to secure a reelection.
LaPierre rejects the following forms of gun control as unconstitutional according to the 2nd Amendment: bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, legislation to allow gun violence victims to sue gun manufacturers for damages, and universal background checks. Additionally, LaPierre actively supports concealed carry permit legislation at the state level across the country, and he has called for armed police officers to be stationed at all public schools to help prevent school shootings.
Hitting the Bull’s Eye on Gun Rights and Gun Control
Having summarized some of the legal, ethical, and demographic dimensions of this debate, and having outlined five representative views of gun rights and gun control, the question remains: if a Christian American could pull the trigger on passing gun legislation, what should he shoot for? What would count as a bull’s eye?
Although I have not drawn conclusions on some of the finer points in the debate, I am comfortable emptying my mental magazine by firing off these five principles:
Gun violence is a “pro-life” issue. Guns can be used to take innocent lives. People on both sides of the gun rights / gun control divide understand this fact, and many people on both sides recognize it as a “pro-life” issue. For that reason, we should refrain from questioning the motives of the people with whom we disagree, and spend our time parsing the Second Amendment, interpreting the Bible, and applying our conclusions in a way that safeguards human life.
The U. S. Constitution does secure the right of citizens to own and bear weapons. Although some constitutional scholars and historians argue that the Amendment was exclusively concerned with militia, D. C. v. Heller concludes that American citizens have the right to keep and bear arms outside the context of a state militia, even though the federal and state governments retain the right to set boundaries on the type and proper use of weapons. This seems right.
Some Constitutionally-acceptable forms of gun control are wise. One example is a “stop and frisk” policy that, if employed without racial profiling, is helpful and can keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys. Another example is legislation that prevents violent offenders and risky persons from legally obtaining guns. (The catch is how to define “risky.” Who is a “risky” person, and how can we keep a law such as this from being used as an instrument of oppression against “not-risky-but-offensive-and-dissenting” voices in society?)
Gun control is not a silver bullet for reducing violence. Remember that studies are not conclusive about whether more restrictive gun control reduces violent crime. Violent offenders will find weapons, regardless of Congressional legislation. Gun control would not have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the underwear bomber), Richard Reid (the shoe bomber), the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston bombers) or the 9-11 hijackers (box-cutter killers). We haven’t restricted access to tighty-whites, tennis shoes, pressure cookers, or box cutters, have we?
States or municipalities, rather than the federal government, are often better arbiters of appropriate gun policy. As with many or most issues, context matters. A wise decision in one state or municipality might not be a wise decision elsewhere. Folks, let me shoot straight on this one: I think we should avoid hoplophobia (an irrational fear of armed citizens), on the one hand, and hoplophilia (a neurotic obsession with firearms), on the other. As a Christian American, I want to keep people—especially my family—safe. I want to stop violent people from taking innocent lives. And I think the best way to do that is not through strict legislation but by putting guns into the hands of law-abiding citizens. I’m peaceful by disposition, but I’m prepared in case a violent person comes against me or my family. Consider me a heavily-armed dove.
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