I own guns. I am a bird hunter, about which I have blogged in the past, and I own shotguns for that purpose. I also own a single-action, six-shot revolver loaded with shotshells as protection against poisonous snakes on our small piece of land in the country, where copperheads are as common as mosquitos. My father taught me to shoot guns responsibly before I was a teenager. I am teaching my kids to do the same.
I am also, like so many, appalled at the gun violence endemic in our country, violence amplified this past week by the on-air murder of two journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, outside my former hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, and the gas station assassination of a deputy sheriff, Darren Goforth, in my present hometown of Houston, Texas. These horrific events come on the heels of this summer’s murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which in turn followed a year of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men and years of school shootings that extend all the way back to the March 1998 Westside Elementary School shooting in Northeast Arkansas, a half hour from the community of my birth.
In a culture increasingly marked by histrionic rhetoric on virtually every topic of concern to the Commonweal, no topic has greater, tangible, numeric impact—and no topic incites greater hysteria—than gun violence and gun control.
- More Americans die by gun violence every six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
- More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on all the battlefields of all the wars in American history.
- American children are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries.
Additionally, in 2013 ABC News provided comparative statistics for gun deaths in the United States versus other developed countries. Per 100,000 people, Great Britain suffers .25 deaths by gun violence annually. Australia experiences 1.4 deaths by gun violence. The United States tops the lists—beating even South Africa—with a staggering 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people. Houston, we have a problem, and it’s time we acknowledged as much.
Those opposed to any gun control claim that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t kill people. If one maintains that logic, then neither do automobiles kill people. And yet, we regulate automobiles so law abiding citizens are able to utilize them safely and not in ways that are likely to maim and kill. (As the father of a son approaching driving age, I’m particularly thankful for that.)
“And yet, driving is not a constitutional right, whereas gun ownership is,” some will say. Indeed, in recent Supreme Court decisions District of Columbia vs. Heller and McDonald vs. Chicago, the Court ruled that United States citizens have, under the Second Amendment, just such a right to own handguns in addition to long guns (like shotguns and rifles). Though I am a priest and certainly not a legal scholar, I was raised by a mother who is an English teacher, and I would argue that in its recent rulings the Supreme Court failed the grammar lesson. The Second Amendment reads:
“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 amendment’s first, dependent clause is, in plain reading, integral to the meaning of the whole sentence. Blogger Mark Moe explains this better than I can:
“No less a constitutional authority than Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall [declares] that ‘it cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect.’ Thus, to call the first clause of the Second Amendment superfluous is to insult both Marshall and the framers. The ‘absolute’ clause construction of the Second amendment was quite common at the time, and appears in many state constitutions and framing documents. The primary purpose in these constructions is to give the conditions under which the rest of the sentence is true or valid. As a prime example of the ablative absolute, the first clause of the Second Amendment may stand grammatically free, but serves semantically to modify or clarify the meaning of the rest of the sentence. The Framers were clearly familiar with the ablative absolute and used it not as rhetorical fluff or flourish, but as a way of clarifying intent, in this case clarifying that the right to bear arms is granted in the context and within the scope of establishing a militia. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Today, our militias consist of professional National Guards, not local Minute Men with a musket above the mantel. The right to bear arms is predicated (literally, grammatically) on a social institution that no longer exists. Be that as it may, the Supreme Court has ruled, and no jurisdiction may prohibit absolutely the ownership of handguns or long guns by citizens. And even if one could, a thoughtful and provocative essay by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic convinces me that American society is already so awash in guns that any outright prohibition would be impossible even if it were advisable.
I don’t believe it is advisable. As I said at the outset, I am a gun owner who keeps and uses specific kinds of firearms for the intentions for which they were constructed. That said, on the topic of gun violence, statistical and anecdotal evidence coincide. We indeed have a festering societal problem, and as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I say we have moral problem. At least for those who follow the God of Jesus, a God whose vision for the world is that we “beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2 :4), the gun violence in our country is a symptom of soul sickness. Something must be done to stem the tide, and an unfettered access to guns is no better solution than attempting to put out a fire with gasoline.
In its recent rulings, the Supreme Court affirms that gun regulation short of outright ban is permissible. Specifically, in the majority opinion of District of Columbia vs. Heller, Justice Scalia wrote:
“We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time.’ We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”
Justice Scalia adds:
“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on…laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Engaging in histrionics on either side of this debate is disingenuous and unhelpful. It is high time, I contend, that we dispassionately ask a basic question, seeking basic answers, and then develop policy and law based upon those answers:
Why do we wish to own guns? Hunting, sporting, and home and/or personal protection seem to me to be the legitimate answers to the question. The guns I own are exactly adequate to those uses. (If I were a deer hunter, I would also own a deer rifle.) What is unneeded for any of these purposes is an assault rifle, or even a semi-automatic pistol with a high capacity magazine. Such weapons are designed for the sole and express purpose of incapacitating many people quickly, which is, lamentably in our broken world, the sometime responsibility of law enforcement and the military. It is virtually never—even in a home invasion situation—a circumstance legitimately faced by private citizens.
Personally, I favor prohibiting private ownership (not only sales) of assault rifles and other military-grade firearms and at least prohibiting sales of semi-automatic pistols with high capacity magazines. It seems to me we should take Justice Scalia at his word and call these what they are: “dangerous and unusual weapons.” I favor a national firearm registry. (Analogously, I have a constitutional right to vote, but I must register to do so.) I favor universal background checks and a return to the seven-day waiting period to purchase a handgun. Taking the long view, over a generation these serious, but not onerous, regulations might well shift both our culture’s perspective on guns and actual gun violence statistics.
Of course, before taking action it would be very helpful to know what, if any, substantive positive effects on gun violence such regulations would have. I have little interest in feel-good palliatives that do no social good. Unfortunately, presently Congress will not fund gun violence prevention research at the Centers for Disease Control. The best, first step in approaching this vexing topic rationally—in meeting our moral challenge—is to restore that funding. With reliable research, people of good will can begin working to prevent events such as those of this past week from becoming daily experience to which we are increasingly numb.
(**The follow-up post discussing gun violence and mental illness is found here.)