I originally wrote this post in January of 2013. After yesterday’s Sutherland Springs shooting I began to update it to re-post; exchanging Sandy Hook for Sutherland Springs, changing Adam Lanza to Patrick Devin Kelly, etc. Instead, I’ve chosen to leave it exactly as is. To me, leaving the original names in place is a visceral reminder that while the names have changed, the conversation remains the same.
We must do something different if we truly desire different results.
This post requires patience and the grasp of nuance to be understood. It is also longer than my usual posts.
I’ve made a few observations about some of the driving motivations behind evangelical ethics in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy. It’s important to note that this post is not about gun control, but I’ll use the issue of gun control to examine some of the values that underly the evangelical make-up.
Before I share my observations, let’s get a couple of facts on the table. 1) Gun control isn’t the central issue to the Newtown tragedy–it was multicausal. In fact, the primary consequence of our myopic, divisive, and uncharitable focus on guns was that we shamed ourselves as we grasped for answers. 2) I think we can all agree with the truth that guns don’t kill people (guns are inanimate objects), while also agreeing that assailants (and accidents) kill more people with guns than they would without guns. Many people do not know that Adam Lanza wasn’t the only person to attack a school on Dec 14, 2012; Min Yingjun similarly attacked a school in China. Adam Lanza killed 27 people with an assault rifle, while Min injured 22 children with a knife. People with knives don’t kill so efficiently. People in trucks don’t kill so efficiently.
Guns are part of the problem- but they’re not the only problem. We need to address this holistically.
3) With all that said, gun legislation is COMPLEX. Even so, we can’t shut down every conversation around gun control. We live in the tension of two examples: Prohibition taught us that outlawing something that is potentially dangerous but not inherently wrong just doesn’t work in our culture. The potential success of reducing deaths by banning assault rifles is debatable. In addition, with nearly 130,000 licensed gun dealers in the US (more than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined!!!!!), universal gun recall is practically impossible. Guns are embedded in our culture. On the other hand, Japan’s gun laws (where I grew up) teach us the simple fact that less people will die if guns are removed from the equation. “In 2008, when the United States experienced over 12,000 gun-related homicides, Japan had only 11, or fewer than half as many killed in Newtown. That same year in the United States, 587 were killed just by accidental gun discharges. In 2006 in Japan, a nation of 128 million people, only two were killed by guns,” (Max Fisher, Washington Post). In 2011 more people were killed with scissors (9) than with guns (7), (NPR).
Numbers as stark as these help cut through the rhetoric, but we also have to acknowledge the significant historical differences between Japan’s relationship with guns and our own.
With that as a back-drop, some observations:
1. Pro-life (anti-abortion) values and pro-gun values tend to go hand in hand
This is culturally normative, but seems odd to me. For me, the sanctity of human life trumps all rights–both the rights of the mother as well as the rights of the gun owner. However, I’ve noticed that people tend to switch their primary values depending on which of these two issues they are discussing. Meaning, they switch between these two values: the sanctity of human life or unalienable rights. When it comes to abortion, sanctity of life reigns supreme; all other rights and considerations are subservient to the right every human has to life. Then, when the focus shifts to gun control, the right to bear arms becomes the ruling value or the chief lens through which issues are seen.
2. Avoidance of sacrifice plays a larger role in our ethics than we admit
We tend to favor the ethical stand that costs us the least. I am in favor of much stronger gun control laws. This is because I think it would save lives, but I have to be honest and admit that it also costs me absolutely nothing. I didn’t grow up with guns, I don’t have any money invested in guns, and if the government were to outlaw guns I wouldn’t have to surrender anything or alter any buying habits. It’s a cheap way for me to value human life.
Ethics are easier when they come cheap.
So here’s the lesson: while we like to believe that our ethics are based solely on morality (right and wrong), I suspect that many of us derive our ethics by balancing both morals and measuring cost of sacrifice. I think this is why (and I’m painting with a broad brush here) we have so many non-gun owners calling for gun control and a pro-life movement led, in large part, by men.
3. We have more commonality with our opponents than we think
Proponents of pro-choice aren’t motivated by death any more than those who are pro-gun. Both begin with rights and then proceed to life:
- Both emphasize personal liberty, emphasizing that the individual’s (mother or gun owner) life shouldn’t be drastically impacted by another (the infant or those who misuse guns).
- Both emphasize pragmatism over morality: outlawing their cause will not eradicate the practice, but only drive it underground and make it more dangerous.
- Both fear the precedent of the government exercising undue control (control over one’s body, surrender of one’s arms).
I think my third point has the potential to be the most misunderstood, and when misunderstood is the most inflammatory. This is not my intent. To be clear, I am not equating these two issues (or even the numbers of people effected). I believe that abortion is morally evil because it constitutes murder. Even so, I also understand that my pro-choice friends do not see it as murder, and their motivation stems from the same motivation I feel for Fantine in Les Mis: Compassion. In contrast, I believe that gun ownership is morally neutral (and a basic American right, but this is not the time to discuss the original intent of the 2nd Amendment). Even so, I also believe that the proliferation of guns increases death.
As a follower of Jesus, I prioritize life over rights on every issue.
So, where to from here? I am not saying the logical conclusion for an NRA member is to become pro-choice. I’m simply pointing out that two seemingly polar opposites (say, Dianne Feinstein and Sarah Palin) have similar motivations behind their contrasting ethics. Both seek to minimize personal sacrifice and protect the sanctity of life. They just tend to flip which values they emphasize in which issue.
In light of these personal observations, I offer 3 suggestions:
- Let’s cut away the rhetoric and seek to understand the motivation beneath our positions. Ethical application is incredibly complex, motivated both by (biblical and/or personal) morality and avoidance of sacrifice. Abortion and gun control issues show that even something as simple as the sanctity of life can become convoluted.
- Let’s hold our ethics with compassion and humility. I’d be happy if the US adopted the gun laws of Japan, but that doesn’t mean I treat my many friends who love hunting and shooting with anything less than respect. I vehemently disagree with couples who choose abortions, but that doesn’t mean I should demonize them.
- We can do far more together than we can apart. I often hear people talk about the ‘culture war.’ Yet, I’ve found that many people who are supposed to be my enemies regarding abortion actually hold the same values I do, but apply them differently. On the other hand, when it comes to gun control I have many friends who hold my same values, but with contrasting application. Rather than labeling opponents as monsters, let’s continue to strive for key ethical issues such as the sanctity of human life and the preservation of the individual rights by cultivating partnerships instead of enemies.
I’ll end with Shane Claiborne’s reaction to the Sutherland Springs shooting:
“I’m sick to my stomach, heartbroken… and angry. Mass shootings should not be normal. Assault rifles should not be on our streets.
Let us pray for the victims. And then let’s honor their lives by getting off our knees & taking action to prevent gun violence.”