Newtown, Gun Control, & Abortion Rights

This post requires patience and the grasp of nuance to be understood. It is also longer than my usual posts. Please feel free to skip it if either are problematic.

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. The world is full of evil and foolish people, and they will kill more people with guns than without them.

And, 3) Gun legislation is COMPLEX. 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 is seems odd within my ethical paradigm. I’ve noticed that people tend to switch their primary values depending on which of these two issues they are discussing. 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, and I suspect because it 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.

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 by lots of 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 look beyond morality in their emphasis on the following practicality: 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 forcing a significant sacrifice (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. However, I also understand that the motivation behind most pro-choicers stems from the same compassion I felt for Fantine in Les Mis. 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). However, I also believe that the proliferation of guns increases death.

Let’s try this: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 hold the same values I do, but apply them differently, while many who are supposed to be on my side do not also hold the 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’d appreciate any follow-up comments below, especially if you disagree. I only ask that you be kind.

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About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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16 Responses to Newtown, Gun Control, & Abortion Rights

  1. Denise says:

    I understand what you are trying to say relating gun issues and abortion but abortion is killing every time where me owning a gun isn’t killing anyone. Also unborn children aren’t murdered in other ways where as people can be killed in countless ways that do not include a gun.

    • Tim Owens says:

      you bring up some great differences. I’m hoping no one thinks I’m equating abortion with gun ownership. one of the connections I pointed out is the irrefutable fact, based simply on numbers, that the legalization of abortion and guns increases death. Not that zero guns is the best solution for our country (we have civil rights issues, etc)!

      hopefully, recognizing some of the commonalities with people across the political or ethic aisle will help increase civil discourse in our country!

  2. Bern says:

    This is a point I often make when my positions are demonized by those on my left (or more commonly lately) my right. How I long to have a conversation in neutral terms that isn’t predetermined by unexamined mores and loaded language.

  3. Faith says:

    i always thought it would be so simple to just follow one of God’s laws: You shall not kill. Whether it’s an unborn baby, with a gun, a knife, a bomb, etc. I didn’t know that about Japan and the guns. Thank you. I wish the USA would be more like them.

    • Tim Owens says:

      My experience growing up in Japan continues to influence how I see cultural issues. Almost zero percent Christian, yet in so many ways more moral than we are. Sheds a lot of light on our approach to the culture wars.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thou shalt not kill is more accurately “Thou shall not murder”. That would bring usto another discussion though. I agree though, abortion is murder. For so many who had not made their way to God, on this issue I pray that God’s grace and forgiveness is granted. God an move mountains and Jesus is the path.

  4. Schooler says:

    Abortion kills, every time. The victim has done no wrong and is totally defenseless, totally at the mercy of a society that doesn’t value life. Even though we send objects through space to find life, and would spend millions to learn more about that life, we casually kill human babies with no regard.
    Guns are used by the law abiding to defend ourselves, our families and loved ones. A gun should never be pointed at a person for emphasis or to gain compliance. If the situation does not call for lethal force, it should not be used. Most often in life or death situations the possession and threat of a gun can cause the situation to be safely and sanely resolved. If not, the saying goes, “it is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6” I’m not making light of this. The taking of a life is serious indeed. I’ve been to the brink, and had my life threatened many times, and the lives of my loved ones. Making me, as a law abiding individual, defenseless serves no purpose except to make me, and by extension other innocents, into victims.

  5. Natalie says:

    This was so thoughtful, insightful and opened my eyes! Thank you for being a light in the darkness, Tim. It builds my faith to know there are thoughtful, self-reflective men out there who have matured past knee-jerk, dogmatic ideas. Please keep posting! I’m an avid reader.

    Would you ever start a small group in the Capital District where we could meet to discuss these issues “in neutral terms that [aren’t] predetermined by unexamined mores and loaded language?” I’m starving for that type of community.

    • Tim Owens says:

      I don’t think I’ll be able to start another group in the near future (already pushing the margins) but what about you? Do you have a couple of friends you could get together with? I’d be more than happy to steer you towards helpful resources, studies, etc. if you want some ideas, let me know!

  6. Michael says:

    I have very strong feelings about abortion and it should be avoided in virtually all circumstances.

    I understand your analogy of the US vs. Japan but I think the culture of Japan (only what I have read…I do not have firsthand knowledge) has been anti gun for many decades. Perhaps since WWII. The Japanese civilians are clueless about guns and a murder would just stun their senses as you report. Obviously the US culture is well removed from this history. I started deer hunting this year. Someone told me that the state of Wisconsin could field a standing army of 700,000 hunters alone. Which is impressive. But they would be slaughtered before a govt army armed with fully automatic weapons and artillery. I digress.

    Point being that just one wayward citizen, perhaps not even legally armed (most likely not legally armed) can cause great damage vs. 700,000 friendly law abiding hunters and gun enthusiasts. Gun Owners should perhaps be encouraged to increase security on thir arms and perhaps be held personally responsible if they fall into the wrong hands unreported…but this is America and there will be no wresting of the rifles from honest Americans.

    I believe the gun owning community should be embraced and not demonized; solicited for help in securing all arms from the potentially dangerous folks. It would not hurt to ask before vilifying…first the financially successful; now the honest gun owner.

    I remarked to some young guys (20’s) over for the evening…we were talking movies. Harrison Ford. I brought up American Graffiti one of his early movies. They’d never heard of it. That was a classic man. Most of the movies they know and like are very violent, unbelievably more graphic and violent than anything I grew up with. Now TV and video gaming and online video gaming. The brutality is staggering compared to what our generation grew up with. Should we expect that the increased violence has absolutely no effect…especially on the hopeless and marginalized? As you admit it is not the guns that kill but the unhinged individuals…and they can kill with guns, knives, bombs, they are only limited by their visual experience and emotional stability.

    I mourn for Newtown to this day. But the defense against future Newtowns is not gun control. Perhaps better gun security by gun owners and less violence glorified in our media would be a more productive first step.

    • Tim Owens says:

      love all of your comments–what you are pointing towards is how multi-faceted this issue is. Guns are just one (maybe even a minor one) of the issues related to societal violence. and you’re right–it stinks that a few criminals are ruining things for the hundreds of thousands (maybe millions?) of law-abiding gun owners. like my dad used to always tell me, life isn’t fair.

      You’re impression of Japan is pretty accurate. what’s particularly amazing about Japan is how much violence is historically a part of their culture. Things like the Rape of Nanking weren’t an aberration from Japanese culture, but a part of it. However, the combination of losing WWII and being subjected to the A-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a deep strain of pacifism. Some how, a culture more violent than ours, and far less Christian, willed themselves to sweeping, societal change. This, of course, meant sacrifice. I think America, especially as a so called ‘Christian’ nation, could learn a great deal from their example. Not that we have to mimic their result (I’m not naive, and I agree with you–there will be no wresting of guns from honest Americans).

      basically, the Japanese (and Eastern) perspective looks for the good of the group first, and the good of the individual second. A little more of that mentality might be helpful in our country.

      • Schooler says:

        The culture in many Eastern countries values the group over the individual, abortion follows that culture. There is also a pervasive and overt discrimination for those of different ethnicities and races. The politeness we see is a false face in many cases. The Westerner is looked upon as without culture and to be freely taken advantage of. China, Japan, they have an ancient history, Westerners to them have none.

  7. Katie says:

    Hey Tim….really loved this and think it speaks clearly many of my own thoughts.

    I abhor abortion & it makes me weep, however my best friend here in OZ works at the “Pregnancy Advisory Council” (think Planned Parenthood), which is attached to an abortion clinic and where every week she counsels women & often sends them to get abortions. Our friendship started around this debate….and we are both passionate about our differing views. We quickly found that we both have the same motivation, while drawing very different conclusions. She is not a Christian and at one point I told her that after hearing her and from what I saw after many years working in social services with abandoned & abused kids, I knew in my heart that without Christ, abortion makes perfect sense in many circumstances.

    I think we as Christians need to remember that while Christ might not be the lense or the filter that many people are viewing life through, that does not mean they are completely morally bankrupt or inept in having a healthy conscience. Like Japan, while it’s people may not acknowledge the true source of all that is good & right, it doesn’t mean they do not know how to value life & protect it.

    Lived my highschool years in Ireland and now raising my children in Australia, both VERY secular societies…but both having a population that seems more concerned (as the bottom line) than their American counterparts, with protecting life over any “rights”….it’s so interesting & conflicting to see.

    Anyway, well said dude….you are good & saying so much that needs to be said.

    • Tim Owens says:

      thanks for the encouragement, and LOVE the story of your friendship. I was just talking with Courtney today about how key such friendships have been for me: having genuine friendships with people who vehemently disagree with me helps humanize all discussions.

      thanks, as always, for reading!

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