How Should Christians Think About Gun Control?

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How are we to respond to an act of violence so gruesome and senseless as to be almost unfathomable? How can we comprehend the turmoil and pain that caused Adam Lanza to walk into Sandy Hook Elementary School and open fire, killing 20 first graders and six school staffers? As German social psychologist Eric Fromm once said, “The ultimate choice for a man, in as much as he is given to transcend himself, is to create or destroy, to love or to hate.” What leads a man to choose destruction over creation, hate over love?

Every time a tragedy occurs, such as the one last week in Newtown, Conn., I’m reminded of a scene in The West Wing (a show I reference far too often, but for good reason). A pipe bomb exploded in a college gymnasium killing 44 people, and President Bartlet praised members of the men’s swimming team who died after running into the fire to save others. He reflected that “every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”

At Sandy Hook we see yet another reflection of this near limitless capacity for good. As CNN detailed , the six members of the school staff who perished all did so in an effort to protect their students from harm. Principal Dawn Hochsprung, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, and Vice Principal Natalie Hammond allegedly heard the first shots and rushed to prevent Lanza from reaching the classrooms; all three were shot and Hammond was the only one to survive. Victoria Soto moved her students away from the door before Lanza entered the room and shot her. As reported by CNN, special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy used her body as a shield between the gunman and her students.

As the fictional President Barlet said in his emotional speech on The West Wing, “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels.” In the wake of this tragedy, we are faced with a stark paradox: how do we reconcile the limitless capacity of those who would sacrifice themselves for others with the depravity inherent in such a senseless act of violence?

The aftermath of such a tragedy involving guns – particularly when children are the victims – is often filled with demagoguery, obfuscation, and anger. Some supporters of gun control railed against the influence of the National Rifle Association, claiming that it supports a violent gun culture and is implicit in every gun death. Supporters of gun rights responded by defending the 2nd Amendment: guns are for law abiding citizens to protect themselves and criminals would find a gun even if they were banned. Or, as the National Review editors argued, banning assault weapons, such as the one used by Adam Lanza, would have limited impact on the frequency and magnitude of gun violence.

Others have taken this opportunity to talk about mental illness, how it should be better prevented, identified, and treated, something that 86 percent of American agree with, according to a poll by Rasmussen. This is an important point that often gets overlooked; sometimes I think rather than gun control, we should be discussing comprehensive violence control, because while guns are dangerous, it takes more than a gun in someone’s hand to create violence.

But since the public policy debate focuses on the issue of gun rights, I will focus on that for now. It seems to me that there are two ways to view the debate; one is Constitutionally and the other is socially.

The 2nd 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.” Opponents of gun control focus on the second clause – right shall not be infringed – while proponents of stricter gun laws focus on the first clause – the reference to a well regulated militia. Does the 2nd Amendment only apply to a time when a citizen militia existed, one that had the ability to be called into service at a moment’s notice? Or is it truly a blanket protection for the rights of individuals to protect themselves against harm or a tyrannical government?

This is a difficult question to navigate for one reason: one’s interpretation depends almost entirely on whether or not they like guns. It’s almost as simple as that. Some people like them, and believe that they as individuals are guaranteed protection under the Constitution. Some don’t, and believe that the danger to the public at large outweighs any archaic rights granted under the Constitution. There is no clear Constitutional “answer” to the question, and I would argue the debate comes down to that fact, unless we want to get into theories of Constitutional interpretation (i.e. originalism versus a living Constitution).

This brings me to the second way to view the debate, and that is through the lens of the individual versus the collective. Supporters of gun rights emphasize the aspect of individual liberty inherent in their right to own a gun and that it’s within their right to defend themselves. To those people I would ask this: does the right to defend yourself necessitate the legality of semi-automatic assault rifles with 30 round magazines, like the one used by Lanza? If the rationale is truly to defend oneself, isn’t one bullet from a handgun enough?

But more importantly, the emphasis on the individual liberty of gun ownership fails to account for the collective harm of mass killings. As Bryce Covert wrote in The Nation, “Individually, in the face of unpredictable violence it can make sense to want to arm oneself to respond to what may come. But that means a lack of trust in our common goal of safety for all.”

Will banning high caliber assault rifles and large magazines, as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed, prevent all gun deaths? No, it won’t. Will closing the “gun show loophole,” where guns are allowed to be purchased at gun shows with no background check or waiting period, prevent all unstable individuals from buying guns? No. But I think these are wholly rational first steps in creating a culture that puts the interests and safety of the collective above that of the individual. And as Christians, shouldn’t that always be our goal?

Those of us who are pro-life should not only be so in the context of abortion; we should support the preservation of life in every form. So even if assault rifles are responsible for only one or two percent of gun deaths every year, as the National Review editors argue, isn’t it worth banning them if it prevents even one death?

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but we experience this sentiment far too often. In an article for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg tells the story of Tom Mauser, the father of one of the Columbine victims. He became a gun control advocate following the murder of his son and 11 of his fellow students, believing that this would be enough impetus for real change. Since then, our country has dealt with the aftermath of the D.C. sniper, Virginia Tech, Tuscon, Fort Hood, Aurora, and now Newtown, not to mention the number of gun related murders that occur on a daily basis.

While human capacity may well be limitless, a safer world is a better world, and there is no rational argument to prove that semi-automatic assault rifles make the world safer. So whether you like guns or don’t like guns, we as a country should make the rational choice to defend the safety of the collective whole over the individualistic ideals of gun ownership.

-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science