A couple of weeks ago a toddler shot himself in the head after finding a gun under the pillow of his parent's bed. Just days later a police officer accidentally shot his mother at a family wedding while adjusting his jacket. Last year, a nine-year-old girl was being shown how to use an automatic weapon and accidentally killed her instructor. In Idaho a two-year-old boy was shopping at Walmart with his mother and three other children, when he found a gun in his mother's bag; he pulled the trigger and killed her.
Some would argue that these tragic stories are reason enough for people to rethink their attachment to firearms, but apparently not. Not all American Christians are pro-guns of course, but there is a sizeable number who are. One of the more outspoken evangelical proponents of gun ownership is theologian Wayne Grudem, whose arguments I will critique here.
1. Constitutional right
The Second Amendment to the American constitution 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."
Grudem argues that the reason the Second Amendment was added to the constitution was "to provide another protection against tyranny – to make it harder for any potential dictator or would-be king to take control of the entire nation against the will of the people." This concern is probably not at the heart of the individual gun control debate at the moment as the right to bear arms against a tyrannical dictatorship is a different question as to whether Christians need to own guns now in a stable democratic environment. Also the fact that the constitution allows something does not automatically mean it would be appropriate for Christians to bear arms. Grudem has argued against abortion and gay marriage, both of which are allowed in many states, but that, according to Grudem's logic, is not sufficient reason for Christians to endorse them.
Grudem goes on to argue that "the right to self defense should be seen as a fundamental human right, and governments should protect that right." Even if we accept the premise that the there is a right to self-defence this does not necessarily mean the right to own a gun. There will always be limit to the expression of this right that would include a whole range of military hardware; even Grudem recognises that the private ownership of a "machine gun or anti-tank rocket launcher or an anti-aircraft missile launcher" are unnecessary. But still he argues that private hand gun ownership reduces crime as an attacker cannot be sure that their potential victim is unarmed. The counter argument of course is that it could make gun violence more likely as attackers could increasingly assume their victims are armed not to mention that increased gun ownership means increased gun accidents.
3. Protection of others
Grudem argues that carrying weapons would help prevent "tragic mass murders in which a lone gunman can hold at bay an entire restaurant or church full of people... are much less likely to happen in states where a large number of people carry concealed weapons."
But the counter arguments are, firstly, that if guns were more highly regulated then it would be a lot harder for potential mass murderers to get hold of guns in the first place. Secondly, Ellen Painter Dollar argues: "Police officers go through hours of specialized training to help them discern when the use of deadly force is justified. As we know from not a few front-page tragedies involving police shootings, despite such rigorous training, even the best-trained officers don't always get it right. Yet we want to believe that an armed citizen with a few hours of practice on the shooting range will be able to make split-second judgments well enough to ensure that the only people who end up dead are the bad guys."
Hunting a popular sport and, for some, a means of sustenance. Some argue that it would be an assault on civil liberty to restrict the use of guns for sports.
I believe that an argument can be made for the ownership of guns for sporting and recreational purposes, with the requisite licensing and monitoring. Gun licenses are available in Canada, and even in the UK, but there are very strict regulations in place that involve screening of gun owners, registration, monitoring storage and ongoing eligibility screening.
In some parts of the US it is possible to buy a gun over the counter in a supermarket, while in Canada it takes 60 days and extensive background checks that explore mental, criminal and addiction histories. Those seeking a license need to take a training course as well. The different outcomes are startling.
There is high gun ownership in Canada; in 2009 there were 23.8 firearms per 100 people but only 0.5 deaths per 100,000 from gun homicide. In the US in 2009 there were 9,146 firearm related deaths (6,452 were handgun related). According to William Krouse: "The estimated rate of private gun ownership (both licit and illicit) in the United States is 101.05 firearms per 100 people."
Perhaps instead Christians might choose to lay aside their rights and even the pleasure they get from hunting in order to see fewer people die. This is the same logic that motivated the Salvation Army's no alcohol commitment from its members. When it was founded the Salvation Army was doing so much work among the homeless that its members decided to lay aside the freedom Christians enjoy to drink alcohol in order to look out for the needs of those for whom drinking meant addiction. Would a similar commitment from Christians with regard to recreational gun use be a possible way of helping to change the culture around gun ownership?
5. Biblical precedent
"Then Jesus asked them, 'When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?' 'Nothing,' they answered. He said to them, 'But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.'" (Luke 22:36-38)
Grudem cites this passage and its parallel in Matthew 26:52 to argue: "Jesus wanted his disciples to have an effective weapon to use in self-defense." But surely this verse must be understood in the context of Christ's general teaching on loving enemies and peaceful resistance. It also needs the context of Christ's chastising of Peter for using a weapon to protect him – 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword' – and the fact that Jesus repairs the damage that Peter's sword did to the ear of the chief priest's servant. Scholars such as the conservative evangelical Leon Morris argue that Jesus' command to take a sword is to be understood figuratively to bring home the fact that "the disciples face a situation of grave peril."
If Grudem were to argue that it would be unusual to take a command figuratively I would point him to when Jesus says "if your eye offends you pluck it out, if your hand offends you cut it off." Even if it is conceded that weapons of self-defence are biblically permissible, this does not necessarily mean the mass ownership of guns is the best way of applying this text.
6. Cultural identity
I wonder if we need to recognise that gun ownership is intimately connected cultural heritage? In some states there is still a cultural legacy from the frontier days up until the early 20th century. Garrick Roegner, an American theologian now living in Spain, commented to me: "There was no law in many places, threat from Native Americans and bandits was frequent, and the US had just finished the Civil War so there were many young and damaged men with guns roaming the West trying to put their lives together. Combine all that with the advent of mass distillation of hard alcohol, and the American West was an extremely violent place."
Identity markers are often clung to because no-one finds it easy to relinquish a part of their identity. We must be careful about being too glib about calling Christians to find their identity in Christ instead – partly because we're all on our journey, and partly because the Bible affirms the valuing of human culture. Nevertheless, I believe the more firmly we find our identity in Christ the less tightly we hold on to these other things.
Every time a tragedy happens in the USA – whether it is a Columbine massacre, a Virginia Tech mass killing or the Aurora movie theatre killings – there is public outcry. Rev James Martin writes: "Simply praying, 'God, never let this happen again' is insufficient for the person who believes that God gave us the intelligence to bring about lasting change...It would be as if one passed a homeless person and said to oneself, 'God, please help that poor man,' when all along you could have helped him yourself." Which is exactly what scripture states in in James 2:15-16.