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What About Guns?

October 5, 2015

A few days ago a student at Umpqua College in Oregon fatally shot nine classmates and wounded nine more before shooting himself.  This makes a total of forty-five school shootings so far this year in the United States.  Once again our society is wondering what to do about guns.

The debate is often framed as a choice between “gun rights” and “gun control,” but I see at least four distinct legal approaches to guns.  First, there is the attempt to expand gun rights.  This approach says that the best defense against bad guys with guns is to have more good guys with guns.  As many people as possible should have guns, and concealed guns should be allowed to be carried anywhere–college campuses, churches, hospitals, etc.  Second, there is the position that gun rights should be neither expanded nor restricted, but should remain about where they are now.  Third, there is the position that gun ownership is a right, but the right needs to be restricted:  a national background check and registry for every purchaser; gun ownership disallowed for felons, those under a restraining order, and those with serious mental illness; and no sales of assault rifles, expanded ammunition clips, or body-armor piercing bullets.  Fourth, there is the position that handguns need to be taken away from virtually all civilians, and thus we need a constitutional amendment to repeal the right to bear arms.

The first position is the one being pushed by the NRA.  It appeals to fear as much as to rights, and its approach will likely increase gun violence, not limit it.  Would you feel safer on a college campus knowing that half the students are carrying a concealed weapon?  Would you feel safer knowing that most of the adults sitting in a football stadium with you have a concealed hand gun?  When intoxication at a party leads to an argument and someone pulls out a weapon, are you going to pull out your gun and shoot him?  Is the person next to you then going to shoot you?  Is the person across the room then going to shoot the person who shot you?  Can you imagine the mayhem and chaos in a darkened theater if someone started shooting and then half a dozen other patrons then pulled out their weapons and began shooting?  Arming as many citizens as possible, and permitting them to carry those weapons in public places, is a recipe for disaster on a daily basis.  Those who claim a right to carry guns in public places forget that even in the old wild west, cowboys were required to check their guns in at the sheriff’s office when they came into town.  (This is what led to the shoot-out at the OK Corral–the cowboys didn’t check their guns.)

The fourth position, though it would likely lower the homicide rate in the United States (because it is so much easier to kill with a gun than with a knife or other weapon), is politically impossible for any foreseeable future.  Thinking we can pass laws to deny the right to gun ownership is a fantasy and unconstitutional.

So that leaves the second and third option:  change nothing, or add a few reasonable restrictions.  Some people claim that a national gun registry (which is for the purpose of closing loopholes in background checks) is a step toward the government taking away everyone’s guns.  This is as much a fantasy as those who think we are going to amend the constitution to take away gun rights.  It can’t happen.  There is no rational or legal basis that I can think of for opposing a national registry.

An argument for allowing the sale of assault-style rifles, expanded gun clips and armor-piercing bullets is that citizens have the right to be sufficiently armed to overthrow the government if the government becomes tyrannical.  And who decides that?  As long as the United States is a democracy, we do not have the right to arm ourselves to overthrow the government.  Besides, the logic of this position would then grant citizens the right to own tanks, bombs and everything else in the US military arsenal.  Let’s get real.

I accept the fact that the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as granting individual citizens the right to bear arms.  How far that right should go, and what justifiable limits may be placed on that right, I leave to the lawyers and lawmakers to decide.  Personally, I see no reasonable problem with some of the restrictions proposed above; but then, I’m not a gun owner.

This leads me to a question which I think most Christians in this country have been avoiding:  Should Christians own guns?  A constitutional right does not decide a moral and religious question.  The Christian faith teaches reconciliation and overcoming evil with good.  Most denominations allow Christians to bear arms on behalf of the nation as a soldier or police officer, but what about when we are representing only ourselves?  Is it right to carry a lethal weapon?  I think the teachings of Jesus dissuade us from doing this.  I do not condemn those Christians who believe they need to have a weapon for personal safety.  I have not had to live in their shoes and circumstances.  But I believe we will be the most effective peacemakers in our society if those around us know that we are committed nonviolence.  This is the way of life we should be spreading as much as possible.

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