On May 25, 2022, an 18-year-old gunman by the name of Salvador Ramos fatally shot 19 children and two adults at a Texas elementary school. Ramos, who shot his grandmother before going on his rampage, was killed by law enforcement officers after they stormed into the school.
Mass shootings have become a disturbingly common occurrence in the United States.
According to the National Public Radio, in the first five months of 2022, there were 213 mass shootings – which averages out to a staggering ten shootings a week! In 2021, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, there were 693 mass shootings. In 2020 and 2019, 611 and 417 mass shootings were reported respectively.
According to a BBC report, the gun ratio in the United States today is 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, up from 88 per 100 in 2011. This ratio surpasses that of other countries across the world, including those with an ongoing multi-lateral civil war such as Yemen, whose ratio is 58 per 100 residents.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 43 percent of deaths in 2020 were homicides – a 34 percent increase from 2019, and a 75 percent increase over the course of the previous decade. CDC reports that nearly 53 people are killed each day by a firearm in the United States.
79 percent of the homicides in the United States are gun-related killings. Compared to the United Kingdom (4 percent), Canada (37 percent), and Australia (13 percent), the number of gun-related murders in the United States is shockingly high!
While mass shooting and gun murders have been making the headlines, what is often not reported is the horrendous number of gun-related suicides. In 2020, out of 43,676 gun-related deaths, 24,292 or 54 percent, were suicides.
In 2016, The American Public Health Association conducted a study on the relationship between firearm ownership and suicide rates in the United States between 1981 and 2013, and unsurprisingly found ‘a strong relationship between state-level firearm ownership and firearm suicide rates among both genders …’
What accounts for this ‘American exceptionalism’ when it comes to gun violence? Some commentators have attributed it to the unique gun culture in the United States that is not found in any other country in the world.
What is this gun culture? What are the forces that helped to shape and continue to nourish it? And how have Christians responded to this important but contentious issue?
U.S. GUN CULTURE
No one, in my view, has fabricated a more brilliant and powerful myth about the primordial relationship between a man and his gun than Franklin Orth, the executive president of the National Rifles Association (NRA) (from 1959 until his death in 1970), who told a Senate Committee in 1968 that:
There is a very special relationship between a man and his gun – an atavistic relation with its deep roots in prehistory, when the primitive man’s personal weapon, so often his only effective defense and food provider, was nearly as precious as his own limbs.
Such myths are often bolstered by factors that are unique to the history, culture and constitution of the United States, all of which nourished its gun culture. It is impossible to understand the fixation that Americans have with gun ownership if this important cocktail of factors is not fully appreciated.
Guns have always played a critical role in the history of the United States. Firearms have enabled Americans to advance economically (especially through slavery) and also to resolve both domestic and international conflicts. They have thus become an inextricable element in its national narrative of independence, expansion and dominance.
As professor Katie Day perceptively points out: ‘Within this way of thinking, reflected by both individual citizens as well as civic leaders, gun power is not a problem, but a solution.’
Communities in the United States that are economically and socially stressed, such as the blacks in certain areas, also see firearms as a solution to their woes. As Day observes, for such communities ‘the logic of firearms informs both the enforcement of social stability as well as the ethic of retributive justice by individual citizens, whether in stand-your-ground vigilantism or gang culture.’
Additionally, the wars that have occurred throughout the history of the American nation, many of which are considered as ‘just’, have resulted in the justification and even the glorification of violence as the means to resolve conflict and fight for a righteous cause.
All this has spawned yet another myth, which some theologians have aptly called the ‘Myth of Redemptive Violence.’ As Walter Wink, the biblical scholar best known for his studies on the ‘powers’ explains: ‘… the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo.’
This ostensibly redemptive nature of gun violence is further framed within the civil religion that is unique to American culture. ‘In the context of a prevalent and uncritical civil religion’, writes Day, ‘guns become the sacramental object of administering justice.’
The Second Amendment
The second factor has to do with the U.S. Constitution, which some Americans regard as a covenant.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. 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.’ The abstruseness and lack of clarity of the formulation of this amendment have resulted in a number of conflicting interpretations concerning its true intent and meaning.
Proponents of gun ownership have predictably argued that their right to possess and use firearms are clearly protected by the Second Amendment, and the violation of that right is nothing short of the violation of the Constitution itself.
An even more provocative, and plainly ‘insurrectionist’ interpretation, states that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right and the means to protect themselves from the tyranny of their own government.
According to both interpretations, the Second Amendment is about securing and guaranteeing the rights of citizens. As Senator Ted Cruz asserted at the NRA convention held just days after the Texas shooting, ‘Rarely has the Second Amendment has been more necessary to secure the rights of our fellow citizens.’
In my view, the correct interpretation of the Second Amendment – one which takes its historical context seriously – is that it is not about securing the rights of individual citizens to possess and use firearms. Instead, the inclusion of this amendment into the Constitution was purposed to secure the right of the young nation, which did not have a viable professional army at the time, to have an armed militia.
The history of the interpretation of the Second Amendment is too complex to be recounted here.
Suffice to say that for most of American history the Second Amendment was never understood in terms of according individuals the right to bear arms. Rather, the Founding Fathers’ concern was about keeping the militia from being disarmed. Yale law professor Reva Siegel is therefore right in pointing out that ‘an individual’s right to use guns in self-defence is not expressly written in the constitution.’
In fact, it was only in 2008 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun.
Be that as it may, powerful organisations such as the NRA have been using the Second Amendment as the basis for aggressively promoting gun ownership, insisting that it is the basic right of Americans to do so.
At the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, these words from the Second Amendment are emblazoned on the wall of the building: ‘… the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed’ – while the part about the well-regulated militia is conveniently (and cleverly) omitted.
The third factor that has contributed to the gun culture in the United States is the pervasive and rabid individualism of American society.
The rugged individualism of the nation caught the attention of Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in 1831, and which he recorded in his famous Democracy in America, first published in 1835. This individualism, whose roots can be traced to the 17th century European Enlightenment, has historically been a formidable force indeed in the construction of the young nation.
But the individualism which says ‘every man for himself’ is a two-edged sword. It can and no doubt has fuelled America’s entrepreneurial energy, but it can also be the seeds for the destruction of American society.
According to Katie Day, when this rugged individualism, with its elevation of self-sufficiency, is wedded to the myths that portray guns as the essential source of safety and protection, we have a ‘perfect storm’, the ‘contextual soil in which a gun culture can thrive.’
And when we add to this already potent mix the powerful rhetoric of rights (peppered as it often is with religious language), we have something that is culturally so compelling that it is difficult to resist.
An example of this is the mantra – often attributed to the NRA – that ‘self-defence, via arms, is a God-given right’. That this simple but powerful dictum draws its inspiration from American individualism, rights language, the gun myths, the Second Amendment, and, of course, religion is patently obvious.
Christian ethicist Mark Ryan has gone so far as to argue that the right of private citizens to own and use guns has become, for Americans, the cornerstone of all the other rights. ‘To infringe on gun rights’, he writes, ‘is to touch (and corrupt) all of the rights that together constitute the freedom of an American citizen.’
As ridiculous as this may sound to non-Americans (such as the writer of this present article), this is a cultural sensibility whose powerful grip on American society must never be underestimated. Ryan draws out the insurrectionist implications of this intersection of gun rights with other rights thus:
… any effort to impose even very reasonable limits on citizens’ gun rights can be quickly painted as the work of America’s enemy par excellence – i.e., the out of touch government that wishes to rob us of all our rights, reducing us to slavery.
GOD AND GUNS
American history cannot be properly understood without an attentive analysis of how religion and politics are in various ways intertwined.
In the 1970s and 80s, the New Christian Right has been vocal in addressing the consequences of the advance of liberalism in American society. The NRA joined forces with the New Christian Right in denouncing the moral corrosion and decline that liberalism has brought in its wake.
Both see this moral decline as the fundamental cause of America’s woes. And both regard the struggle against this moral and spiritual degeneracy as the front and centre of the nationalist narrative and agenda.
The genius of the NRA is that it was able to graft gun rights into these larger cultural and religious issues by appealing to its particular interpretation of the Second Amendment. It argues that the infringement of the God-given right of Americans to own firearms as enshrined in the amendment would bring (moral) disaster to the nation.
Jessica Dawson has ably summarised the peculiar and strange confluence of religion and politics in American culture in this way:
America has always been exceptional in the belief that the Constitution serves as a covenant with God. Whereas the Bible serves as the sacred text for Christians, the religious nationalist draws on the civic religious canon in which the ‘gospels are the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution’. The 10 original amendments to the Constitution serve as the new Ten Commandments ‘handed down by God’, and here the role of the biblical narrative in the NRA’s transformation of the Second Amendment plays a pivotal role.
Needless to say, this miscegenation of religion and nationalism which has led to the sacralisation of the secular and the bastardisation of the Christian faith (to use theologian John Howard Yoder’s provocative expression) must be subjected to rigorous theological critique.
Where do evangelical Christians in America stand on this conflicted and explosive issue? Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, evangelicals are deeply divided.
On December 6, 2015, NBC News reported that Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University – one of the largest Christian colleges in the United States – encouraged students to legally carry guns on campus. This statement from the president was made in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 dead.
‘Those in attendance at Liberty University’s mandatory convocation’, NBC News reports, ‘erupted into applause when the Virginia school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., asked students to take a concealed weapon permit course that the college offers for free.’
In response to this, John Piper, the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, wrote an article entitled, ‘Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?’ in order ‘to send a different message to our students, and to the readers of Desiring God, than Jerry Falwell, Jr. sent to the students at Liberty University … on December 4, 2015.’
My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is forging a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries.
Piper clarifies that his article is not about whether Christians have the right to self-defence, or the defence of family and friends. ‘The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanour and heart-attitude of the Christian life’, he writes.
Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, ‘I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me?’ My answer is, No.
In my view, Piper is right!
The Christian Gospel, and the values it presents, are diametrically opposed to the attitude towards violence that the American gun culture encourages and even valorises. Jesus forbids the use of violence for building God’s kingdom (Luke 9:51-56), and commands his disciples to love even their enemies (Matthew 5:38-48).
Richard Hays has rightly pointed out that the witness of the New Testament against violence is consistent throughout. ‘From Matthew to Revelation’, he writes, ‘we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it.’
Michael Austin has perceptively argued that ‘The paradigm of Christian courage is that of the martyr, rather than that of the action hero.’ He adds:
Because of this, courage ‘can find expression as much or more in suffering and weakness as it can in striking out against a threat.’ Such an understanding of courage will lead us to rethink the role of force in the life of the Christian who seeks to possess the courage of Christ.
CULTURE OF VIOLENCE-ACCEPTANCE
The connection between the gun culture – which promotes gun ownership – and gun violence is undeniable. Popular slogans such as ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people’ which are routinely repeated mantra-like by pro-gun advocates and politicians alike often cloak the issue.
As the 2010 document published by the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PCUSA) entitled Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call has compellingly put it: ‘Clearly, if there is a gun easily within reach in one’s pocket (or cupboard, garage, or glove compartment) a moment of rage or despair can become tragic.’
Another spurious assertion, which was reportedly uttered by former president Donald Trump just a few days after the Texas shooting, goes like this: ‘The existence of evil in our world is not a reason to disarm law-abiding citizens. The existence of evil is one of the best reasons to arm law-abiding citizens.’
If guns do indeed protect Americans from evil and violence, then the United States must surely be the safest country on the planet! This is because in the United States, there are more registered guns than there are people!
More insidious than even the culture of violence that the gun culture feeds, is what some commentators have called ‘the culture of violence-acceptance’. This is the kind of moral sedation and numbing of the collective psyche of American society that enervates the population’s will to protest against the violence and address its root cause.
PCUSA’s 2010 document provides the following examples of the lack of resolve even in the face of the unconscionable atrocities of gun violence:
Even after the massacres at Columbine High School, Northern Illinois University, and Virginia Tech, pro-gun advocates called for allowing guns on our campuses. Even though many have died by assault weapons since the ban was allowed to expire in 2004, lobbyists have argued that to restrict access to such military-style weapons is an attack on personal rights … Even though research shows that gun-owners are six times more likely to be a victim of gun violence than to use their weapons for self-defence, the lobbyists representing the gun industry link gun ownership with increasing personal safety.
Things have not changed very much since these points were made in 2010.
Days after the Texas shooting, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, President Biden asks: ‘Why? Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?’
‘[T]he idea that an 18-year-old can walk into a store and buy weapons of war, designed and marketed to kill is, I think, just wrong. The second amendment is not absolute’, he said.
‘I am sick and tired of it’, he adds, ‘We have to act. And don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.’
President Biden’s horror at what happened at the elementary school in Texas is, I’m sure, shared by many Americans. But in view of the unique American relationship with guns that this article has surveyed, there is little reason for hope that the President’s outrage will translate into tougher gun laws.