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A Christmas Thought About Guns

As I continue to think about guns, it seems to me that there are three questions that need to be kept distinct. Well, actually, there are more than three, but these seem to be the key ones right now.

  • What kinds of firearms are private citizens guaranteed the right to own by the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution?
  • To what extent, in America today, is a highly armed citizenry necessary?
  • To what extent is a highly armed citizenry intrinsically desirable?

I think we could have a better conversation about guns if we kept those questions distinct from one another. (Note also that I’m talking only about guns for non-sporting purposes.)

Regarding the first: If the Second Amendment doesn’t refer primarily or exclusively to the arming of militias but applies to private citizens, and “arms” means pretty much anything you can fire, then it doesn’t matter whether you or I enjoy living in a highly armed society: anybody who wants to turn his house into an armory has the right to do so. Only a Constitutional Amendment could change that. (For the record, I don’t share that interpretation of the Second Amendment, even though I’m a lifelong user and owner of guns, but that’s not the topic of this post.)

It’s only if we can, within the bounds of the Constitution, make significant changes to our gun laws that the problem arises of whether we should. And that leads to Question 2.

It’s clear from the comments I’ve been reading on various blog posts, on this site and elsewhere, that many people believe a highly armed citizenry is necessary because they believe that America is descending into social chaos. Now it’s true that violent crime rose last year — but that’s after a twenty-year decline. So violence is going to have to rise a good deal to get us back to where we were when George H. W. Bush left office. That doesn’t look like a descent into social chaos to me, but we could have a debate about that. We’d need to evaluate the evidence with care.

It’s the third question that I want to emphasize this Christmas Day.

I’m a Christian, and as such I am enjoined to pray and hope for the coming reign of the Prince of Peace. Christians might disagree about how and when that Kingdom is going to come about, but we must pray for it and seek it without all our hearts. We should look forward always to the the reign of shalom, as laid out in Isaiah 65. It is not, then, intrinsically desirable that we should be armed; it is, rather, intrinsically desirable that we should all live in the Kingdom of God where no weapons are needed because we live in mutual love and have our needs provided by the Lord.

Maybe that doesn’t even need to be said; maybe nobody really thinks an armed society is ipso facto a better society, even though some folks can sound that way at times. If so, then please just take this post as a reminder that if it is, or becomes, necessary for Americans to be regularly and publicly armed, that’s a sign of the tragic brokenness of a world populated by fallen people.

And fallenness is, in my theology, a trait universally shared: I’d feel a lot better about the rhetoric of the strongest proponents of an armed society if they admitted that, law-abiding and responsible though they may be, they’re as vulnerable to temptation as anyone else. In this debate I’ve heard people talk about “human corruption” and “original sin,” but always in reference to other people.

A hundred years ago or so, a newspaper editor asked a number of English intellectual leaders for their answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” The most interesting and accurate reply was this one:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G.K. Chesterton

Today, you and I are what’s wrong. As much as I’d like to believe that guns would be no problem if everyone were just like me, in my heart I know better. Or ought to.

In one of his last speeches as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams recently said,

People use guns. But in a sense guns use people, too. When we have the technology for violence easily to hand, our choices are skewed and we are more vulnerable to being manipulated into violent action.

Perhaps that’s why, in a passage often heard in church around this time of year, the Bible imagines a world where swords are beaten into ploughshares. In the new world which the newborn child of Christmas brings into being, weapons are not left to hang on the wall, suggesting all the time that the right thing to do might after all be to use them. They are decommissioned, knocked out of shape, put to work for something totally different.

Control of the arms trade, whether for individuals or for nations, won’t in itself stop the impulse to violence and slaughter. But it’s a start in changing what’s taken for granted. The good news of Christmas is that the atmosphere of fear and hostility isn’t the natural climate for human beings, and it can be changed.

If all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target. But if all you have is the child’s openness and willingness to be loved, everything looks like a promise. Control of the weapons trade is a start. But what will really make the difference is dealing with fear and the pressure to release our anxiety and tension at the expense of others. A new heart, a new spirit, as the Bible says; so that peace on earth won’t be an empty hope.

That’s what I believe too. May shalom come, and may the Prince of Peace reign forever and ever.

UPDATE: My friend David Ryan, captain of the Mon Tiki and one of the Ordinary Gentlemen, has given me permission to post this excerpt from an email he sent me today:

It seems to me that one of the things that Tolkien and others of the writers you admire were concerned with was the effect of industrialization on culture, and if the Fire Arms Act of 1968 can (to a certain degree) be understood as being an expression of anxieties about race vis-a-vis firearms, the Fire Arms act of 1934 (which, among other things, restricted possession of machine guns) can be understood as being (partly) a response to concerns about mechanization.

My mind is changed about high capacity magazines. I had found sanctuary in the belief that the crucial distinction was semiautomatic fire vs. automatic fire; i.e., the Thompson machine gun had a 30 round mag, but was capable of automatic fire, and therefore should be restricted, where as an AR-15, also with a 30 shot magazine, is only capable of semiautomatic fire and therefore is a perfectly reasonable weapon for law-abiding citizens to own.

But two things have changed my mind.

One is that I’ve learned that militaries around the world concur that in the hands of the average trooper in most situations, an assault rifle with semi-automatic fire is deadlier than a Thompson with automatic fire. This is simple fact.

Two, at a certain point it doesn’t matter what is reasonable for the law-abiding citizen; what matters is how much power does this put in the hands of a bad actor (email being an excellent example of what happens when this aspect is not accounted for). I had an email back and forth with [a friend] where she argued that AR15s are rarely used to commit crimes. My simple response is that dynamite is also rarely used to commit crimes.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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