When reading about the tragedy Saturday morning, I came across some remarks by a Republican congressman from (where else?) Texas, Louie Gohmert. In contrast to the spineless "gag rule on guns" that most politicians have honored since the shootings, at least Gohmert spoke up and gave his opinion on cultural and pragmatic issues related to them. Unfortunately, what he said is more than a tad problematic, whether one views his opinions historically, logically, or Christianly.
Two things Gohmert said in his radio interview stand out. First, when asked why such seemingly senseless acts happen, he responded thus:
You know what really gets me, as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then some senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place. ...As a Christian, I wish he had not uttered that first sentence, conforming, as it does, to the stereotype of the backwoods fundamentalist ignoramus. In Gohmert's view, such acts happen because of attacks on, or corrosion of, America's "Judeo-Christian" foundations. Well, of course I believe that acts of such stunning depravity are caused by sin, the very thing Jesus came to earth so long ago to defeat. I also will grant that the indicatives of globalism and multi-culturalism have eroded some of the assumed (Christian) perspectives on morality that obtained even in my childhood in the 1960s. But please — who, no matter what religion or lack thereof, doesn't know that murder is wrong and speak against it in no uncertain terms? Also problematic, despite its assumed truth by many in the Religious Right, is his assertion that America was founded on Christian principles. Elsewhere I have expressed my opinion that the United States was formed by a decidedly unChristian violent rebellion against its mother country. And the list of national sins tolerated and committed by this country is a serious one: violent land theft from, and subsequent ghettoization of, the aboriginal "Native Americans;" forcible enslavement of, and later discrimination against, millions of people simply by virtue of the color of their skin; child labor; disenfranchisement of women; wars waged for the expansion of empire (Mexican War, Spanish-American War) or protection of the "national interest" (Iraq). The claim that "at least we haven't produced a Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot" simply damns us with faint praise (even America's greatest presidents, Lincoln and FDR, were men with mixed motives and uneven records of achievement). America, like all other nations, is populated exclusively by sinners, a fact that does everything to dismantle claims of "exceptionalism" born of an illegitimate conflation of the Puritans and the much later "founding fathers." The fathers were, to be sure, exceptional men much to be admired in many ways, but few of them were what a 21st century evangelical would consider to be "orthodox Christians." I can think of three who were: John Jay, John Witherspoon, and Patrick Henry. The rest are to be located somewhere on a sliding deistic scale from the somewhat orthodox (the Unitarian-leaning Adams, the Eucharist-shunning Washington) to the unorthodox (Franklin, Jefferson, Paine). For Gohmert to cite the notoriously womanizing Franklin in this regard brings a wry smile to the face.
Some of us happen to believe that when our founders talked about guarding our virtue and freedom, that that was important. Whether it's John Adams saying our Constitution was made only for moral and religious people ... Ben Franklin, only a virtuous people are capable of freedom, as nations become corrupt and vicious they have more need of masters ... We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country.
The fact of the matter is that in the reality world of universal human sinfulness, violence will happen. Young men fueled by testosterone and afflicted with alienation (for whatever reason) will take their frustrations out on undeserving victims. What has changed, however, is the ready availability of de facto weapons of mass destruction that make such tragedies both possible and increasingly common. It is here that Gohmert's second statement has relevance. Echoing the sentiments of America's most powerful extremist political interest group, the NRA, the congressman said, "It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?"
My initial reaction was to think that such a sentiment simply refutes itself. I still believe that. The utter naivete it manifests is staggering. Even worse is the assumption, by a self-professed Christian, that the solution to gun-based violence is an even greater proliferation of guns. Has representative Gohlert never heard the words of Jesus (in a contemporary contextualization and only slightly out of context), "Those who take the gun will perish by the gun" (Matt 26:52)?
It is well past time for a rational and realistic national discussion on guns and the increasing havoc they are playing on our society. To be sure, in the wake of Aurora some of the usual suspects have called for this: "liberal" academics such as Melissa Harris-Perry and journalists like E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News (though conservatives like Bill Kristol have chimed in as well), big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg and Michael Nutter, big-city police commissioners like Philadelphia's Charles Ramsey, pacifist-leaning Christians. In my view, they are right, but, as usual, I am not optimistic about this happening.
The reason for this is the stranglehold the NRA has politically on Washington and ideologically on most of "conservative" America. It is a strange fact that Americans who know little history or English grammar nevertheless "know" that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of the individual American to bear arms (curiously, their constitutional piety does not often extend to the 14th Amendment and the right of children born in America to "illegal" immigrants to American citizenship). I myself am not confident that the Second Amendment, properly interpreted, guarantees this right. Indeed, I find the Supreme Court's pronouncements on the amendment in 2008 and 2010 to be somewhat tendentious. Nevertheless, even if the current de rigueur interpretation is granted, the matter is not as black-and-white as its supporters usually contend.
I can confidently claim that I will never own a gun. And before anyone says that is because I am a soft product of the Philly Main Line, I must remind such a person that I lived for 12 years in a poor, crime-infested neighborhood of Dallas, where gunshots and hovering police helicopters were at least weekly occurrences, and where more than once I had to call the police because of prowlers/burglars on my or a neighbor's property. Nevertheless, despite my own aversion to guns, I have no difficulties with hunting rifles and handguns kept in the home for "protection." Even less do I have a problem with riflery as a sport or of shooting clubs that people can join for hobby purposes. That does not mean, however, that restrictions cannot rightly be placed on types of weaponry or on stockpiling of such implements of death. There is simply no justification for allowing private citizens to own assault rifles and high volume drum magazines. Nor are strict background checks, waiting periods, requirements for training, or limitations on frequency and volume of purchase overly burdensome, despite what the NRA thinks. And, frankly, I cannot understand why anyone (usually, unsurprisingly, a man) thinks he must carry a concealed (or not) weapon on him while in public. Actually, I think I understand the pathology of such a felt need, but I will refrain from writing about it.
Certain facts about the good old USA need to be faced head-on. This morning I read that 15 people had been shot, four of them killed this weekend in my home city of Philadelphia. Americans love to brag that the USA is "the greatest country in the history of the world," as President George W. Bush used to say with regularity. If so, why is its murder rate so high? Specifically, why are gun-related homicides so prevalent compared to other, supposedly not-as-great countries? The statistics are staggering: the yearly firearm-related homicide rate per 100,000 people in the USA from 2004-2006 was 4.14, better than such places as South Africa, Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica, to be sure, but far worse than other industrialized nations as France (0.44), Canada (0.76), Australia (0.44), New Zealand (0.17), Germany (0.22), Ireland (0.03!), Spain (0.21), Scotland (0.19), Japan (0.02!!!), and England/Wales (0.07).
I am aware that the gun-toting Swiss likewise have a low rate (0.58), so the presence or absence of guns alone does not explain the issue entirely (the mythological American metanarrative has a lot to do with it). Nevertheless, guns make murder easier to commit, and without a shadow of a doubt easier to commit on a mass scale. In particular, I am bloody sick and tired of the specious truism that "guns don't kill people, people do." Well, of course guns, as inanimate objects, don't will to commit a crime. But guns certainly do "kill people" in that they are an efficient tool used by murderers to do their dirty deed. Claiming that guns don't kill people is the equivalent of saying that the atomic bomb didn't kill 70,000 people at Hiroshima in August of 1945. Certainly the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding, murder-deriding citizens. But some are not, and the easy availability of guns (James Holmes bought three of his weapons online with no background check, which in his case wouldn't have mattered) makes mass murder a much easier proposition than would be the case if more restrictions were on the books. It is safe to say that Holmes could not have done this vile act if the most powerful weapon he had at his disposal was a knife (even a machete). Call me "unAmerican," if you like. You won't offend me, whose only ultimate loyalty goes to the one who was murdered on my behalf and whose shed blood set me free from slavery to sin. But one thing I do know: the inconvenience of prospective gun owners and even, if necessary, the curtailment of their "right" to bear arms is small price to pay for the lives that are ruined and lost because of guns each year. Something has to be done to make sure that tragedies like the one that happened last week in Colorado happen far less frequently. Making more guns available is not the answer, and will only contribute to the cycle of violence that has gripped America and gives the lie to her self-serving claim to greatness.