Something different happened to me Friday as I followed the breaking news about the mass murder of 26 people, 20 of them young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a shining example of small town America if ever there was one. Surely, as St. Paul exhorted the church at Rome, I mourned with those who were mourning (Rom 12:15) at such an unspeakable evil that had befallen them. Even more, I grieved for my nation, as once again we had to face the truth that we are not the virtuous nation we so like to pretend we are.
But what struck me most forcefully is that I was not surprised, as I had been about Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Tucson in 2011, or even Aurora in July of this year (for my response to the Aurora massacre, see here) by what had happened. Indeed, had such mass shootings as these, not to mention those in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh in March, Binghamton, New York in April, and at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August — remember them? — inured me to such atrocities, inoculating me, as it were, against the soul sorrow that surely ought to affect me, as a human being, in the wake of such acts of inhumanity? And that, upon reflection, made me angry, very angry indeed. Immediately I recalled the classic scene in the 1976 movie, "Network," where Peter Finch, in his last performance, delivered his famous, epic rant in which he exhorted his listeners to repeat with him, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." You see, I too am a parent of three adult children, and the grandfather of four wonderful youngsters, one of whom is likewise a first grader at an elementary school in a similar, relatively affluent suburb of Philadelphia. All I kept thinking is that this could have been she.
Listening to and reading many of the national responses to this tragedy, not to mention those on my Facebook feed, has cemented that anger. At first many piously intoned that we should not "politicize" the tragedy by speaking too quickly about gun control. Let the families and the community grieve, I heard and read ad nauseum. It didn't take too much reflection to realize that most of those repeating this line believe that any discussion about gun control would be precipitant, and that a certain amount of gun deaths are — sigh — just the price you pay for "freedom." Yet, as the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne rightly argued, now is the time to do so. Otherwise, as the event slips into the closet of our collective memory, the "right time" will, miraculously, never come.
As was to be expected, historically- and theologically-challenged right-wing "Christian" opinionators like Mike Huckabee and James Dobson have gone on record blaming the tragedy on the de-Christianizing of America ("taking God out of schools," abortion, gay marriage, etc.). Frankly, I wouldn't give a toss about anything such self-righteous men, the educated counterpart to the Pat Robertsons of the world, say if it weren't for the incalculable damage they do to the cause of the Christ I love and attempt to serve. From a more secular perspective, many (like this one I read this morning) have proposed that the best prophylactic against such tragedies is to train and arm teachers, administrators, etc. Such a proposition, to be blunt, is self-refuting lunacy. But it at least exposes the presuppositions of those who make the argument. Such presuppositions find their way, without argument, into premises of other arguments I have seen.
The classic argument always dragged out against people who desire stricter gun controls — and please note that the rhetoric of gun advocates is meant to produce paranoia by almost always equating gun control with gun banishment — is that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." Such a grammatical argument is as silly as the argument used by non-academic "educators" to the effect that "teachers teach people, not content" (do they really believe the presence of an indirect object vitiates the significance of the direct object?). Certainly guns, as an inanimate object, cannot willingly perform the action of a transitive verb like "kill." But they most certainly are the tool of choice used by actors to bring about the action denoted by the verb "kill" (in ancient Greek, "guns" would be a dative of means). And what is most relevant to the discussion is the fact that guns are a very efficient, "clean" way to enact the desired effect of bringing about death, and are the easiest way to kill multiple people. Many people brought up the mass stabbing at a school in China (here) the very same day as that of the Newtown massacre in an effort to deflect attention away from guns. "Should we, then, ban knives and baseball bats because they are used to kill as well?" is a rhetorical question I read from more than one snarky "author." Aside from the matter of the expressly designed purposes of these implements (more on this later), one should note the respective casualty lists: Newtown, 26 dead; China: 23 injured. Who is willing to bet that Adam Lanza would have produced the carnage he did had he been armed with only a switchblade or bat? I have yet to find any who would make such a foolish wager.
Two other arguments I read on multiple occasions are these: (1) guns aren't the problem, sin and evil are; government-enacted gun control won't accomplish anything because it doesn't get to the root of the problem; and (2) we should focus less on gun control and more on the "mental illness" that ostensibly caused Lanza to commit his crimes. Both of these arguments involve the classic logical fallacy of the false dilemma. I will deal with them in reverse order. First, one can assume that Adam Lanza was mentally disturbed. All of us are sinners, after all, but the urge to commit mass murder against innocent people comes to very few of us, no matter the legitimacy or otherwise of the grievances we may have against our parents or society as a whole. Furthermore, only an insensitive boor would claim that enough is being done in our society to aid people with mental and emotional problems (as an aside, one wonders how we as a nation could do so with our individualistic and capitalistic proclivities; someone would have to pay for such treatments). Some indeed have pointed to Lanza's diagnosed case of Asberger's Syndrome. But to attribute his murderous rage to such a form of Autism would be precarious indeed. More to the point, however, is the fact that such a mentally unstable person had such easy access to firearms, courtesy of his now late gun-loving mother, who kept the fully loaded Bushmaster assault rifle at home where Lanza lived. At the very least something must be done to limit access of such people to these guns. As it is, Lanza's mother obtained her weapons legally. Well, such laws as we have them are not enough, and we must do whatever is in our power to make them harder to come by.
With regard to the first argument, we must affirm that of course sin is the most basic issue, and that as long as sin reigns in the world murders will take place. But how does this negate the potential beneficial effects of gun control? It is especially ironic that this is an argument used by many of my conservative Christian acquaintances who, if they are theologically informed, subscribe to the notion of common grace (i.e., favor shown by God to the world as a whole in contradistinction to the saving favor he bestows on the elect/believers). One such manifestation of common grace is the establishment of human government (Rom 13 is a classic text here). Laws enacted by government certainly won't, and can't, change the sinful human heart, but — and this is the important bit — human-enacted legislation can serve to mitigate the harmful effects of human sinfulness. Indeed, the assertion that gun control wouldn't have any effect on the incidence of such atrocities is contradicted by the evidence of such other countries as Australia and the UK (see here). It never ceases to amaze me how gun advocates get away with the argument that gun control must stop all gun crime or else it isn't effective. That is an unmitigated example of what Vice-President Joe Biden would have referred to as "malarkey." As long as gun control saves even one life, it is worth it. And the experience of other Western nations suggests that the savings in terms of human lives are well worth the "cost" of limiting our country's greatest idol, "freedom."
What is needed, more than anything else, is same discussion about guns and their role in American society. Indeed, as a result of relentless lobbying and propaganda from the National Rifle Association (and their enablers among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress), this is almost impossible today. As columnist Garry Wills, in the most penetrating analysis of the Newtown massacre I have read, has argued, the gun is a sort of "secular god" to which reverence is accorded, and which therefore has become somewhat immune to rational analysis (brilliantly, he compares the gun to the ancient Canaanite god Moloch to whom, according to Leviticus 20:1-5, children were sacrificed).
Why should guns be accorded such respect and (in reality) reverence? Gun advocates usually use two arguments for guns. The first is the myth that guns are useful for protection. Indeed, this is the usual argument used by people in my acquaintance who want to buy a gun to keep in their homes. But the facts belie such naive optimism. As the New England Journal of Medicine has demonstrated, gun ownership in the home increases one's odds of violent death, and increases in gun ownership within a population increases crime rates. Of course, common sense would also tell us such things, but prejudices are strangely immune to facts.
The second argument, built on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, is one based on "rights." In one of the delicious ironies of modern times — or, in this case, an irony that tastes like rutabagas and two-day old steak and kidney pie — it is a Supreme Court that ostensibly believes in "strict constructionism" that has ignored the contextual limitation of the "right to bear arms" to that of a "well-regulated (state) militia" and made that right, for all practical purposes, universal and decontextualized.
If one asks what is so precious about this "right," one usually brings up four matters: (1) protection (see above); (2) the ability of the citizenry to resist tyrannical government; (3) hunting; and (4) the love of target practice. Once again, I find it highly ironic that so many "Christians" cite the second argument in light of St. Paul's clear teaching about submission to government authorities (Rom 13; see my post here) and Jesus' rejection of the "zealotic" impulse in his day to resist Rome with the force of arms on the "patriotic" ground that they, as Jews, had no king but Yahweh. Simply put, the argument of the right to armed resistance is not an option for a Christian. On the other hand, hunting per se is not a problem, at least hunting for food (and no one, right wing fantasists' fears notwithstanding, is calling for a confiscation of hunting rifles), though I have severe moral qualms against the hunting of animals for sport.
But what gets closer to the heart of the issue is the matter of shooting pistols and even so-called "assault weapons" for target practice, especially as so many of the targets are shaped in the form of a human body. I often ask why, if target practice is one's pleasure and sport is one's intention, gun enthusiasts don't simply take up archery instead. The answer is obvious, is it not? Guns give the shooter the desired sense of power that a bow and arrow simply can't. And this intersects, quite obviously, with testosterone-fueled male aggression. If you think I am exaggerating, check out the following advertisement for the very gun used by Adam Lanza in Friday's attack, brought to my attention by the Philadelphia Daily News's Will Bunch:
Such pandering to the American male's macho insecurities is offensive. Even more offensive is the fact that American "masculinity" is defined by so many in these terms. Most offensive of all is that such macho perceptions undergird the worldview of so much teaching about "biblical manhood" that bears little resemblance to the sort of masculinity embodied by the Messiah who, having modeled the practice of nonresistance and been murdered on a Roman cross, was enthroned as Lord at his resurrection the third day. And it is to the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth that, as St. Paul says, every knee will one day bow (Phil 2:11).
Guns, in contrast to knives, baseball bats, and other potentially dangerous implements of human destruction, have but one purpose: to kill. That is the only thing they are good for. The ultimate issue thus boils down to this: Is the right to kill a sufficient reason to do nothing about the epidemic of gun-related deaths in America? For the life of me, I cannot understand why this "right" is considered so "precious" by so many in this country of ours. Every other so-called "civilized" country in the world, be it Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan, and countless others, does not have to live with the epidemic of gun violence that we have to in America. And the difference in rates of gun deaths is exponential. Yet so many in America continue to live in the delusion that we are "the greatest country in the history of the world." Well, if we would look at the evidence with clearer and less biased eyes, we would realize that such a claim is ridiculous, that we are "exceptional" only in our violence, and that we are not indeed a civilized nation by any reasonable standard by which "civilization" can be gauged.
Yes, I am mad, "as mad as hell," to quote Peter Finch's Howard Beale. I am sick and tired of guns, and I am sick and tired of specious arguments used to defend them and thwart meaningful regulation of them. I am angry that our political leaders do not have the cajones (pardon my Spanish) to ban the public from such weaponry as was used by Adam Lanza to end the lives of 26 precious human beings last Friday in Newtown. "Conservatives" love to scold criminals and societal deadbeats for their emphasis on "rights" to the exclusion of their "responsibilities" to others. Well, I have news for them. All of us, by our tacit approval of America's barbaric gun culture, have failed in our responsibilities to those children and heroic educators that lost their lives last week. And, make no mistake about it, we as a "civilization" will be held accountable for it.
Gun control must be on the table. It must be discussed relentlessly until the tide of murderous violence recedes, if only a little. Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, it will not succeed entirely. But it must be attempted. As it is, as Will Bunch has rightly said, unreasonable gun advocates like NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre (see here) have the blood of those 26 victims on their hands. I might add, if we as a society don't do anything about it, tacitly allowing bullies like LaPierre and his unthinking followers to have their way, we will have the blood of future massacre victims on our hands as well.