The recent shootings in Portland, Las Vegas, Seattle Pacific University and UC-Santa Barbara, among others, have reignited discussion around gun control. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the Portland shooting is the 74th school shooting since Sandy Hook. And although these high-profile cases often garner more media attention, “routine” gun violence exacts a greater toll. Consider, for instance, the four people killed and 30 wounded last weekend in Chicago.
A standard line espoused by defenders of gun rights is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This line of thinking can point to a cornerstone of good Augustinian and Kuyperian theology: abuse of something doesn’t negate proper use. But this axiom can sometimes lend itself to naïve and simplistic cultural analysis. After all, if we can just whip out this one-size-fits-all answer - it’s good, but can be abused - we will fail to make judgments about relatively better and worse cultural artifacts and practices. It is the height of naivete to assume that guns, televisions, cars or computers are merely “neutral,” to be used for good or for ill.
Every cultural artifact is created with some kind of intentionality or purpose. We often think of intentionality as purely subjective, residing in the person who is utilizing a neutral cultural artifact. But as culture makers, human beings embed intentionality in the cultural artifacts we create. We can see this when we see a new product and ask: what is it for? In asking this, we recognize that there is a purpose - intentionality - woven into the very fabric of what has been made. Guns, televisions, cars, computers - these things are not merely neutral, but are created to be used for something. Now, this inherent purpose does not negate subjective intentionality, but neither does subjective intentionality negate the objective intentionality built into our cultural artifacts.
Every cultural artifact is created with some kind of intentionality or purpose.
J.R.R. Tolkien masterfully portrays this reality in his Lord of the Rings saga. The Ring itself is forged in the fires of the will to power, and this indelibly marks how it functions. Gandalf refuses to take the Ring, noting that his own subjective intention would be for good, but that the power of the Ring itself would exert a pull and warp his good intention for evil. And let’s not forget that Frodo, the trilogy’s central figure, is no hero. Upon arriving at Mount Doom, he renounces his commitment to destroy the Ring and claims it as his own. (John Nugent points out a similar dynamic in the narrative of David and Goliath’s sword in 1 Samuel.) Providentially, the disordered desire of both Frodo and Gollum result in the destruction of the Ring. But note: the objective intentionality with which the Ring was made prevailed over subjective intentionality within Tolkien’s narrative world.
What does all of this have to do with guns? Modern (and ancient) weapons are created with purpose. They are not merely for the sake of recreation or protection, but for domination. So we should not be surprised when people use assault weapons for the purpose for which they were created: to assault others. We should not be surprised to hear President Eisenhower warn that the military-industrial complex warps us spiritually. This is why certain forms of cultural artifacts and practices are left out of the kingdom of God. In the vision of Micah, swords are not simply used for sport instead of for war. They are beaten into plowshares.
Comparing guns to baseball bats or cars misses the point. Can all of the above be used to kill? Yes. But firearms are specifically designed to kill, and therein lies the difference. In our recognition of how the will to power warps the fabric of our cultural artifacts and practices, Christians need to be wise as wizards and harmless as hobbits.