Is gun control a religious issue?

Of all the controversies that have followed in the wake of Friday's shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo., in which a well-armed James E. Holmes is alleged to have killed 12 people, few have provided such a clarifying insight into the moral tensions and contradictions in American culture than the argument over whether gun control is a religious issue.

The Rev. James Martin, a popular author and Jesuit priest, was among the first to set out the terms of the debate when he penned a column at America magazine arguing that gun control "is as much of a 'life issue' or a 'pro-life issue' ... as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty (all of which I am against)."

Martin's central point was that abortion opponents spare no effort to try to shut down abortion clinics or to change laws to limit or ban abortions, so clearly believers should be committed to taking practical steps to restrict access to guns.

"Simply praying, 'God, never let this happen again' is insufficient for the person who believes that God gave us the intelligence to bring about lasting change," Martin wrote. "It would be as if one passed a homeless person and said to oneself, 'God, please help that poor man,' when all along you could have helped him yourself."

The debate is as intense today as it has been after every gun massacre, but it hasn't changed the dynamics of the issue for believers or politicians. It may not this time either. Within hours of posting his views about gun control on Facebook, Martin had to shut down comments on the page because of the vitriol his views provoked.

Still, the Jesuit's view was echoed by an array of religious voices and groups who also called on Christians and other believers to advocate for policies to curb gun violence, with some putting the exhortation in an explicitly anti-abortion context.

"It's time to say that unregulated availability of assault weapons is clearly anti-life," said Sherry Anne Weddell, co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It's time for pro-life people to take a stand."

The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life and an anti-abortion activist generally associated with the religious right, made a similar point:

"Anyone concerned about protecting human life has to be concerned about the misuse of guns, and of anything else that can become a weapon against the innocent," Pavone said.

There has been a vigorous counterargument, however, that followed two main tracks. One was to resist any public policy prescriptions and debates as beside the point, or worse, to see them as an inappropriate "political" exploitation of a tragedy. The second was to see the gun-control debate as a distraction from a spiritual and theological focus.

As Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, wrote in an essay on Monday, "we are kidding ourselves if we think we have within our national grasp an educational or psychological or political solution to evil. There is no solution or explanation for evil."

A number of other prominent conservative Christians, like Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, took that view a step further and argued that it wasn't just the mystery of evil, but also the nation's self-inflicted spiritual wounds that led to the massacre.

"We don't have a crime problem, or a gun problem, or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem," Huckabee said on his Fox News show on Sunday. "And since we've ordered God out of our schools and communities, the military and public conversations, you know, we really shouldn't act so surprised when all hell breaks loose."

What Do You Think?

  • What is a Christian argument for stronger gun control?
  • What is a Christian argument for relaxed laws regarding firearms?
  • How can one theologically “explain” a tragedy such as the recent shooting in Colorado?

David Gibson blogs at Commonweal magazine and has written two books on Catholic topics, including a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. This piece published via Religion News Service. / Photo of James E. Holmes courtesy of Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office.

Comments (6)

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This is an interesting point, one that touches on an issue I’ve been wrestling with.  How are Christians to go about causing change?  One conclusion I’ve come to is that you cannot force change.  If you pass laws all you do is make it go underground, and in the case of guns that simply means criminals will still have them and law abiding citizens won’t.  As a Franciscan I try and live by the idea of if you don’t like what people are doing, do it better.  That’s how Christianity survived the early years under Rome.  They did it better, and that drew people to them and their way of life.  If you force people to live under your beliefs, all you do is cause resentment and that does nothing to build up the body of Christ.

How do you take abortion, a medical procedure by which one human life is ended simply for the convenience and comfort of another and stack that up with gun control. The logic of the comparison is fuzzy at best.
If you stop one abortion, you have saved a life. It is a one for one direct correlation. There is no up side to abortion and the only liberty you would be infringing upon is the license to kill an unborn child.
Gun control is not even close to a direct one for one result. Curbing the average person’s access to firearms may or may not result in saving a life. Perhaps by restricting someone’s ability to defend themselves you give a bad person the ability to take an innocent person’s life. For the potential of stopping a gun related homicide you infringe on the rights of millions to own firearms which may be used for hunting, recreational sport shooting or self defense. There are many up-sides to gun ownership.
Even if I was for gun control, I would not support this association with restricting abortion access. It is emotionally manipulative, unnecessarily inflammatory and simply bad thinking.
If you want to support gun control from a Christian perspective, you have to do much better than that.

Unfortunately if this guy wanted to go into a theater and do as he did, I’m not sure it is something that can be stopped. Look at who he was. Must screening for any kind of gun control would have passed him with flying colors. Government can’t police people all the time or we start looking more like George Orwell’s book, 1984.

And it seems, at least in this situation, stiffer punishment isn’t the answer either because I don’t believe this guy cares if he is given the death penalty for this shooting.

Perhaps the only thing that would have maybe stopped this one from happening is if we had already stopped broadcasting to the world every little bit if information about the shooting in the media.

Take the example from baseball. When, Morganna, the Kissing Bandit, ran out on the field several times. What does the media do now? They don’t show the situation on TV anymore. All they do is announce the delay in game and the fines involved with people running on to the field. I’m not sure if this has completely stopped it, but it has reduced the number of people that are doing it for their 15 minutes of fame.

Perhaps we need to take our cue from that and do the same for shootings?
I don’t think stiffening the gun laws will make a difference. If someone wants to get a gun, they will do whatever it takes to get one.

And I don’t think relaxing the laws will help anything either. That’s just inviting more people to have access to guns that might not need to have access to them.

And as far as how theologically explains a tragedy such as the recent shooting in Colorado, I guess I would just say free will.

People wonder all the time where evil comes from. I say it’s because we, as humans, have been given this great gift of free will. What we do with this free will is up to us. If we choose to do good, then everyone benefits. If we choose to do bad, then some people might also get hurt. But the great part of free will is that it allows us as humans to be responsible for our own actions. It allows us to choose what is right or wrong. And because of this free will we also have the opportunity to choose God. Which in reality is ultimately why God gave us the free will. So that we can choose Him. If not, they we are all just robots and that doesn’t show love.
Yes, free will does introduce evil and hate and death into our lives. But without it, we wouldn’t live.

I say leave the gun control to the politicians who want to waste time discussing something that isn’t going to fix free will. And us, as Christian’s continue to speak out for better morals in our schools and in our country. Perhaps at some point we can make a difference. And if we can’t perhaps we should just be ready for when Jesus does come back. 1000 years of peace is going to happen. But until then, lets be calm and carry on.

As a Brit, I fail to see any of the pro-gun logic. On a purely statistical level, it is simple enough to see that countries which respond to gun massacres by restricting access to guns have less massacres. And the whole “only criminals will have guns argument” falters since there is no evidence from any country that restricting access to guns makes people less vulnerable, quite the opposite, in fact.

As for theologising this, I would just want to ask one question: can Christians square the Biblical exortation to love others (especially our enemies) with the possession of an object which has the sole purpose of ending life? If life is sacred then that applies even to the worst of our enemies, even to those who attack us.

Now, none of that precludes self-defence and there is probably a theological argument to be made for Christians knowing how to safely and non-fatally defend themselves and their families. Still, I would say that there is a clear case for Christians to work for peace at all levels - including reducing access to objects created to end life - guns, missiles, bombs and the rest.

Christians who have some sort of “can’t be helped” response to gun deaths are deliberately ignoring the fact that the US suffers more gun violence and a higher rate of gun deaths than the rest of the developed world. Presumably, there are sinners in other countries too.

Huckabee and others are all about using legislation to control abortion. Wonder why they can’t see that limiting magazine size, having serious permit procedures, closing gun show loopholes, promoting smart gun technology etc.—will reduce gun violence. We won’t stop it all, but losing 30,000 people each year to guns is appalling, and leaves the rest of the world shaking its head in disbelief.

Responding to the title of this article, “Is gun control a religious issue?”, I would answer “yes,” but then all issues are religious issues, as is essentially expressed by by the sub-title of this website (“no such thing as secular”).

To equate the “gun control” issue with the “abortion” issue, though, even if both are “religious issues,” is to equate an apple to an orange or pear, or perhaps even with a donkey.  They are not equatable in a very fundamental conceptual way: one necessarily involves a specific intention to do an act that kills a human being; the other does not.  That’s a pretty big difference.

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