Guns and Christianity

The Bible is a very long and complex book.  It is well worth the effort, though.  Not only does it have plenty of fascinating and insightful material on its own, it is the primary source of religious knowledge for all Christians.  Any serious scholar of religion knows that there are right and wrong ways of reading the Bible.  It isn’t a text book, interpretation is a necessary part of the experience.  But, not any old interpretation will do.  If someone says that Moses was never allowed into the Promised Land because Jews aren’t worthy, that person is reading it wrong.

For Christians, there are a few things to keep in mind.  The New Testament trumps the Old Testament (aka the Hebrew Bible).  The sayings of Jesus trump everything else.  And Jesus often spoke metaphorically.  Here are some examples:  The Old Testament lays out the conditions and procedures for a couple to divorce.  The New Testament specifically says that remarriage after divorce is committing adultery.  So, it doesn’t matter, for Christians, what the Old Testament said, divorce and remarriage are not allowed.  Peter and Paul never contradict anything Jesus said.  It’s not like Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” and then one of the Pauline Epistles starts with, “Well, actually. . .”  And when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he is not talking about somehow squeezing a camel into a tiny hole (or enlarging the hole to the size of a camel).  It is a metaphor.  It is saying that the moral pitfalls that confront the wealthy are very difficult (or impossible) to avoid.

The Bible is naturally silent on the issue of guns since guns hadn’t yet been invented when the Bible was written and made canonical.  That, however, doesn’t mean we cannot glean what Jesus would have us do with the issue.  This gets into a somewhat tricky area, it becomes kind of a, “What would Jesus do,” scenario.  But, there is a pretty good way to look at the issue from a Christian perspective.

Basically, we just have to decide what it is that guns are for, and then figure out what Jesus says about those activities.  We should set aside the government’s use of guns (military and police) since separation of church and state precludes using the Bible to legislate, and the personal moral question is much more interesting.  So, what do regular people use guns for?  There is sport, hunting, protection from nature, self-defense, crime, protection from the government and collecting.  Most of these are pretty obvious.  Sport, hunting, protection from nature and collecting all seem OK.  I can’t think of any relevant Biblical passages that comment on these things, and certainly not in a way that would ban them (perhaps the Kosher laws would have something to say about hunting as it circumvents the proper method of slaughter, but Christians normally believe that Jesus created a new covenant, making the Kosher laws unnecessary anyway).  Crime is simply not allowed.  Both the Old and New Testaments agree that crime is bad.  They may not always agree about what constitutes a crime, but we can all agree that Jesus would not allow guns for criminal activity.

That leaves just two reasons for owning a gun that might be difficult to know what Jesus would want us to do, self defense and protection from the government.  But these aren’t really hard at all.  The quote above about rendering unto Caesar goes a long way towards answering the protection from the government reason.  If we combine it with one of the most famous passages in the whole Bible, both of these reasons are non-starters for Christians:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Many would say that this passage is the single most important Christian teaching.  And according to this teaching, self defense is wrong.  We must love our enemies, not fight back against them.  So, it seems that someone who wishes to follow the teachings of Jesus cannot own a gun for self defense or for protection from the government.

We shouldn’t make too much of this.  This isn’t a claim for government action or morality in general.  It is simply a look at the some of the more famous sayings of Jesus and how they apply to the gun debate.  If a person is really interested in being a Christian, then hand guns, automatic weapons, semi-automatic weapons, high capacity magazines, armor piecing ammo, etc., are all impermissible since their only uses are self defense or protection from the government (or crime).  It’s interesting how many of the loudest and proudest Christians seem to value their guns more than their faith.

Guns and Mental Illness

As I stated in yesterday’s post, after a mass shooting, there are always people who say that guns aren’t the problem, mental illness is the problem.  This bothers me because it is just a smokescreen used to prevent any real discussion of the real issues.  But it also bothers me for deeper reasons.

Very generally, it bothers me that we distinguish between health, mental health, dentistry and optometry.  I can’t see any good reason why a broken leg and cancer are medical problems, but a toothache, blindness and schizophrenia are different and handled by separate fields and might or might not be covered by insurance.  They are all health problems and should be treated as such.

Mental health in particular is not only treated differently by doctors and insurance companies, it is perceived differently by the general public.  As a result, when people talk about mental illness as a cause of gun violence, they are really talking about a caricature of a person with a mental health issue rather than the reality of people with mental health issues.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, suffer from a mental illness.  This is just like the fact that most of us, at some point in our lives, suffer from a physical illness.  All it really means is that, just like from time to time our bodies don’t function quite like they should, from time to time our minds don’t function quite like they should.  In both cases, it is usually not serious, there is no need to see a doctor.  With a bit of down time, we make a full recovery.  And, in both cases, there are times when it is serious and requires medical intervention.  And, again in both cases, there are in between cases.  These are cases where we would recover without a doctor’s help, but it would take longer with more suffering.  So, hopefully we have access to a doctor in the in between cases so we don’t suffer needlessly.

This really does matter when talking about mass shootings.  Blaming them on mental illness does several things.  First, it helps stigmatize mental illness.  That, in turn, can make people who need help avoid talking to their doctors.  Second, it vilifies something that is quite common, if not ubiquitous.  Mental illness is a huge blanket category.  It’s so big that it isn’t helpful as a descriptive cause of anything.  Third, it makes us both paranoid and amateur psychiatrists.  We’ve probably all known someone who has openly speculated about an acquaintance being a murderer just because that acquaintance is a little odd.  Even in jest, that kind of speculation isn’t good for anyone.

The worst thing, though, about this talk of mental illness in relation to guns is that it tries to create a separate class of people, a class who is not equal under the law.  In the US, we are famously innocent until proven guilty.  This is one of the things that Americans are most proud of.  We talk about it all the time.  It’s part of what we think makes America great.  It pretty obviously follows from this idea that we are innocent before any crime has been committed.  But, people would have us make sure that guns are kept out of the hands of the mentally ill.  Aside from the practical problem that almost all of us are mentally ill at some point, this viewpoint is saying that peaceful, non-threatening, law abiding citizens should be kept from exercising a Constitutional right* because they have an illness.  What’s next?  People with glaucoma can be forced to incriminate themselves?  Paraplegics aren’t allowed to peaceably assemble?  This is scapegoating at its worst and decidedly un-American.

Please keep this in mind the next time someone tries to confuse the debate about guns with a debate over mental health.  There are myriad problems with our healthcare system, including the way we treat mental illness.  I would love to seem them fixed.  But, they have nothing to do with guns or mass shootings.


*I really wish that gun ownership was not a Constitutional right, but it is.  Unfortunately, that’s what the Supreme Court has done to us with their idiotic interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  If we lived in a sane country, one where guns ownership wasn’t a protected right, then we could easily prevent people with certain mental illnesses from owning guns.  It would be just like preventing the blind from driving cars.  If we ever get to that world, I’d be happy to discuss which mental illnesses would disqualify a person for gun ownership (it wouldn’t be many).  Until then, the only thing that can prevent a person from exercising a Constitutional right is being convicted of a fairly serious crime.

Guns Again, Naturally

There was another mass shooting yesterday at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.  I was going to write about it yesterday, but I was too sad and angry.  I read that this is the 45th school shooting this year.  That is shocking to me.  I had only heard about a few of those.  Apparently school shootings only become newsworthy if at least five people die.  I’m still sad and angry.  I think the reason I can write about it now is reading the all too predictable reactions to the tragedy have made me even angrier.  The two reactions* that have really made me angry are the one about people being too quick to politicize the tragedy and the one about mental illness being the real cause.

There are many problems with the statement that it is too soon to politicize the massacre.  First of all, the statement itself is a political statement, so the person saying it sounds like a hypocrite.  Also, it has the effect of minimizing the tragedy.  Ten people died, but let’s all worry about etiquette.  Besides, what is the etiquette anyway?  Is it a longer waiting period the worse the tragedy or is it shorter?  Was Lincoln too quick to politicize the attack on Fort Sumter?  Was Roosevelt too quick to politicize Pearl Harbor?  How about Bush with 911?  You may counter that those were different, The United States was being attacked.  But, this was an attack, too.  And a lot more people have been hurt and killed by gun crime than all three of my examples put together.  There is simply no such thing as being too quick to politicize a shooting.  It was politicized before it ever happened.  In many ways it was politics that allowed it to happen.  And, sadly, it will take politics to stop it in the future.

The mental illness talk makes me even angrier than the people who don’t want it politicized.  Depending on who is using it, it is either a non sequitor or a red herring.  It’s the verbal equivalent of yelling, “Look over there!” and then running out of the room rather than engaging with the real issue.  Mental illness certainly isn’t a special problem that we suffer from in the States.  It is a problem all over the world.  But shootings are a special problem that we deal with in the States.  Here’s a quote from John Stuart Mill, “If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance save one in common, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or cause, or a necessary part of the cause, of the phenomenon.”  According to this Method of Difference, mental illness cannot be the cause.  Since shootings like this only happen in The United States, the thing that is different in The United States must be the cause.  And that thing is guns.

So, I very much want people to talk about this.  It is a tragedy, but the best way to honor the victims is to learn and try to prevent it from happening again.  That means we should all want the politicians talking about it, too.  But, at the same time, we want them talking about the real issue, guns, openly and honestly.  Only then will we stand a chance of progressing.


*I have a very strong hunch that the people trying to make a religious issue out of this shooting will make me furious, but I don’t have enough information yet to know for sure.

National Gun Violence Awareness Day

Today, June 2nd, is the first National Gun Violence Awareness Day.  According to the official website, wearorange.org,

The color orange symbolizes the value of human life. Hunters wear orange to alert other hunters that they’re there — as a way to take care of their own life and the lives of others. A couple of years ago, teens on the South Side of Chicago asked their classmates to wear orange in honor of a friend who was shot and killed. Now, we’re amplifying their call to action and turning orange into a symbol for the value of human life everywhere.

These types of events are not really my style, but I have to admit that I’m intrigued by this one.

The reason I say these types of events are not my style is that I’m never quite sure what awareness does.  It’s impossible to not be aware of the rampant gun violence in America.  It is all over the news every day.  If anything, the ceaseless gun violence makes us numb to the problem.  I don’t know if it is possible to be over-aware, but sometimes I feel over-aware.

The reason I’m intrigued by National Gun Violence Awareness Day is that it kind of reminds me of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  M.A.D.D. started when I was a kid.  I didn’t understand it at the time.  I remember seeing the commercials and hearing the presentations in elementary school.  My friends and I would make jokes.  We weren’t old enough to drink or to drive, so we couldn’t figure why they were wasting their time talking to us about drinking and driving.  But, relatively quickly everyone had seen these messages and attitudes started to change.  People who had never seen the inside of a bar knew what designated drivers were.  People used to see drunken driving as a youthful indiscretion.  After M.A.D.D., drunk drivers were seen as scumbags.  And, M.A.D.D. almost cut drunk driving fatalities in half.

When it comes to gun violence, argument simply cannot change things.  All of the facts are on the side of sensible gun control, but that doesn’t help.  The only way things will get better is if there is real social change.  Society needs to start seeing the people who are irresponsible with their guns as the scumbags they really are.  I think wearorange.org may be able to help do that.  I wore orange today.  I hope you did, too.

Rights Are Often Wrong – Part Two

In part one of this post, I talked about how difficult it is to use rights as the basis of an argument and proposed some ways we can make the discussions involving rights more fruitful.  Now, I’m going to talk about what got me thinking about this in the first place, guns.  There are two things specifically.  One is that I often hear the phrase “gun rights” and I find it odd.  The other is that guns are one of the most talked about issues in America, but almost none of the talk has any actual substance.

When people talk about gun rights, what do they mean?  The phrase sounds to me like they mean that guns have rights, kind of like when people say animal rights or human rights.  I’m sure, though, that that isn’t what people mean.  How could an inanimate object made by people have rights?  What is probably meant is that people have rights that are directly tied to guns.  This still seems odd to me.  Guns just seem too specific.  What is special about guns that gives them this connection to rights?  They are tools, but no one talks about tool rights or hammer rights.  They are weapons, but no one talks about weapon rights or sword rights.  The same is true of the other things that they are, technology, artefacts, etc.  None of the broad categories are tied to rights, and no other specific instances of those things have their own rights.  So, why guns?*

My best guess is that guns are symbolic.  They are intimately involved in American mythology from James Fennimore Cooper’s Hawkeye to Davy Crockett to Dirty Harry.  There’s just something very American about guns.  I think for many people, owning a gun is an act of patriotism.  Then there is the perceived power, protection and security that people associate with guns.  These are partly tied to self defense, but also tied to status.  I can see how someone who believes that guns confer power, protection and security would feel diminished without their guns.

I can see where the gun rights people are coming from, but I think it is a mistake to talk about rights because of the symbolism tied to guns.  For many people, setting off fireworks is an act of patriotism, but I have never heard of anyone advocating fireworks rights.  Money gives people power, protection and security, but people aren’t discussing money rights (at least not in this sense).  Adding rights to the conversation only makes the conversation more difficult and confusing.  Talk of rights adds an appearance of sacredness to any discussion.  Once something is sacred, there is no room for compromise.  And if there is no room for compromise, there can be no progress.

Instead of fighting, we should look for common ground.  No one thinks gun violence is a good thing.  There are certainly things that can be done that everyone can agree to.  Before we can get there, though, the gun owners need to stop feeling threatened.  No one is trying to take your guns.  No one is being singled out.  And the anti-gun people need to be respectful and open minded.  Just like it is in the NFL’s best interest to really do something about their domestic violence problem, it is in the gun owners’ best interest to promote gun safety.  And the anti-gun camp needs to realize that just like perfect agreement is impossible, their idea of a perfect solution is impossible.  Then, the conversation can actually start.

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*I’m not going to talk about the Second Amendment here.  My concern isn’t what the Constitution says or how the Supreme Court has interpreted it.  I am trying to understand both sides of the debate and see if there is a way to talk constructively about it.

Logic 101 – Guns

This post is actually a little hard.  I say actually because it should be easy.  It should be easy because I have literally never seen a good argument against gun control.  But, that is what also makes it hard.  There are just so many bad arguments, I don’t even know where to begin.  And, let’s face it, this would run to about a million pages if I tried to tackle all of the bad arguments.

I mentioned that I have never run across a good argument against gun control.  I do realize that that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good argument.  It just means I haven’t seen it.  I didn’t mention this in my other logic posts, although it applies, but if you know a good argument, feel free to share it.

In fact, since I’ve never run across a good argument against gun control, and since the bad arguments have been covered in many other places, I’m going to focus on the premises.  I think with a little reflection, we can see that pro gun arguments fall into certain well documented fallacies.  They are slippery slopes (If you ban grenade launchers, of course it’s just a matter of time before you ban my antique musket.), appeals to tradition (Guns are a way of life.), appeals to authority (The Second Amendment, etc.), false analogies (Cars are more dangerous.), ad hominems (Nancy Pelosi is for gun control.), and non sequiturs (Hitler banned guns.).  There are others, but these are probably the most common ones you hear.

There are a few premises that I find fascinating because they are so nonsensical.  The first of those is, “If you ban guns, then only criminals will have guns.”  Sounds scary, right?  But, it makes no sense at all.  If they ban guns, they wouldn’t ban guns only from law abiding citizens.  They would ban guns.  It would be just as hard for criminals to get guns as it would be for everyone else.  I’m guessing that the people who make this argument are making an implicit connection to the drug trade.  Since drugs are illegal and people still use them, then if guns were illegal, people would still get them.  How would this work, though?  You can’t just grow a gun like marijuana.  You can’t cook a gun in your basement like crystal meth.  You need a factory or smith skills that go way beyond regular people.  So, will the angry guy in a fight run down to his local firearms manufacturer, break in, steal some guns, and return to the fight to shoot someone?  Will pimps start breaking into police stations to secure their guns to keep their prostitutes in line?  Will anyone break into an army base to steal their assault weapons?  I’m not saying that the mafia couldn’t find a way.  I’m saying that for any criminal outside of sophisticated organized crime rings it would be very difficult to get guns.  The meth head that knocks over a 7-11 for some cash would no longer have access to a gun.  The petty thief would no longer have access to guns.  If the only criminals with guns were organized crime, that’s not so bad.  Firstly, because organized crime is organized.  They are not partaking in random acts of violence.  And secondly, if the mob wants to get you, having a gun for self-defense isn’t going to help much anyway.

My guess is that people who believe this argument will point to the recent news about making guns with 3D printers.  Anyone can do it in their own home.  But, in order to make a gun with a 3D printer, you need the printer, the printing materials and plans.  There is no reason why a ban on guns couldn’t include a ban on 3D printer plans for making guns.  If you got fined or arrested for downloading plans and printing a gun, most people wouldn’t do it.  And that leads to the other problem with this type of argument.  The idea that since the law cannot be enforced perfectly, we should not have a law.  It is a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good.  Just because we can’t stop every person who uses child pornography, should we legalize child pornography?  Just because we can’t stop everyone from running red lights, should we get rid of red lights?  Of course some people will get away with doing illegal things.  That is no argument for keeping those things legal.  If we were to ban guns, far fewer people would have guns.  Far fewer bad guys would have guns.  The police and military would still have guns.  So, in fact, the good guys with guns would far outnumber the bad guys with guns.

Having said all of that, no one is suggesting a complete ban on guns.  That is another premise that drives me crazy.  All of the legislation that is being talked about is similar.  The legislation would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  And the legislation would prevent criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses from getting guns.  No one wants to ban hunting rifles or hand guns.  No one wants to prevent regular, mentally stable, law-abiding citizens from buying a gun.  No one wants to take away the guns that people already own.  There is no logical fallacy here.  This is a simple lie.  By inserting the lie that the government is trying to take our guns into the argument, the argument is invalidated.

For Shame

There’s a funny thing about human beings.  Rationality is only one of many factors in our decision-making and often it is not one of the most important factors.  If it were, there would be no gun control debate.  All of the available evidence points to a safer, happier and freer society when guns are restricted.  But, for people who don’t see this, no amount of arguing will change their minds.  We can’t count on politicians to change things. Politicians are mostly very cautious.  They just don’t make courageous, unpopular decisions.  So, how does anything ever change?  The best tool at our disposal is shame.

I know people usually think of shame as a bad thing.  However, like anything else, shame is not bad in and of itself.  It is only bad when misused.  When a crime victim is made to feel shame, that is bad.  When the mentally ill are made to feel shame, that is bad.  But, when someone has done wrong, that person should feel shame.  It is the best way to get people to correct their behavior.  If bullies felt shame, that would be good.  If shoplifters felt shame, that would be good.  If we truly want change, we need to shame the people who fail to see reason.

Look at the civil rights movement.  Politicians did not wake up, see the light and decide to change things.  Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and many others shamed our country into action.  It is clear that we need something similar now.  We need Representative Giffords and the poor, innocent people who attended her speech to be gun control’s Jackie Robinson.  We need the poor, innocent people who just wanted to see a movie in Aurora, Colorado to be gun control’s Rosa Parks.  And, we need the poor, innocent children and their caregivers in Newtown, Connecticut to be gun control’s Martin Luther King.

We need to show that we are better than this.  We can no longer let the NRA and their supporters have their say and respond with, “Well, they’re entitled to their opinion.” Every time we hear that garbage, we need to remind them that it is garbage.  We need to remind them of the poor, innocent lives that we have lost.  We need to remind them that the only way to bring sense to senseless tragedy is to do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again.  Since they have done wrong, we need to shame them. Getting them to feel shame is our only hope for change.