December 19, 2012 by jmw
On the morning of Friday December 14th a madman attacked children in an elementary school – in Chengping, China. Fortunately, not a single human being was killed, which is probably due to the fact that he fired no semi-automatic handguns or assault rifles. The crazed man wielded only a knife. The contrast with the Newtown massacre is striking. It is not a contrast of human evil; it is a contrast between weapons and their potential for damage. Yes, my friends, the problem is guns, or, what should more appropriately be called weapons of mass destruction (maybe it’s time we give them a name worthy of their purpose?).
Personally, I have reached a tipping point. I am beyond heartbroken. I am angry and vexed. Like many of you, I spent the weekend grieving and seething with frustration. I feel trapped in a vortex of sadness and anger that continues to wash over me unexpectedly. As part of my own grieving process I have composed a series of mini essays that address various topics within this important conversation, ranging from mental illness to liberty to pro-gun solutions. If the spirit of my writing comes across as angry, pompous, or sarcastic, well, it’s because I am angry. I wrote these words with tears and passion. And while I do not mean disrespect, I do mean to strongly challenge those who do not support the restriction of ‘guns of mass destruction’ (assault weapons, semi-automatic handguns, and guns that have excessive damage potential).
In the spirit of challenging strongly, allow me to propose a scandalous moral claim: if you do not support the restriction of ‘guns of mass destruction’ then you are wrong. I am fully aware the this sounds not only arrogant but also naive, for not all morality is black and white. But it is the Liberal “greying” of morality into the status of mere opinion that imprisons us in endless debate with no moral ground to stand on. There is no movement on this issue (and others!) because there is no right or wrong, only opinions, only “political agendas”. But despite our best attempt, right and wrong still exist, and at some point our infinite pondering must crystalize into a “Yes” or a “No.” Either guns of mass destruction are moral assets or they are not. In the following essays I will argue that such weapons of murder are not moral and therefore support for their possession is wrong. I use two criterion for determining what is right and wrong. The first arises from my Christian faith (essay 1). The second arises from the Newtown tragedy itself (essay 2).
1. If Jesus is Right…
I’m going to make this debate very black and white, and I’m going to do so unapologetically. Here it is: If Jesus is Lord, then guns of mass destruction are wrong. Plain and simple. The foundational claim of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord (not Caesar, not America, not the individual, not liberty). If Jesus is the Lord to whom Christians submit, then the way of Jesus is the right way. Jesus and His kingdom is the End that we seek and toward which we aspire (“Attend the End”). When it comes to the topic of violence, Jesus makes the answer very black and white: guns do not belong in the kingdom of Lord Jesus.
Let’s get something else very clear: I am not using Jesus to push a political agenda. Jesus is a political agenda! The claim “Jesus is Lord” is itself a political claim with political ramifications. This is why Jesus warned that we cannot serve two masters; we cannot have more than one god. We cannot serve Jesus and the Second Amendment simultaneously; one of them must take a back seat. And it is the very definition of “Christian” to make everything in life submit to the Lordship of Jesus. The fact remains: you cannot interpret Matthew, Mark, Luke or John to support the kinds of weapons used in mass shootings (assault rifles, semi-automatic handguns). If Jesus is Lord, then such weapons are wrong. Period.
I am not saying that all Americans need must submit to the Christian faith. But I do get to preach to my fellow Christians because I am part of a special community called the Church. We use the Bible as one criterion for morality. And we especially look to Jesus to determine what is right or wrong. The very definition of being part of the Church is to submit to the headship (Lordship) of Christ. When it comes to weapons of violence, the teaching of Jesus is clear as day. Anyone who self-identifies as a Christian needs to seriously consider how clearly the way of Jesus contradicts the culture of guns in America. As long as Americans want “God, Guns, and Guts” then they want Barabbas, not Jesus.
If you disagree with me on this fundamental interpretation of Jesus, then you need to revisit the Gospels. If you want to fight for the right to own weapons of mass destruction, that is fine, but you don’t get to claim that Jesus is Lord. You don’t get to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!” this Christmas. You don’t get to welcome the Prince of Peace. I’m sorry, you just don’t. Pick a Lord. Choose a way. Jesus or ‘Merica. Either Jesus is Lord and guns of mass destruction are wrong, or Jesus is not Lord.
For more on the contradiction between Christianity and gun culture, see yesterday’s post over at the Slow Church blog.
2. We All Agree! Let’s Be Morally Consistent…
Whether you love guns or hate them, we can universally agree that what happened in Newtown was morally wrong. The fact that virtually every human being who has ever lived would agree reveals some kind of objective morality when it comes to the murder of the innocent. There is no bull shit “grey area” here. There is no conditional perspective from which it might be permitted. What happened in Newtown (and every other mass shooting) was and is objectively wrong. This is not an oversimplification of the matter. It is simply stating the obvious.
But if everyone and their dog can agree that such tragedies are wrong, then why do we tolerate a gun culture that produces such results? I can, in fact, claim that the current gun culture produces these kinds of tragedies because three quarters of guns used in mass shootings are obtained legally, the most common being semi-automatic handguns and assault rifles. This means that our current gun laws do not suffice to prevent what we universally agree upon as morally wrong. It is absolutely absurd that after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Wisconsin, Oregon mall, and now Newtown, not a single gun law has changed at the national level (the last thing to change was, of course, the lifting of the assault weapons ban in 2004). It is absolute foolishness that our gun laws do not align with a universally agreed upon moral ideal.
One major problem is that we limit speech and thought about morality to negative rather than positive terms. We know what it means to say “Mass shootings are wrong,” but we have no means of articulating how this morality translates in positive terms. This is precisely what MLK Jr. meant when he spoke of peace: it is not the absence of violence, but rather the presence of justice. Peace is active. Similarly, we need to figure out how to translate a universally agreed upon moral ideal into positive terms. If “mass shootings are wrong,” then what is right? If we do not want mass shootings, what do we want? How might we express in positive terms a society where mass shootings do not occur? Are we really going to stand by and do nothing but condemn tragedies one after the other? Or do we have the courage to explore what this objective morality looks like in positive terms?
What I am saying is actually quite simple: the Newtown shooting reveals that we all agree on the morality of mass shootings (they are wrong!). However, mere recognition of this morality is not enough; we must work toward achieving it. What I am arguing is that maintaining the status quo (i.e. maintaining access to guns of mass destruction) is morally wrong because it contradicts the very criterion by which the moral was determined. Put another way, those who condemn mass shootings but do not object to the environment that makes them possible are a contradiction in themselves. Rather than assess the whole picture, gun zealots would rather pick and choose what is morally culpable (e.g. the person, not the gun). This is a myopic approach to morality and it produces band-aid rather than holistic solutions. To let our universal morality have its full say, we must assess these tragedies holistically: people, culture, and guns. It is not one thing or another, it is all. To leave guns untouched is to give them a privilege that surpasses our own morality, and that is wrong.
It seems that now more than ever there is interest in changing the status quo. But, as per usual, there is a cacophony of voices arguing for all kinds of conflicting perspectives: guns are the problem; humans are the problem; mental health is the problem; a culture of violence; and so on. Perhaps the most important now is not “What?” but “When?” How soon can we change a status quo that has produced five of the worst shootings in U.S. history in the last five years.
Essay 3: Mental Health…
The entrance of mental health into the conversation is both wonderful and dangerous. It is wonderful because mental health has seemed to played a role in a number of mass shootings and it is an area that deserves more attention in our day. It is also dangerous because it serves as a potential patsy for the real problem: guns of mass destruction.
My wife works in mental health, specializing in behaviours and cognition, which means that she works with all sorts of mental disorders, including personality disorders and schizophrenia. I talked with her for some wisdom on this matter. It is her opinion that increased mental health care can help prevent tragedies such as Newtown, but is by no means a guarantee. As long as murder machines exist there will always remain potential for tragedy.
As much as you can “stabilize” a mentally ill person, there is always going to be a factor of unpredictability provided that they are living in a dynamic, unpredictable society. Even the best mental health clinicians cannot predict what stressors might cause unpredictable symptoms. When environment changes, physiology changes, etc., unforeseen stressors can produce positive symptoms (outward behaviour) of mental illness. This unpredictable change is called “decompensation” and occurs with varying frequency amongst all kinds of mental illnesses. And not only does decompensation occur, but foresight from mental health clinicians doesn’t always prevent the manifestation of positive symptoms (outward behaviour of the kind that might involve violence). The brain of someone who is, for example, schizophrenic or has a personality disorder, is more powerful than the behavioural plan or the medication s/he might be taking. Even the best mental health care might not be enough to prevent unpredictable behaviour.
What does this mean for the gun conversation? It means that there will always be unpredictable behaviour by those with mental disorders. Increased mental health care will certainly decrease erratic symptoms, but no treatment or medicine can totally “stabilize” a person with a mental illness living in a changing environment. The only way to guarantee prevention of violence is to restrict access to weapons of mass destruction. Current gun laws require background checks for those purchasing guns, but the Newtown tragedy demonstrates that such precautions are ineffective: the mass murder weapons were stolen from his mother who had purchased them legally (more on this below in essay 5).
To focus solely on mental health is to miss the forest for the trees. It will invariably lead America on a witch hunt to blame members of our community that deserve no more stigmatization than they already receive. Yesterday the CBC ran an article in which professional discussed the myth of the “loner” gunman: “There is really almost no correlation between how friendly and social someone is and how potentially violent and vengeful they are.” Again: “The worst thing for loners is to stereotype them.” Shifting the entire gun conversation onto mental health only leads to increased stigma and xenophobia.
Blaming mental illness is simply more “us” vs. “them” thinking. And it is not without irony: at least one out of every four Americans is on SSRI’s (e.g. Xanax) for a diagnosable anxiety disorder. Who are the mentally ill who don’t deserve access to assault rifles? Who is “normal?” The teen who plays Black-Ops 12 hours straight? The father who neglects his family by working 70 hours a week in order to make more money? Should we decide that people with Seasonal Affect Disorder are unfit to own a Sig Sauer? If gun advocates push America down this road they will ironically (and hypocritically) destroy the very thing that they claim to defend: freedom. The more that blame is pushed onto the mentally ill the more they will have their freedoms stripped in the form of monitoring, segregation, and stigmatization. The only thing that seems to matter to gun zealots is their freedom, not “liberty and justice for all.” Making mental health the sole culprit here is totally absurd. The danger is fundamentally access to guns of mass destruction.
Based upon her own experience, my wife would guess that up to 20% of Canadians are undiagnosed – and that’s in a society with free healthcare! In the USA, where fewer people have access to diagnosis, the rates will be the same or higher. This means that a person buying a gun can “truthfully” claim to have no mental illness simply by lack of diagnosis. Even more frightening, those with a mental illness are quite capable of appearing “normal” (i.e. not mentally ill) in order to achieve desired outcomes. Consider this in light of the fact that it is very common for mentally ill persons to be unable to distinguish between what is real and not real. The result is a potentially perfect storm for violence. The only element missing is a weapon capable of mass destruction.
The most fundamental fact about mental illness is that it is not going to go away. Even with the best of health care, we cannot have total and utter control over other people. What can go away, however, is guns of mass destruction.
Last Friday night @TeaParty_Net tweeted: “Sadly, every time there’s a terrible tragedy like the one today in #Newtown, liberal progressives see it as an opportunity to steal liberty.” If you’ve heard this once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Appeals to liberty or constitutional rights are popular in the pro-gun argument. But maybe we need to reconsider the nature of liberty before debating its application to the right to possess guns of mass destruction.
Liberty, by definition, is “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behaviour, or political views.” (Oxford American Dictionary) Like most current speech of liberty, this definition focuses on being free from restrictions. This is no doubt an important aspect to liberty, but it is not the full picture. Liberty also entails being free for. There is both a libertarian element (being free from oppression) and a teleological element (being free for a purpose). For example, if one is free from the restriction of segregated dining, she is thereby free for dining in eateries of her choosing. Another: if one is free from the restriction of listening only state-sanctioned radio, she is thereby free for listening to any radio of her choosing. Liberty is freedom from and freedom for.
In the current conversation around guns and liberty, gun advocates need to better articulate the purpose for guns of mass destruction rather than only and always appealing to the right to freedom from restriction. The Second Amendment came in to existence as the right for something, not as freedom from restriction. In the time that it was written (1791) there were concrete purposes for the liberty to own guns (e.g. to suppress government militias or other insurrections). Those purposes do not, in my opinion, translate neatly into present day America, especially when weapons have evolved beyond imagination in over 200 years. Gun advocates may still invoke the Second Amendment as a necessary liberty for the purpose of protection, but they must provide reasons for this liberty rather than simply the freedom from new laws. It is difficult to see how guns of mass destruction fit into the scenarios so frequently provided by gun advocates (e.g. someone breaking into your home). It seems to me that the liberty to own a “regular” gun for this specific purpose is well provided without the need for assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns. In other words, gun advocates must do better to articulate why guns of mass destruction are a necessary liberty.
The point I want to make about liberty is that there is no such thing as liberty without consequence. Liberty, by nature, is not the ability to choose whatever one likes without suffering the consequences of that choice. There are always consequences, especially in the form of limitation. To view liberty as the “pursuit of happiness” without restriction or consequence … is a fantasy – even when it’s “personal” or “private” (there is no such thing; we are social beings. Get over it.). Liberty is always and only the ability to choose one thing in place of others. For example, I have the liberty to choose a restaurant for lunch, but it means choosing one instead of others (if I freely choose Wendy’s then I do not get Chipotle). Every liberty means appropriating freedom for a purpose that mutually excludes or determines other possibilities.
All of this is to say: there are consequences to the liberty of owning guns of mass destruction. It is not a question of whether or not owning guns of mass destruction is a liberty, according to current law it is. The question is whether or not we are satisfied with the cost of this liberty. In the current status quo, the liberty to possess guns of mass destruction is a liberty that replaces the liberty to live in a society where mass shootings do not occur. Plain and simple.
This is why whining about “liberty” is such a joke! It is not a choice between liberty or … despotism(?). It is a choice between different liberties: guns or life. The liberty to own guns of mass destruction has shown itself to be a liberty that competes with the liberty of life itself. The foremost liberty is the freedom for life. If the dictionary definition of liberty is the freedom from oppression of one’s way of life, then surely being murdered is not liberty! If Second Amendment liberty directly competes with the liberty to life itself, then it needs to change.
Unfortunately, this will continue to fall upon deaf ears as long as Americans are dead set on “individual rights” rooted in personal desires. As Leslie Newbigin wisely writes:
“In a society which has no accepted public doctrine about the purpose for which all things and all persons exist, there is no basis for adjudicating between needs and wants. A rational person would want exactly what he or she needs to fulfill the purpose for which we exist. In the absence of a public doctrine about that purpose, the dispute between needs and wants is irresolvable.” (from Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth, 78)
And to those of you who argue religiously for your Second Amendment liberty, I have bad news: you are a pawn in a booming, billion dollar gun industry. Liberty has become nothing more than a slogan used to manipulate and generate profit. Why do you think that gun lobbyists spend millions of dollars on political campaigns? Do you think that it’s loyalty to your rights? Give me a break. It’s because they have money invested in the gun industry. Follow the money.
5. MORE Guns!!!!!
Here’s a good one: many gun fanatics think that the solution to the problem of mass murders by guns is… more guns. Apparently the 300 million guns (in a country of 311 million) isn’t enough. What we need is more guns in more places. Why? To shoot the bad guys. Duh. There are many Americans who seriously propose arming school principals and others with guns can prevent tragedies like Newtown. Here is a list of problems with this absurd solution.
1. First of all, let’s remember that arming oneself with guns in order to protect oneself is exactly what Adam Lanza’s mother did.
2. Because mass shootings occur unpredictably, every gun owner would need to carry her gun with her at all times in all places. This would mean guns being carried out to lunch, in malls, social functions, etc. Has anyone seriously thought this through?
3. Is there any guarantee that an armed principal would get to her/his gun in time? What if the principal was visiting a classroom? Would the principal need to carry the gun at all times? Has a gun ever gone off unexpectedly?
4. What if the gun jammed? There have been two shooting attempts (Oregon Mall and a recent shooting in Texas where the shooter’s gun jammed but an off-duty Sheriff’s did not). The point is that there is no guarantee that someone armed with a gun for protection will work. Should we have a back-up gun for the protection gun? Is two guns enough? Maybe three? …. ?
5. In a recent article, Mother Jones explained that civilian heroes are not very likely in situations of mass shootings. Some police force claim that it more difficult to do their job when civilians attempt to take down a shooter.
It seems that the saying “Don’t throw stones in a glass house” would well apply here. Telling Americans that people are the problem creates a very fragile society. In addition to that we don’t need more stones; we don’t need more guns. Not when their effectiveness is unproven and speculative.
6. Blaming Humans (instead of guns)…
Many gun advocates refuse to place any blame on guns and would rather place 100% of the blame on human beings. As I discussed in essay #2 above, our morality must engage these topics holistically, examining every detail, rather than picking and choosing. Gun advocates are right to blame human beings: there has never been a mass shooting without a gunman. At the same time, however, there has never been a mass shooting without a gun either. So it seems only fair that we place blame upon both people and guns, and work toward prevention on both fronts.
The “blame people” argument is not without ironies and inconsistencies. First of all, comparing guns to spoons in the famous “spoons make people fat” analogy is absurd. Apples and oranges. The outcome of spoon usage is individual obesity, not mass-induced obesity. Nobody uses gun suicides to argue for gun control. It is the mass murder of the innocent by assault weapons that calls for gun control. If one spoon (an assault spoon?) could cause 27 people to become fat then the analogy might apply, but it doesn’t. That analogy is stupid and thoughtless. Stop using it.
Secondly, placing all of the blame upon humans betrays a deep-seated unwillingness to trust fellow citizens. Those who pack heat for the sake of self-defense seem curiously convinced that they are one of the “good guys” and will be able to discern the “bad guys” as necessary. Put more simply, it betrays a deeply rooted fear of others; and the murder of Trayvon Martin is but one example of how deadly this mentality can be. But if distrust is the problem, what is the solution?
Imagine arming a bunch of kids with toy guns and then saying, “OK kids, anyone and everyone is a potential bad guy.” This mentality can only lead to a state of fear in which every person is suspected as a potential shooter. After every mass shooting we see increased suspicion and fear (like mistaking an umbrella for a gun). Studies show that the fearful brain does not process reality logically, but in a state of self-preservative fight-or-flight mode. The irony is that blaming humans destabilizes society to trust others less and less – all the while maintaining possession of guns of mass destruction.
The only way to increase trust as a nation is to persuade citizens that guns are not, in fact, getting into the hands of those who would use them for murdering others. This psychological and ethical assurance can only come through systematic regulation whereby citizens are held to higher ethical standards. But if nothing changes, then citizens have no reason to try out trusting others; there is no motivation, only fear. Until activities like the GUN SHOW LOOPHOLE are shut down, we will continue to spiral into an entropy of distrust and violence.
CONCLUSION: THE WAY OF LOVE CAN BE TRUSTED
As complicated as life can be, the way of the human is quite simple. We are here to learn together that the way of love can be trusted. It’s not rocket science. But it is demanding. It demands full participation. It demands trust and vulnerability. But, I promise you, the payoff is wroth the cost. The payoff is nothing other than fulfillment of our ultimate dream: to live peacefully together as sisters and brothers of one humanity.
“The ideology which we have to recognize, unmask, and reject is an ideology of freedom, a false and idolatrous conception of freedom which equates it with the freedom of each individual to do as he or she wishes. We have to set against it the Trinitarian faith which sees all reality in terms of relatedness. In explicit rejection of an individualism which puts the autonomous self at the center and sees other selves as limitations on our freedom, we have to set the basic dogma entrusted to us, namely that freedom is to be found by being taken into that community of love given and received which the eternal reality from which and for which all things exist.” (Leslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth, 76)