The biggest problem afflicting the debate over how to prevent gun violence is the tendency among the debaters to approach the issue as a contest between themselves and their ideological enemies–a contest that must be won. In the drive to win the culture war–or the war’s latest battle–they neglect to take the crucial first step that should always precede all fights: make sure those they’re fighting are truly their enemies. Failure to do this is always catastrophic, because people who would be allies if they took the time to ascertain each other’s sincere interests, instead end up transforming those would-be friends into opponents. Unnecessary fighting and strife result from this, of course, and the solutions become all the more unattainable. But what’s worse, the combatants all too often end up abandoning the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ which they purport to hold dear in order to defend far less valuable turf.
Clearly, the Lord respected and honored the right and the necessity to protect against robbers and thieves, and against broader threats to our safety and freedoms. He spoke of them in his teachings. See John 10:1-3, Luke 10: 30 and 12:33, 39. In the Book of Mormon, we read in Alma 46 of Moroni, a man of God so determined to defend his people’s wives, children and freedom against Amalickiah’s forces, that he actually had those who refused to help in that defense put to death. Mormon said of Moroni that if all men were like him, “the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever.” See Alma 46 generally, and 48: 17. Not surprisingly, Mormon named his son after this great leader.
One of the character traits that distinguished Jesus in his time was that he was scrupulously honest. He never stooped to make intellectually dishonest points to win an argument. He taught what he taught because it was both true and important, and if it meant the Sanhedrin wanted to kill him, that didn’t dissuade him. He was a Jew, but that didn’t make him hesitant to criticize and disagree with Jewish religious beliefs. He agreed with his apostles or family members when they were right, but disagreed with and corrected them when they were wrong. He didn’t protect tribal interests, he protected only godly interests. He even famously endorsed the necessity of paying taxes to Rome by instructing to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” But what do we do? Do we not adopt flawed, dishonest arguments to silence our perceived foes, caring less about what’s right than about who might win the national debate, and the next election?
In the interest of full disclosure and intellectual honesty, let me state my background and biases: I’m a lifelong social and religious conservative, in the strictest sense of the word. That is, I strive to conserve the scriptural teachings in the Bible and Book of Mormon, and the teachings of men and women who faithfully expound on them. But on moral grounds, I have never gone hunting, nor had any desire to do so,. In fact, I’ve always been surprised how easy it is for others to enjoy it. I don’t judge those that hunt, as I have my own behavior to concern myself with, but I am admittedly unsympathetic to the efforts of those who promote the right to hunt without a true need to do so. And though I usually align myself with political conservatives, I feel free to disagree with them whenever I think they’re wrong. While gun ownership is both prudent and constitutionally protected as a general matter, that doesn’t mean the right cannot be limited if the restrictions are rationally and closely tailored to achieve a legitimate governmental purpose.
These days, conservatives are often saying things like “If you’re going to ban guns, why don’t you ban unhealthy food? And why don’t you ban cars, since they kill far more people than guns do?” I don’t want conservative viewpoints to be discredited, but these are not logical arguments, and they help people oppose conservatives’ other good ideas because conservatives mix in these bad ones. Unhealthy food doesn’t need to be banned because it has no power to kill us if we don’t let it. All we have to do is eat it sparingly, or not at all, and it has no effect on us. But you can’t control whether someone shoots you or not, and the first bullet may very well kill you. Cars are incredibly convenient devices that we use every day, and without which we cannot live efficiently. They are so vitally necessary today that their utility easily outweighs the danger they pose when collisions occur. My own son died in an automobile accident, but the risk of that tragedy happening is one we’re all willing to take when faced with the alternative.
Liberals, and some conservatives and independents, often highlight the damage guns do. Guns truly make it easier for evil people to kill and maim innocent victims. That’s undeniable. But those who oppose gun ownership and possession overlook that like cars, guns do much good. They protect soldiers and law enforcement officers, but they also protect us in our homes and against violent attackers on the street who would otherwise victimize us. The debate on gun control laws should thus boil down to whether some guns, like explosives or certain chemicals and drugs, are more dangerous than useful for civilian use, If so, laws that ban or significantly restrict them from civilian availability might reasonably reduce the number of casualties that result when a deranged person decides he want to kill a random group of strangers to vent his frustrations. If he’s using a knife or a handgun, he’ll kill far less people and lives will be saved, if not all lives. And the shooter will be easier for an armed defender to kill, if that’s the safest way to stop him.
Here are some questions relative to the “gun control debate” that I think all spiritually sincere and intellectually honest Christians, and hopefully non-Christians as well, ought to ask themselves, even if the answers are painful and might cause a re-evaluation of our views: (In these questions, the word “right” will be used as a synonym for “morally justifiable and intellectually honest.”)
- Is is not true that both gun control opponents and proponents alike validly claim protection of human lives as their ultimate goal? Doesn’t that common ground deserve acknowledgement, and doesn’t it dwarf our differences all by itself? Shouldn’t all our discussions start with this acknowledgement of everyone else’s honorable intentions?
- When we argue that gun possession is a constitutional right, and attempt to apply it to all guns, is it right to ignore the fact that rapid-fire semiautomatic and fully automatic rifles, capable of killing scores of people in a matter of seconds, didn’t exist when the Constitution’s Second Amendment was written and ratified? Similarly, is it right to ignore the fact that during that same time, no instance of a deranged citizen using a rifle to quickly kill large numbers of fellow citizens in a crowded place had ever been recorded? Is it intellectually honest to argue that the founders of the Constitution intended that civilian possession of not-yet-invented assault rifles, which would enable the unprecedented and quick mass killing of civilians by other civilians who possessed them, be a constitutional right? Wasn’t the U.S. Constitution designed to insure, among other things like national defense, “Justice” and “domestic Tranquility”?
- Is it intellectually honest to argue that the problem of mentally imbalanced criminals using semiautomatic or fully automatic rifles to accomplish quick mass killings is a reason to make it legally harder for everyone to possess guns in general? Is it not more honest to acknowledge the huge role that mental illness plays in mass shootings, and that mentally unstable people are much harder to control though stricter gun laws?
- If our perceived ideological opponent has not argued that she seeks to dispossess you of all the guns you own, is it right to attack her as if she did argue that?
- Regardless of your own political persuasion, is it right to deny that guns in the right hands are the most effective deterrent against any kind of weapon in the wrong hands, and that most Americans are nonviolent and law-abiding? And if we align ourselves with political groups who oppose widespread gun ownership, possession, and concealed carry permits, are we not making most Americans less able to protect themselves if we succeed?
- If we oppose tighter background checks required for firearms purchases, are we honest to claim such procedural requirements somehow violate a constitutional right, or place an undue burden on gun ownership? Are such measures more burdensome than the frequent airport scanning procedures we endure in the interest of safe flights? Aren’t objections to such procedures more designed to deny your perceived legislative enemies any semblance of success and momentum, rather than to protect unwritten constitutional rights?
- Are we being completely honest with ourselves and others when we oppose controls on the distribution of rapid-fire weapons that can kill scores of people in a few seconds, on the grounds that we only possess those weapons to defend ourselves and our property? Wouldn’t we be more honest if we admitted, when it’s true, that we loved to play army as kids, and we still love to watch movies where the heroes mow down the bad guys with assault rifles, and we love to fantasize about mowing down the bad guys ourselves? Don’t a lot of us possess large caches of guns locked up in safes and cabinets for reasons having nothing to do with self-defense, but much to do with the fact that we enjoy shooting things that pose no threat to us? Which is the more efficient way to defend yourself against a burglar, to try to get to your gun safe and unlock it, grab the rifle and prepare it for firing, and tote the heavy thing into the living room, or to grab your pistol from within arm’s reach and yell to the burglar that you have a gun? How often do homeowners shoot burglars with assault rifles? How often do they do foil robberies with assault rifles? On police forces, why don’t patrol officers carry assault rifles for sudden emergencies?
- If our perceived ideological opponent has no history whatsoever of using guns in a way harmful to human safety, and he advocates increased gun possession by responsible citizens, is it right to characterize his position as an attempt to return to the old Wild West, where disputes were commonly settled with gunfire?
- Is it right to oppose the idea of more school teachers carrying concealed firearms, or at least possessing them at school, when in our heart of hearts, we know full well that if we heard of an active shooter at our own child’s school who was at the moment shooting students, we’d thank God if we later learned that some vigilant teacher shot him dead just as he aimed at our own child?
- Since machine guns can be used to defend lives, should not opponents of all gun control laws logically press for their legalization, if the only difference between them and semiautomatic guns is that they take a few seconds less to kill scores of people? If possession of semiautomatic rifles with full magazines is a constitutional right, surely machine guns are too. And bazookas. They’re all firearms. Why don’t gun advocates fight to legally own machine guns and bazookas?
- Is it logically consistent to support prohibitions against Iran or North Korea possessing nuclear weapons or WMDs, but oppose domestic restrictions on civilians possessing WMDs in the form of assault rifles? Aren’t we still trying to prevent mass killing of innocents? Is it intellectually honest to object to semiautomatic rifles being called “assault rifles”, when they hold magazines full of bullets and can be fired three or four times a second? Can you honestly deny that they were first designed for military assaults, so that soldiers could kill multiple enemy combatants quickly without having to carefully aim at each one, and without running out of bullets? If you can honestly deny that, the only reason you can is because you have willfully failed to educate yourself on the issue. From the Wikipedia article on the Armalite AR-15:”The ArmaLite AR-15 was a select-fire, air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed assault rifle manufactured in the United States between 1959 and 1964. Designed by American gun manufacturer ArmaLite in 1956, it was based on its AR-10 rifle. The ArmaLite AR-15 was designed to be a lightweight assault rifle and to fire a new high-velocity, lightweight, small-caliber cartridge to allow the infantrymen to carry more ammunition.
“In 1959, ArmaLite sold its rights to the AR-10 and AR-15 to Colt due to financial difficulties. After modifications (most notably, the charging handle was re-located from under the carrying handle like AR-10 to the rear of the receiver), Colt rebranded it the Colt ArmaLite AR-15. Colt marketed the redesigned rifle to various military services around the world and it was subsequently adopted by the U.S. military as the M16 rifle, which went into production in March 1964. The ArmaLite AR-15 rifle was not available for civilian use.
“Colt continued to use the AR-15 trademark for its line of semi-automatic-only rifles marketed to civilian and law-enforcement customers, known as Colt AR-15. The Armalite AR-15 is the parent of a variety of Colt AR-15 & M16 rifle variants.”
- If you claim that you use semiautomatic weapons for hunting, does that point negate the fact that semiautomatic weapons in the wrong hands enable quick mass killings? Isn’t the reason you use those weapons for hunting because they make you a more successful killer, and give you more chances to kill the animal before it escapes? Isn’t that the same way those guns work on people, and isn’t that in fact an argument against them being commonly accessible? And on that point of hunting, are you sure your interest in killing mammals which pose no threat to you whatsoever, and which you don’t need for food (since your vehicle and guns and bullets and gas cost far more than several sides of beef), is an important enough reason to make semiautomatic rifles generally available to the public?
As the reader might have discerned, I support legislative initiatives which restrict possession of semiautomatic rifles to law enforcement agencies and military personnel. For those who already possess them and have a perfectly clean record of nonviolence and are free of drug addiction and mental illness, let them continue to possess these weapons, but only if they can certify that they’ll never allow access to them by prohibited persons. If this means that going forward, sales of these weapons to new buyers will cease, that’s a result we should we willing to live with in the interest of the common welfare. There are lots of things we used to be able to buy and possess, which we no longer can, but life expectancy has continued to increase. Semiautomatic weapons are simply not useful enough to civilians, given the myriad other kinds of effective guns available to them, to outweigh the danger of mass murder they pose when they fall into the wrong hands. We’ve had enough mass killings where these guns were used. This is a fact we all seem to see more clearly as soon as it’s our child, grandchild, spouse or parent who’s shot.
I also think we ought to pay significant salary bonuses to school teachers or professors who are willing to legally possess guns on school campuses, and to use them if a Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook or Parkland situation recurs. No teacher should be compelled or expected to do this, but those who are willing to step forward and perform this service ought to be financially rewarded for assuming that risk. They would of course have to be screened to determine their mental fitness and past history, but I get the feeling they’d be more than happy to do so.
And if these measures seem too onerous or frightening, I urge you to pray to God and see if his sympathies lie with you, or with the growing list of those who’ve lost loved ones to mass shootings. May we Christians do as much as we can to show, as the Book of Mormon prophet Alma urged in Mosiah 18:9, that we’re “willing to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”