Note from Jake: It’s been 10 days since the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Out of respect for the victims and their family, we haven’t posted anything about the shooting until now. But given the significance of this event in the life of our nation, we need to speak about it, but I hope that our continued discussion of it will show the same respect for the victims that our silence did. On that note, here is Bernard Howard making his Mere O debut:
On February 16th, Jeb Bush tweeted the single word, “America,” accompanied by a picture of a handgun with his name inscribed on the barrel. The tweet has been retweeted more than 29,000 times, probably by a combination of the admiring and the appalled. It led, as one might have guessed, to a multitude of copycat tweets featuring a place name and an emblematic picture.
It wasn’t surprising that a Republican candidate should seek to associate his campaign with guns. Guns have long been an inviolable part of the GOP platform. But now that a significant portion of Republican voters have pledged #never to support their party’s presumptive nominee, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to create new alignments and policies. And whatever rises from the post-Trump Republican ashes will, one hopes, have a fresh openness to alternative ways of thinking about conservatism—even when it comes to guns.
With that prospect in mind, and with the horror of Orlando still spurring debate (and Senate votes) on guns, here are four propositions on gun control.
Proposition #1: There is a connection between loose gun laws and murder
This proposition is based on two premises: First, that US gun laws are relatively lax; and, second, that America suffers a disproportionately high rate of firearm homicide. The former is hard to dispute. Anti-gun control lobbyists often harm their own cause by favorably citing Switzerland and Israel (nations with high gun ownership and low homicide rates), because their gun control laws are in fact significantly tighter than America’s.
The latter premise can be established by comparison with five other English-speaking countries: Britain, Canada, Australia, the Republic of Ireland, and New Zealand. These are the countries most similar to America not only linguistically, but also economically, legally, and culturally. One of them shares a 5,500-mile border with America. Yes, America looks better when compared with Honduras, Lesotho, and Jamaica, but it’s reasonable to suggest that America’s aspiration should be to protect its people as effectively as the nations it most closely resembles. Their firearm homicide rates per 100,000 people are, in the order in which they’re listed above, 0.06, 0.38, 0.14, 0.25, and 0.18. America’s is 3.4. These figures are taken from the website gunpolicy.org, which is run by the University of Sydney. I welcome their correction, if they’re wrong.
Of course, it’s important to take other means of killing into account. Perhaps murderers simply switch methods in nations where guns are harder to obtain? The overall murder rates are, in the same order: 1.0, 1.5, 1.0, 1.1, 1.9, and 5.0. When the two lists of figures are placed side by side, America’s firearm homicide rate provides a clear outlying factor for explaining its higher overall murder rate. Without that outlier, America’s overall homicide rate would fall in one swoop to the other five nations’ much lower level.
Let us assume that the statistics above, and the conclusion drawn from them, are accurate. How many lives are at stake? A US murder rate below 2.0, instead of the current 5.0, would mean 10,000 fewer murdered Americans per year. So, after ten years, it would put 100,000 Americans on their feet instead of below ground—enough to fill a medium-sized town. A fifty-year period would resurrect enough otherwise-murdered Americans to populate a city the size of Miami. Christians should pause to consider this. When God says, in the Book of Genesis, “From each man … I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man,” he also gives this reason: “For in the image of God has God made man” (9:5-6). This is the gravity of preventable murder. The weight of each murder victim is the weight of God’s own image.
Proposition #2: Gun control has proved effective on a national scale
Later in this post, I’ll look at the question of how gun control relates to the Second Amendment. But that discussion is only worth having if gun control might actually make a difference. Since the mid-1990s, two of the countries listed above—Britain and Australia—have passed a series of laws designed to place limits on firearm ownership, without making it illegal to possess a gun. The changes include wait periods prior to gun purchases, mental health checks, a gun licensing system, restrictions on the kinds of guns that can be owned, and compulsory home gun cabinets for firearm owners. These measures aim to prevent guns falling into the wrong hands by using a variety of tactics, so that where one fails, another may succeed—rather like fighting cancer with a combination of treatments.
One way to measure the effect of these regulations is by considering mass shootings—the component of the homicide total that is most relevant in the wake of Orlando. A mass shooting is defined by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) as the murder of four or more people by firearm in one incident. From 1981-1996 in Australia there were fourteen mass shootings, with a total of 111 people murdered. Stricter gun controls were introduced in 1996, and there has since been just one mass shooting, with four victims. In Britain there has also been just one mass shooting, with twelve killed, since its own gun control legislation was introduced, in 1997.
Brace yourself for the equivalent US figures. A CRS report identified 317 mass shootings in the US from 1999-2013, with 1,554 killed. Those totals rise to 365 and 1,847 when brought up-to-date. This represents an extraordinary contrast with Britain and Australia’s figures, which can’t be explained away by America’s larger population size. The combined population of Britain and Australia amounts to 27 percent of the total number of Americans. So if those two countries’ mass shootings had the same frequency and deadliness as American mass shootings, they would together have had 99 incidents from 1999-2016, with 499 killed. Let me remind you: Britain and Australia have together had just two mass shootings in that time period, with only sixteen victims.
The knee-jerk response from opponents of gun control is to say that it has been tried in major American cities such as Chicago, where it has failed. But it’s hardly fair to compare state regulations to national regulations, because trafficking checks at the national level are so much more rigorous than those between US states (where they are essentially non-existent).
When people are already displaying warning signs of troubled mental health or sympathy for terrorist causes, Christianity supplies multiple reasons to keep them away from guns. It is loving to our neighbor (both the potential offender and their possible victims) to intervene. Temptation—as the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us—is dangerous.
Proposition #3: The barriers to gun control in America are overstated
Resistance to gun control is sometimes presented as fidelity to the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which declares, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But it’s often forgotten that the Second Amendment is already limited. Anyone convicted of a felony, for example, or anyone subject to a domestic violence protective order, is prohibited from possessing a firearm. Background checks are legally required to ensure those limits to the Second Amendment are properly enforced, which means the proposal before the Senate this week to close a loophole allowing guns to be sold without background checks was entirely in keeping with the Constitution.
Similarly, the assault weapons ban introduced in 1994 survived all constitutional challenges before lapsing in 2004 due to its sunset clause. So gun control advocates do not need to argue that the original meaning of the Second Amendment is no longer fit for purpose. It has already been established that the right enshrined in the Second Amendment is one that can be withheld in certain circumstances, and with regard to certain weapons.
Another frequently-cited barrier to gun control in America is the existing presence of hundreds of millions of guns. Surely a gun-saturated society cannot be remedied? Yet here, again, the obstacle is overstated. Britain and Australia reduced the number of firearms through amnesties. Those people who preferred to hand in guns rather than comply with new regulations, or who owned guns belonging to newly-illegal categories, brought in their firearms to collection points. This procedure is not impossible to envisage in America. Most gun control advocates do not propose that regular Americans should be banned from possessing all firearms, so any program to reduce the amount of guns would by definition be limited in its scope. And yet the Bible reassures us that slow, limited progress can ultimately produce remarkable outcomes. Who could confidently say that British and Australian-style legislation would have no impact on the US gun homicide total even in the third, fourth, or fifth decade from now?
One conceptual barrier to gun control that American Christians have cited is the importance of the availability of guns for protecting one’s family. It’s said that we have a duty to be our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9). But there’s nothing in Scripture to suggest that keeping your brother means obtaining military-grade weaponry to protect him from every possible threat. What’s more, the New Testament teaches that a Christian’s ties to other believers are just as strong, if not stronger, than to family members (Mark 3:31-35). Keeping your brother must therefore include seeking the welfare of fellow Christians in the inner city areas where the threat of gun death is greatest. Maintaining permissive gun laws does nothing to protect those brothers and sisters. In any case, the measures being proposed by most gun control advocates would not prevent Americans from keeping firearms in their own home, where they could be used for self-defense.
At a time when American Christians are understandably concerned about the threats posed by federal overreach, the prospect of any kind of firearm handover seems hard to swallow. But if the first proposition in this post is correct, America has a problem with guns that needs to be addressed. There is no reason why dealing with that specific problem should inevitably open a Pandora’s box of wider federal interference. And while there’s understandable anxiety among Christians about the process by which people are placed on federal watchlists, it seems overly suspicious to argue that no legal framework could provide satisfactory redress if wrongful inclusion on such lists occurred.
Proposition #4: Christians should endure inconvenience for the sake of others
As always with increased regulation, gun control would prove burdensome to ordinary citizens seeking to buy and keep firearms. But Christians have an example in Jesus of someone willing to endure burdens and inconvenience for the sake of others. Forty-nine people lie slain in Orlando. Nothing can restore them to their loved ones, but Britain and Australia show that gun control could prevent similar massacres in the future. The time has come for American Christians and their leaders to acknowledge the evidence, and to speak out boldly for greater restrictions on the easiest means of murder.
Coda: Geneva County, AL
In November 2015, I was in Geneva County, Alabama, for Thanksgiving. After lunch, a group of us took cases filled with guns and ammunition into the woods, where we spent a couple of hours shooting at targets in a makeshift range. We had an excellent time, and it was one of the highlights of my Thanksgiving break.
The same county in Alabama came to national attention in March 2009, when it was the scene of one of the 365 mass shootings in America since 1999. Among Michael McLendon’s ten victims were Sonya Smith, 43, killed at a gas station; Bruce Malloy, 51, murdered in his car; and James Starling, 24, who was shot dead while trying to run away.
Data from around the world shows that societies are not condemned to experience the firearm homicide rate found in the US. The example of other nations holds out the hope that America could preserve the kind of shooting activity enjoyed by my family over Thanksgiving, while simultaneously drastically reducing firearm homicides like those in Geneva County in March 2009. May God give us wisdom and courage to know and do what is best.
Bernard N. Howard lives in New York with his wife, Betsy, where they are seeking to plant a new Anglican church, God willing. Now and again Bernard blogs at sixtyguilders.org. You can follow him on Twitter.