Guns continue to be a part of our national conversation, even as we live amidst the constant uncertainty and stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Once it became clear that the pandemic would change our daily lives in significant ways, people lined up for blocks outside of gun stores to purchase guns and ammunition. According to the FBI, there were more background checks in March—3.7 million—than for any month since the system was put into place back in 1998.

Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina have seen armed protesters demonstrate against the pandemic restrictions put in place in their states, renewing debates about the right to bear arms and its relationship to the other rights spelled out in the U.S. Constitution. The video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing has once again placed gun violence and race squarely into view.

When Christians argue about guns and gun violence, the discussion often mirrors that which happens in the rest of society. There are arguments about our Second Amendment rights, the unique place of the gun in American history and culture, and the duty to protect oneself and others.

Christians add some Bible verses to the mix. Many gun rights advocates appeal to Luke 22:35-38 as a justification for armed self-defense, though this is a mistake. Pacifist proponents of gun control appeal to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in support of their view, though many reject their interpretation.

There is one glaring omission in the gun debates in America—character. What potential impact can owning, carrying, and using a gun have on a person’s character? Does the readiness to kill in some circumstances have the potential to undermine our character? What virtues or vices are relevant here?

Oliver Winchester, of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, praised the moral effect that the Model 73 repeater rifle had on the man who carried it: “for if there is anything that will make a party of men, or one single man, stand up and fight to the last moment, it is the knowledge that he has a gun in his hands that will not fail to do its duty.”[1] The Model 73 was thought to be a source of courage. It was at least advertised as such.

We shouldn’t reject this idea too quickly. Standing alone, armed for the purpose of defending oneself and others from attack can be a courageous act. But arming oneself does not necessarily foster courage. It can actually undermine character.

The vast majority of human beings have “a deep-seated psychological resistance to killing.”[2] This is grounded in empathy, the ability to see others as fellow human beings as deserving of concern and care. Empathy is connected to altruism and helping behavior. It also plays a role in preventing aggression and violence. It is important for good character. Contemporary gun culture in America can undermine resistance to killing, empathy, and moral character.

In recent years there has been a shift in the culture surrounding guns in America, from Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0. The focus of Gun Culture 1.0 is recreation. The focus of Gun Culture 2.0 is armed citizenship.

Two claims are important for grasping the ways in which Gun Culture 2.0 is potentially harmful to character. First, particular forms of military training can be harmful to the character and the flourishing of soldiers. Second, these forms of military training are often present within Gun Culture 2.0.

In On Killing, psychologist Dave Grossman, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and former Army Ranger, offers a sober assessment of important issues related to the psychological cost of killing and learning to kill. Military training involves dehumanization of the enemy, which undermines empathy and the resistance to killing.

Dehumanization can occur when a soldier is conditioned to fire a gun at another human being without thinking about the action that is being performed. Such conditioning occurs when soldiers are trained to develop quick-shoot reflexes at human-like targets, and providing them with rewards or punishments based on success in such exercises. This training has been successful. As Grossman puts it:

“Instead of firing at a bull’s-eye target, the modern soldier fires at man-shaped silhouettes that pop up for brief periods of time inside a designated firing lane. The soldiers learn that they have only a brief second to engage the target, and if they do it properly their behavior is immediately reinforced when the target falls down. If he knocks down enough targets, the soldier gets a marksmanship badge and usually a three-day pass.

After training on rifle ranges in this manner, an automatic, conditioned response called automaticity sets in, and the soldier then becomes conditioned to respond to the appropriate stimulus in the desired manner. This process may seem simple, basic, and obvious, but there is evidence to indicate that it is one of the key ingredients in a methodology that has raised the firing rate from 15 to 20 percent in World War II to 90 to 95 percent in Vietnam.”

Dehumanization is not the intent of such conditioning. Grossman points out that the goal is to make soldiers better at what they do. But dehumanization can be an unfortunate byproduct.

The resistance to killing is also thwarted and empathy undermined when soldiers come to see the enemy as morally inferior, or even subhuman. This can be done through the use and normalization of racist epithets. It can also be done by seeing the enemy as evil, as morally inferior and therefore deserving of death.

Most veterans are morally good human beings, as much as any of us are. Numerous studies show that veterans are actually less likely to commit a violent crime compared to others of the same age and sex. Some veterans, however, report that they long for another righteous battle, an enemy upon whom they can again legitimately and lawfully turn their killing skills. This is one way in which concerns about character are shown to be legitimate.

Military training can weaken empathy by dehumanizing others through conditioning and seeing them as morally inferior. This is harmful to character. It makes it more difficult to have virtues that are deeply connected with empathy, like compassion, kindness, and love. It can also foster moral vices, including callousness, cruelty, and malice.

These forms of military training are also present in Gun Culture 2.0. Conditioning a person to shoot at another human being without thinking about it is present here, insofar as a big part of this culture includes firing at human-shaped targets. Consider rolling thunder drills, which are similar to the military training discussed by Grossman. One type of rolling thunder drill involves a line of shooters with handguns, about 10 yards or so from paper human silhouette targets. It is nighttime. A person with a flashlight shines a light on the first target, and once his target is lit the shooter immediately fires. This is repeated down the line. This and other forms of shooting practice involve creating a quick-shot reflex just as military training does, which can undermine the natural resistance to killing another human being.

The possibility for this increases when we consider how targets themselves have evolved over the years. Target shooting can involve a bullseye-shaped target, or a target in the shape of a human silhouette with bullseye targets superimposed on the torso and head. In recent years, targets with drawings of human beings or actual photographs are used. The use of such targets in conditioning-style exercises can exacerbate the potential for undermining empathy and character.

More troubling is the dehumanization of others that some aspects of Gun Culture 2.0 fosters, viewing some people as morally inferior. For example, some in Gun Culture 2.0 refer to criminals as “wolves” and themselves as “sheepdogs” protecting the “sheep.” The wolves are the bad guys, the sheepdogs are the good guys protecting the innocent but defenseless (and perhaps stupid) sheep. The idea is not merely that a violent criminal is less moral than others. That is, in a sense, clearly true.

Rather, it is that they have less intrinsic value than others. That is clearly false. They may even be seen as subhuman. How often do we hear criminals referred to as “animals”? It’s plausible to think that such speech acts are both reflective and constitutive of dehumanization.

This is, from a Christian point of view, deeply wrong. All human beings, regardless of their character, or lack of it, have equal inherent worth because they bear the image of God. Behaviors—bodily or verbal—as well as ways of thinking about others that degrade them and obscure their status as image-bearers, are particularly troublesome. Anything that makes it easier to disregard the welfare of others or treat them in callous and unloving ways is of fundamental concern to Christians who seek to embody the virtues of Christ. To the extent that Gun Culture 2.0 instills in people a willingness to kill, it can be harmful to their character.

Is killing in war, or killing a criminal in self-defense or in defense of others necessarily unjustified, due to concerns about character? No. Do those who perform such acts have bad character? Not necessarily. Such acts may be justified, but they are still morally tragic. The morally virtuous person who, as a last resort, kills an assailant in self-defense (or in defense of another person), may not be guilty of sin per se. Nevertheless, if that person has good character, is empathetic, compassionate, and loving, causing the loss of life, even if necessary to protect innocent life, will be a source of pain and regret.

The revolution of Jesus “is a revolution of character, which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and one another. It is one that changes their ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies…It penetrates to the deepest layers of the soul.”[3]

Does owning, training, and being ready to use a gun in self-defense or defense of others necessarily compromise one’s character or undermine one’s ability to flourish as a follower of Jesus? No. Can it do so? Certainly. Given this, we must be wise as we seek to navigate this difficult terrain in contemporary American life in ways that reflect love for God, neighbor, self, as well as love for our enemies.

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Footnotes

  1. . Pamela Haag, The Gunning of America (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 181-2.
  2. . Franco Trivigno, “A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism,” in Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, ed. Michael W. Austin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 87.
  3. . Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ, (Colorado Springs, Colo: NavPress, 2002), 15.

Posted by Mike Austin

Michael W. Austin, @michaelwaustin, is a professor of philosophy, senior fellow at The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, and president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. His most recent book is "God and Guns in America" (Eerdmans, 2020).

  • Solvitur Ambulando

    I am on the precipice of purchasing a gun, ostensibly for the purpose of recreation, but the idea of self-defense isn’t far from my mind, either. Does that make me guilty of participating in “Gun Culture 2.0?” I am not asking out of cynicism. I am permissive toward gun ownership among others but am circumspect about purchasing one myself, and though I had not put words to it before, I think it is because I am fearful that gun ownership would change my character, as you’ve highlighted in brief, here.

  • Joseph Rhea

    I’m not necessarily a gun ownership advocate – like the other commenter, I’m still undecided about Christianity and armed citizenship – but this article commits two big errors that make its case very, very weak.

    First, to call armed citizenship “Gun Culture 2.0” is like calling neo-monarchists “Christian Politics 2.0.” Armed citizenship was the point of whatever “Gun Culture 1770s” there was when the second amendment was drafted – many citizens needed a gun for hunting, and self-defense against wild animals (if not against other people). Armed citizenship has a much more historically sound basis than this essay asserts. It was the whole point of the second amendment!

    Second, it is very important to consider the impact of carrying a gun on character – that’s a valid line of inquiry – but to jump immediately from there to modern lethality training creates a straw man. If we know that even our grandfathers were given guns for WWII and had a much lower fire rate than in modern wars, why would the narrow example of modern lethality training be the sole example worth considering?

  • Scott Roper

    Veterans pining for combat again is an old trope. Is there any evidence that this sentiment is higher now than in the past? More to the point, do soldiers who undergo modern conditioning display lower levels of empathy than their peers?

  • Chris Brooks

    The idea is not merely that a violent criminal is less moral than others. … Rather, it is that they have less intrinsic value than others. … They may even be seen as subhuman.

    I haven’t seen that at all. I’ve never seen anyone claim that the “wolf” is less than human. He is simply a threat to the innocent, and especially to those the “sheepdog” (hate that term) cares about.