I first posted this in April 2013, reprinting something I wrote more than 25 years ago. Sadly again, it is as relevant in October 2015 as it was first in January 1990 and again in April 2013.
From 1984-1993, I wrote a monthly column for my denominational publication. The January 1990 column was entitled “Guns and the Violence Within.” When I read it again recently, I immediately noticed that, sadly, the column is still very relevant almost as is. I decided to reprint most of it here, as a partial statement of my feelings about the current debate over gun violence and gun control. I’ve inserted a few additional thoughts and updates in italics in brackets.
Several months ago, Time magazine’s cover story [July 17, 1989] pictured over 400 people who had been killed by guns in the United States during a given week. Many had been murdered, either deliberately or in the heat of an argument, and others had been innocent victims of an accident. There were children killed by a friend or sibling who had been playing with a gun he or she didn’t know was loaded. Some had used a gun to commit suicide. [Earlier that same year in January 1989, Patrick Purdy opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle in a school playground in Stockton, California, killing five children and wounding twenty-nine others and a teacher.]
The statistics related to deaths by firearms in the United States are astounding. In 1984-1985, 62,897 were killed; in 1986, 18,153 committed suicide with a gun; guns kept at home (ostensibly for family protection) are six times more likely to be used on a family member or friend than on an intruder; in 1985 in Canada (with 25 million people), there were five deaths by handguns, while in the United States (239 million) there were 8,092. The difference between the United States and Canada (and many other countries) is related to the level of restrictions on handgun ownership. [By way of comparison, in 2010, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. [2015 information on gun violence] [Comparison of gun deaths vs. deaths from terrorism, 2015]
The reason I am distressed right now is that just this week a local high school student was murdered by another student. He was just one year older than my own daughter; his girlfriend is a band acquaintance of hers. A brawl had erupted at the school bus stop over someone’s girlfriend; the victim went to his home to see what was going on and ended up being in the line of fire when a boy pulled the trigger. [When I asked my daughter about this recently, she didn’t remember the incident and neither do I, but obviously at the time it affected me so much I felt compelled to address the issue of guns in my monthly column.]
Incidents like this enrage me. Perhaps if there were tighter restrictions on gun sales and ownership, this wouldn’t have happened. I am tired of the slogan used by opponents of gun control that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” because it is only partially true at best. I know that a gun doesn’t usually fire on its own. I also know that if someone really wants to kill, he or she can, whether by gun or some other weapon. But I am also convinced that simply by their presence and accessibility, guns often allow people to kill. The evidence certainly suggests that there would be fewer deaths in the United States if guns were less available.
Yet whether or not to pass laws restricting the sale of handguns and other firearms or banning some types entirely is not the real issue for me. What really disturbs me are the assumptions in our society that make it desirable to possess and be prepared to use a gun. (I’m not talking about guns used strictly for hunting.) For many, owning a gun is a way of feeling secure against all possible threats, or a way of expressing one’s “toughness” and resolve to get revenge should anyone dare to get in the way or threaten us or those we love. The willingness to use a gun, then, demonstrates a belief that paying back evil for evil is not only justifiable but right. It perpetuates the notion that equivalent or harsher violence is an appropriate response to violence.
The gun has become something of a symbol of the violence within us. When people vehemently insist on their right to own a gun (and, by implication, to use it if the situation arises), they are succumbing to that violence instead of deliberately looking for and choosing alternative ways of confronting evil and managing angry and violent feelings.
The problem is not so much that we get angry or feel the urge to hurt back when we are hurt; those are normal human reactions, and we are probably denying part of who we are if we say we don’t have those feelings. The problem is that as a society we seem to do so many things that perpetuate the acceptability of violent responses rather than model alternatives. From the messages our children receive from television and movies all the way to our foreign policy, we don’t seem to do very well at communicating the simple truth that “violence begets violence,” or stopping the cycle.
As Christians we say that only God can change us and give us the will and the power to be like Jesus. [We say that] only God can enable us to love – even our enemies – and forgive rather than punish those who wrong us. [If we believe this], it’s a message that is needed more than ever in the world today. I become more convinced of that every time I hear of someone else killed by a gun. To me, each death caused by a gun symbolizes how important it is for all Christians to model Jesus’ way of nonviolent love in all our relationships.
Remember: I wrote this more than 25 years ago. If I were writing it today, I wouldn’t have to change all that much other than references to current events. I might express things a little differently now, and I might say even more, but my outrage is every bit as intense as it was then and my basic analysis is the same.