Beliefs Culture

Is gun control a religious issue? photo courtesy iStockPhoto

(RNS) Of all the controversies that have followed in the bloody wake of Friday’s (July 20) shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo., few have provided such a clarifying insight into the moral tensions and contradictions in American culture than the argument over whether gun control is a religious issue.

The Rev. James Martin, a popular author and Jesuit priest, was among the first to set out the terms of the debate, when he penned a column at America magazine arguing that gun control “is as much of a ‘life issue’ or a ‘pro-life issue’ … as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty (all of which I am against), and programs that provide the poor with the same access to basic human needs as the wealthy.”

Martin’s central point was that abortion opponents spare no effort to try to shut down abortion clinics or to change laws to limit or ban abortions, so clearly believers should be committed to taking practical steps to restrict access to guns.

“Simply praying, ‘God, never let this happen again’ is insufficient for the person who believes that God gave us the intelligence to bring about lasting change,” Martin wrote. “It would be as if one passed a homeless person and said to oneself, ‘God, please help that poor man,’ when all along you could have helped him yourself.”

The debate is as intense today as it has been after every gun massacre, but it hasn’t changed the dynamics of the issue for believers or politicians. It may not this time either. Within hours of posting his views about gun control as a religious issue on Facebook, Martin had to shut down comments on the page because of the vitriol his views provoked.

Still, the Jesuit’s view was echoed by an array of religious voices and groups who also called on Christians and other believers to advocate for policies to curb gun violence, with some putting the exhortation in an explicitly anti-abortion context.

“It’s time to say that unregulated availability of assault weapons is clearly anti-life,” said Sherry Anne Weddell, co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s time for pro-life people to take a stand.”

The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life and an anti-abortion activist generally associated with the religious right, made a similar point:

“Anyone concerned about protecting human life has to be concerned about the misuse of guns, and of anything else that can become a weapon against the innocent,” Pavone told Religion News Service.

“It’s the same as Mother Teresa’s famous quote, ‘If we tell a mother she can kill her own child, how can we tell others not to kill each other?’”

There was a vigorous counterargument, however, that followed two main tracks. One was to resist any public policy prescriptions and debates as beside the point, or worse, to see them as an inappropriate “political” exploitation of a tragedy. The second was to see the gun control debate as a distraction from a spiritual and theological focus.

As Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, wrote in an essay on Monday (July 23), “we are kidding ourselves if we think we have within our national grasp an educational or psychological or political solution to evil.

“There is no solution or explanation for evil.”

A number of other prominent conservative Christians, like Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, took that view a step further and argued that it wasn’t just the mystery of evil but also the nation’s self-inflicted spiritual wounds that led to the massacre.

“We don’t have a crime problem, or a gun problem, or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem,” Huckabee said on his Fox News show on Sunday. “And since we’ve ordered God out of our schools and communities, the military and public conversations, you know, we really shouldn’t act so surprised when all hell breaks loose.”

On one level, this debate seems to represent a classic theological divide: There are those who argue that human beings should not try to supplant God’s role with their own efforts to redeem the world, and others who argue that believers have a duty to protect the God-given gift of life and human dignity.

On another level, however, the dispute illuminates the current realities of America’s political and religious life. The fact is, Americans of all persuasions have become increasingly opposed to gun control laws, despite the regular shooting rampages that have targeted houses of worship as well as movie theaters and military bases.

No surprise then that in his remarks on the Colorado shooting, President Obama – who might be seen as a champion of the “religious left” – has resisted calls to mention gun control and instead counseled the nation to realize that “such evil is senseless.”

Complicating matters politically is that conservative Christians who form the bulk of the anti-abortion movement are less enthused than almost everyone else about gun control.

In an essay at the Patheos website in which she wondered “why Christians aren’t bringing the same dedication to talking about guns as we do to other issues, notably abortion and homosexuality,” Ellen Painter Dollar recalled her effort to write a piece for Christianity Today in the wake of the January 2011 shooting of  former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others.

Dollar said she “gently” raised the issue of gun control in the piece but the editors spiked it because “they felt they ‘cannot win’ on the gun-control issue with their evangelical readership.”

Another challenge is that many conservatives see opposing abortion rights as the paramount issue today, and adding anything to that agenda could hurt the cause and divide the movement.

“Our convictions about the dignity of women and children harmed by abortion ought to prompt us to stand against criminal violence and dehumanization wherever it is. But we ought not to let the term ‘pro-life’ become so elastic as to lose all meaning,” warned Russell D. Moore, a well-known Christian ethicist and dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“In most cases, the expansion of ‘pro-life’ is a way to divert attention from the question of personhood and human rights” Moore wrote in an email.

Unlike the gun control debate, Moore added, “The abortion issue isn’t about prudential means to a common goal, but about legally protecting those who are subject to lethal violence.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • If this wasn’t so serious, it would be amusing reading liberal pundits now appeal to abortion to make their case against guns. Let’s just say this, the minute any of them actually decry the murder of unborn children, we will begin to take their other remarks somewhat more seriously.

    As for gun control….dragging out the old canards on this subject is not helpful.

    In an evil world, evil people do evil things. I am thankful that in this nation I’m permitted to keep and bear arms to defend myself, my family and others. As a Lutheran Christian I view this as a way of being faithful to the commandments that tell me I am to help my neighbor to improve and protect his body and life and all that is his. Here is how Luther explains our duties according to the commandment, “You shall not murder” “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].” And here is how Luther explains our duty according to the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal.” “We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].” From The Small Catechism by Dr. Martin Luther.

    I welcome a conversation about gun control. My favorite form of gun control is learning how to shoot competently and accurately, by frequent visits to my gun club.

  • I don’t think gun control IS the “issue”. The religious issues, in my opinion, are the things that lead people to the brink where guns become a solution to stress, and lack of self worth. Those issues of depression and mental health, economic crisis, lack of affordable healthcare, bullying, school pressures, abuse.

    The religious “issue” is whether or not, as a society we have become more concerned about ourselves then the the plight of the neighbor we don’t know. If we could concentrate on fixing that “issue” we likely would have far fewer discussions about gun control.

  • The Huckabee comment alarms me. We know that the shooter was a member of a Presbyterian church so one would assume he is well-acquainted with the concepts of God and sin. And still did what he did. He is obviously a very disturbed and ill young man.

  • The US is the world’s largest purveyor of arms of all shapes and sizes. The fact that gun violence should come home to roost from time to time should come as no surprise. The surprise is that it it does not happen with greater frequency. The shooter in Colorado is obviously insane. What is more troubling is the “sane” who refuse to see the availability of arms as a real problem. Why, in God’s name, does anyone need to own semi-automatic assault weapons?

  • It should not be the implement that is in question but rather the illness of ones being. Guns are like locks,they are for honest people!!!

  • Passing more legislation is merely a placing a band aid over gaping wound. There are so many people in this world who will insist on having weapons within easy reach because they feel insecure and unsafe. This is true regardless of whether they live in a gang infested inner city housing project, an isolated farm town, or in a ritzy gated community with million dollar houses. A few of those are unnecessarily paranoid, and some of those folks call themselves Christians. Those are the people who will be hardest to convince when it comes to the need for stricter gun control laws. As long as people harbor any sort of defensive “it’s MY right” attitude vs a more pro-active “it’s my responsibility” stance or as long as people continue to believe that protect myself at all costs or a kill or be killed propoganda put out there by the NRA and other who misinterpret the 2d Amendment, any attempts to pass tighter gun control law will be futile.

  • Sabrina, in fact, in the United States the United Constitution acknowledges that all citizens have the RIGHT to “keep and bear arms.” You apparently have very little understanding of the Second Amendment and little understanding that in fact the world is an evil place where evil people do evil things.

  • Frank, you ask, “Why in God’s name does anyone need to own semi-automatic assault rifles?”

    Why not?

    A semi-automatic assault rifle is simply nothing other than a rifle that can chamber and fire a round of ammunition with each pull of the trigger.

    Now, tell me, Frank which gun would you allow me to have?

  • I am pro life, pro-gun, a practicing Christian. I aspire to follow the example of St. Gabriel Possenti, who used a firearm to defend his flock. Using firearms is neither good nor evil, simply a tool to be used at discretion. The use of such terms as “semi-auto assault weapon” is a strawman, because simply, assault weapons are not semi-automatic.

    The Church should rightfully condemn evil, but should be intelligent enough to distinguish between evil intents and tools that, for all purposes, are indifferent to the manner in which they are used. It’s easy to condemn the tool, but more effective to identify evil intent.

  • According to the bible people were killing each other long before guns were invented, so pretending all guns magically go away would not and historically did not stop murder.

    What takes longer? A call to police to wait for a response or your hand to a holster to lawfully use deadly force to stop a mass murder who is actively trying to kill you?

  • I think there are very few public policy issues that actually need to be framed as a question of theology for Christians.

    Gun control would be one of the last. For example, abortion always destroys a fetus. A believer only needs to believe that a fetus is a human being in order to believe that his or her faith means that fetus should be protected. If a fetus is a person, then destroying a fetus is murder- which is clearly a violation of Christian teaching.

    However, only a tiny percentage of gun owners ever use a gun to commit a crime, and for many of those gun-using criminals, it was already against the law for them to possess a firearm. Pushing regulation against a THING as opposed to an ACTION (taken by a human) seems to go against core Christian beliefs in personal responsibility and salvation – people sin, but objects are incapable of acting on their own, much less sinning.

    I don’t think it’s possible to make a logical jump from the fact that some people use guns to commit murder to the conclusion that allowing people to have guns is a sin, any more than it’s possible to conclude that because some people overeat fast food to the point of gluttony justifies banning or restricting all fast food for everyone.

    I think that freedom of choice is the central tenet of Christian philosophy. Ultimately, everyone has a choice to either accept God or deny Him. To follow or to rebel. God wants willing servants and children, not slaves. This, I think, is the only explanation for why evil is allowed to exist: because God values the freedom of humans to choose more highly than He would value a peaceful world full of drones.

  • “The US is the world’s largest purveyor of arms of all shapes and sizes.” – Rev your information is patently and boldly false. (The Wiki is famously unreliable)

    China is #1 according to Amnest internationals 2012 report
    France is #2
    Germany is #3

    I respect where your coming from but your information is simply wrong..

  • The right to self-defense is as basic a right as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due process, and all others in the bill of rights. What rights do I have if I have not the simple right to defend myself? However every movie-goer in that Aurora theater, had this basic right seriously curtailed. As a result, NONE were able to defend themselves. We live in a real world where guns exist, criminals and lunatics exist, and they will always have access to guns unless we move to a police state a’la Cuba or North Korea. The massive drug trade ensures that even if all guns in America were magically melted today, there would be an immediate influx of replacements along with drugs the next day. Then the criminals and lunatics would have access to guns along with their marijuana and cocaine; while the law-abiding would remain unable to defend themselves. That is morally and constitutionally wrong. Every human being, every woman who has been in a relationship with a violent man, every person who works, shops, drives, or lives in dangerous areas, has a basic human right to self-defense.

  • When was the last time you saw a firearm jump up and commit violence? Never? Tools are not violent, people are. People are killed every day because of the way other people operate automobiles…are automibles violent? One of the most dangerous things to do while driving is use your cell phone..are cell phone’s violent?

    When the first fatal accident that was directly caused by the use of a cell phone while operation an automobile…did I hear a cry for licensing cell phones? or maybe eliminating them all together?

    I shot my first firearm in the 50’s, I owned my first firearm in the 50’s..suprisingly…no one cared…because firearms were viewed as tools…guess what…they still are, if you use them for self defence, compitition or hunting, just tools, nothing more, nothing less..many more have been killed by baseball bats, knifes, and automobiles than by firearms…so what is the problem here

  • forks don’t cause obesity.
    bottles don’t cause alcoholism,
    guns don’t cause murder.

  • Fewer guns, more bombs now! Sorry, but small incendiary devices have always been used by Muslims to create terror. If you want to take guns out of the hands of our psychos that’s fine, but they will begin to launch homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails in carrying out their plans. Guns seem very American- that is why our criminals use them. But they will just turn to other terror devices.

  • As a Christian I am really set back that Gun Control comes up as a problem we as Christians are causing or thwarting.
    Gun Control is a 2nd amendment right and a political / constitutional issue. It has nothing to do with Christ.
    My believe in my right to keep and bear arms comes straight from the framers of the Constitution and I that it isn’t just an individual right but also a right that was meant to keep in check evil and tyranny in the upper reaches of government. The framer’s reasons are not outdated.
    This assault rifle thing is a smoke screen to continue down the path of taking away guns from the common people. (The shooter in Colorado allegedly used a shotgun, more than one handgun, an ar15 style rifle, incendiary bombs and a booby trapped house) So why is this an issue about assault weapons at all? I also believe that the bible teaches that evil exists and cannot be controlled by laws. But I really see that the world works this way.. it’s not something I just read a blindly follow. It’s a spiritual issue not a legislative one. I agree with the above post that is guns are removed from the hands of Americans the destruction from violent acts will increase in intensity of destruction due to the ignition source. namely Molotov cocktails, homemade bombs, black market bombs, dirty bombs and finally the illegal weapons that evil people will procure anyway. You can not legislate evil away.

  • Comparing guns to abortion is an insulting and immature leap. A gun in a criminal’s hand is a bad thing. A gun in a police officer’s hand or honest citizen’s hand defending his familiy is a good thing. Killing the unborn is always a bad thing.

  • Kind of fun to hear the “theologians” rail against violation of our first amendment rights while hacking away at our second amendment rights.

    A steady hand, good sight picture and a smooth squeeze is gun control enough gun control for me… as if some thug would not pack if it were against the law. Apparently all that Theology education weakens the brain.

  • It isn’t assault weapons that account for the vast majority of firearm related homicides. Not even close. It is the hand gun. For what that is worth. If the good priests wish to make a “pro-life” argument out of firearm related homicide, they should make one out of the sale of alcohol first, as there are more alcohol related deaths (from motor vehicle crashes, not including deaths just from being poisoned by alcohol). If life is truely the issue, the seamless garment doesn’t stop with guns.

  • Mr. Gutzman – I think you are confusing Amnesty International’s list of biggest exporters with who are the largest purchasers and owners of arms

  • As usual, the most important information is overlooked: all over the United States, where licensed gun ownership is up, crime is down, and vice-versa. When a burglar has to weigh the possibility of his death, he often chooses not to burglarize a home. But even rape stats are affected.

    Clamping down on gun ownership will do nothing, nothing, to reduce the number of guns in the hands of criminals. But it will make the rest of us more accessible as victims.

  • It’s really incredible to hear religious leaders jumping on the gun control bandwagon and make guns the issue. Chrisitians would do well to remember what the biblical view of man is: born with evfil in his heart and in need of a Savior who can be a restraining force in the world. But that Savior will not force anybody to invite him to indwell within them, so it’s our choice. But we when we kick God out of our schools and mock him with our choices and our voices, there are consequences. Think about it . . . . weapons have been around for centuries (and yes, really efficent ones for many decades), but the senseless violence like Aurora has only increased in the last 30 years or so, as we have turned America into a secular wasteland.

  • Guns…..New York City and Chicago have the toughest hand gun control laws in the United States and suffer the worst gun violence. The absolute control of guns in European society has not stopped mass killings. The simple fact is gun control laws do not work. There is plenty of evidence available that shows that gun availablility reduces crime rather than increasing it. These studies are not difficult to find.

    In short those that feel removing guns from society will stop mass murders are simply wrong and are caught up in the emotion of the moment. Removing guns will simply push criminals and mentally ill murderers to turn to explosives or some other means to kill ( like Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh). Criminals will not obey gun control laws e.g. Chicago/New York City so in the end everybody has access to guns except the potential victims.

    A few of the unintended consequences of draconian gun control laws are:

    1. Drives a gun black market. Australia is a perfect example; over 80% of guns used in murders and major crimes since enactment of their gun control laws are unregistered. Since the introduction of their gun laws ownership of guns was only been reduced by about 2%.

    2. Criminals not smart enough to find an illegal gun will look for softer targets like the elderly, muggings, burglaries, etc.

    3. Criminals will continue to have guns and can be confident that when they commit a robbery or a murder there will be no resisitance; something a criminal can’t depend on that where citizens have the right to carry a gun (via concealed carry permit).

    Last but not least….mass murders are perpetrated by people who are intrinsically evil (Timothy McVeigh) or by a crazy like the madman who killed the Colorado movie goers. No matter what laws are passed guns will never be removed from society. Since it only takes 1 gun and 1 perpetrator to commit mass murder; gun laws will not stop them. The recent carnage in Norway is proof that gun laws simply don’t work.

    I have carried for years and no one, not the people I’m with or people in the places we go are aware. In all that time I’ve only had to pull it on one occasion where three men were threatening me outside a restaurant late at night; when they saw I was armed they couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

    Gun control is a myth…it cannot be done.

  • Alan – you are correct… my error..

    Still if you want to see the effects of strict gun control, ask the people of the UK how its working out? Not so well and yet they still keep enforcing it…. The police regularly get beat down and can do little with thugs…

    Officers are often outnumbered, yep so much safer if you die from blunt force trama… In fact in some riots police actually do not respond to the calls for help because they are so outnumbered and have few good alternatives…

    If your a citizen of the UK in general the thieves and violent offenders have open season…

  • First off, I am 16 meaning I cannot legally own a firearm. However my family does own many guns of all varieties and I enjoy shooting them immensely as well as educating people about them. I do own guns for things like hunting and I shoot competitively as well as owning what are commonly referred to as black or assault rifles and even the evil home defense guns but think about this.
    Do you keep a fire extinguisher in your house? Of course you do because you know that when seconds count the fire department takes minutes. The same principle applies to guns. And to those who say things like “guns kill people” my entire family for five generations have owned guns each mor than the last and none of us nor any of our guns have killed anyone. Also interesting is the fact that a gun is the only weapon that can make a single man equal in force to a group of thugs, or a 90 year old woman an equal force to a 35 year old mugger. If I carry a gun then noone can force me to do anything because the instant that my index finger is on trigger of my HK and my laser lights up their only option is to reason with me and if I see the logic then I will gladly disengage the light and holster my firearm and go home happy that I have not had to take another persons life because as much as I don’t want to I will. And as a final argument I would like to point out the most obvious reason and in my mind te only one I need.
    The constitution declares that it is not only the right but if you read it it insinuates that there is a responsibility of the people to own them and to form a well regulated militia. The reason for this is because the founding fathers were well aware of the possibility that the government would one day attempt to restrict access to firearms and knew that the only thing stopping them is te well armed and trained citizens of the United States. Please don’t think that I am one of those anti police or military people you see out there. I am a huge supporter of the armed forces and am proud to say I have had a family member serve in every branch of the military and intend to do so myself.
    My father once told me that a gun was never a weapon but that it was a tool and was to be treated as one.

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