Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormons and guns: It’s time to set limits

Crime scene tape surrounds a Mormon church in Fallon, Nev., after a fatal shooting on July 22, 2018. Screenshot via AP video

On Sunday, a middle-aged Mormon man went into the LDS chapel where his ward was having sacrament meeting, and sat quietly for part of the service. Then he opened fire, killing one ward member and wounding another.

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to come to terms with this news. This is not a hate crime perpetrated by someone from outside my religious community; this was committed by one of our own.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, police don’t yet know the gunman’s motive, but he may have been specifically targeting either the man who died or the man who was wounded but survived. Neighbors and fellow ward members seem shocked because the shooter had no known history of violence.

I am sure that many Mormons will dismiss this as an isolated incident that in no way reflects our community. I would very much like to believe that, but the truth is I’m not so sure. My ambivalence stems from Mormon Americans’ strange relationship with guns.

On the one hand, Mormon churches actually have a specific rule in the LDS handbook that forbids anyone except police officers from bringing lethal weapons into church buildings:

And earlier this year, LDS prophet Russell M. Nelson seemed to cast his weight behind efforts for stricter gun control laws after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February. He said:

“I know your hearts are heavy, as are Wendy’s and mine, as we contemplate those ruthless killings in Florida last week.

I think of Alaina Petty, a fourteen-year-old Latter-day Saint whose life was snuffed out by that sniper’s bullet. It’s natural for you and others to say: ‘How could God allow things like that to happen?’ Well, God allows us to have our agency, and men have passed laws that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them.”

But there’s a pretty big “on the other hand.” Many Mormons are deeply and vocally supportive of the Second Amendment. The “LDS Liberty Products” website says this stance dates back to the Mormon pioneers, who relied on guns for hunting and protection.

I don’t agree with much on that website, but I concur that the legacy of “pioneer culture” runs deep among Mormons. In fact, today—July 24—is a state holiday in Utah for precisely that purpose: to celebrate the contributions, both real and heavily embellished, of these mostly white American Mormons.

But pioneer culture would have us imagining that Mormons use their guns only to achieve self-sufficiency and to prevent violence. Sunday’s shooting puts the lie to that, and it’s not my people’s only violent incident. In 2014, 15-year-old Mormon Jared Padgett killed a fellow student at his Oregon high school, injured a teacher, and then took his own life.

He was a nice kid, by all accounts, before he became a murderer. He had been the president of his ward’s deacons’ quorum. He loved to play soccer. And he had an abiding fascination with guns and the military.

Some of Mormon America’s apparent love affair with guns is a regional dynamic: more Western states have liberal gun laws than Eastern states do. But even within those parameters, Mormon-majority Utah has been called the most lenient state in America on gun control.

In a 2013 JAMA study, researchers identified 28 separate possible gun control measures that various states had enacted, and categorized them according to five broad goals:

  1. curb firearm trafficking;
  2. strengthen background checks on purchasers of firearms beyond those required by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act;
  3. ensure child safety;
  4. ban military style assault weapons; and
  5. restrict guns in public places.

For each of the 28 possible measures, states could earn one point. Liberal-leaning Massachusetts received the highest score, with 24 out of 28 possible gun control measures enacted by the legislature.

Utah received the lowest score, with zero points.

Not much has changed in the intervening five years. Guns & Ammo ranked Utah sixth in its 2017 list of the best places in the U.S. to be a gun owner. “Utah gets full points nearly across the board due to its protections of the rights of gun owners,” the magazine enthused. “There are no permits to purchase or own any type of firearm and municipalities cannot regulate virtually any gun-related activity. The state has a strong use-of-force laws and all NFA items are legal for ownership.”

So why was Utah sixth and not first? The rankings were so close, the authors concluded, that it was really a “six-way tie” at the top. G&A seemed to be giving the edge to states that were passing new measures of leniency, praising their efforts to do away with all restrictions. Utah had already done all that, so there was nothing new to applaud.

There is a tiny possibility of change. In February of this year, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, Utah lawmakers were cautiously wondering aloud if maybe, just maybe, there might be something to the idea of sensible restrictions on firearms. Perhaps a background check? A greater commitment to school safety?

But the legislative session was about to end, so any discussion of gun control was postponed to 2019—after the 2018 elections, by a strange coincidence.

I don’t think Utah will pass sensible restrictions on guns (age limits, mental health background checks, bump-stock bans). We should not hold our breath that Utah will pass any restrictions whatsoever, because its legislators—nearly nine out of ten of whom are LDS—know their constituents and the premium those voters place on personal freedom, even at the expense of innocent lives.

I am reminded of some warning words that LDS president Spencer W. Kimball issued more than 40 years ago. After taking the Saints most vigorously to the proverbial woodshed and lambasting their materialism, sexual sins, lack of faith, laziness, and general idolatry, most of Kimball’s final words were about militarism and violence.

We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44–45.)


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

45 Comments

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  • “the Mormon pioneers, who relied on guns for hunting and protection”

    Mountain Meadows!!!

  • It is unlikely in the extreme that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints given its history and tradition (John Moses Browning, arguably the greatest American gun designer and the founder of Browning Arms in Utah was a member) will join the Episcopal Church in taking a position foursquare in favor of gun control.

  • I love Spencer Kimball’s words but on occasion they gravitate toward the extreme- like his sex is for procreation take. Can you imagine having sex only when you want to create children? Thank goodness it takes some people years to get pregnant by natural means because if it didn’t, and Spencer’s views were literal, then if you wanted three kids you’d only have sex three times in your life!

    Hmm, I read his gun/patriotism views here but there’s no mention that Joseph Smith fired back at Liberty Jail or that the USA was created by patriots who fought with their blood/lives for freedoms and liberty from the oppressive British crown of the era.

    Oh yes, unquestioning patriotism is a danger alright and it’s wise to exercise thought on matters of rights/freedoms and taking up arms.

    I think the current ruling about no lethal weapons is good enough. When I was a young man we had air rifle marksmanship contests in the cultural hall (Fairfield chapel in Melbourne Australia) but the church ruled that these were ‘too gun’ or something and you’re not allowed to have shooting competitions anymore, which is sad.

  • But pioneer culture would have us imagining that Mormons use their guns only to achieve self-sufficiency and to prevent violence. Sunday’s shooting puts the lie to that,

  • Typical liberal, hang-wringing to do away with guns. Ignore the fact the tens of thousands of Mormon’s and other Americans, carry guns every day for work, to hunt or for protection with no issues. Yet, when an incident like this occurs by one evil person, it’s time to take the guns away from all the law-abiding citizens.
    I rather enjoyed the little, “white Mormon” dig toward the end of the column; and the ever so popular liberal, moral dilemma that people choose personal freedom at the expense of innocent lives.
    Yes Jana they do; thankfully this country still places a premium on personal liberty.

  • Far too many Americans fantasize about themselves as rugged, gun-toting pioneers facing down the dangers of the world–or even a rogue goverment–with a trusty shootin’ iron. In the meantime, they pose a threat to themselves and others, especially their own children, because this silly macho fantasy matters more to them than health and safety.

  • My sense is that Mormons in general are all over the map on guns. Its true that Utah, with its conservative politics, is lax on gun control. But Utah doesn’t equal Mormons in general and neither of the shooting incidents which were cited in the article actually happened in Utah. It is a bit of a rhetorical leap to use Utah’s gun laws to argue that Mormons have a problem with guns.

    My sense is that Mormons are more likely to correlate their views on guns with the views in their region rather than their coreligionists.

  • You must live on the east or west coast; or in mom’s basement because your smarmy comment insults the very fabric that founded the nation.
    99.9999% of gun owners are responsible law abiding citizens that know how to use a weapon and use it purposefully and responsibly.
    Your generalization that you use here that gun owners are irresponsible and dangerous is by default erroneous and dishonest.
    Perhaps you should address the issue for what it is- an evil actor who used a gun to commit a horrible crime. Or, maybe you would prefer to discuss the Americans that fantasize about being a gang banger in the inner-city of Chicago?

  • My non-gun-owning opinion: So Utah needs to have strict gun laws like Massachusetts because Mormons love guns and a lot of Mormons are in Utah? And Russell M. Nelson did, as stated, cast his weight behind efforts for stricter gun control laws, but to be specific, not all the laws the author advocates, but, based on his statement, “men have passed laws that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them,” better screening to keep them out of the hands of those that shouldn’t have them, which is what the NRA askes for. From the NRA: Since 1966, the National Rifle Association has urged the federal government to address the problem of mental illness and violence. As we noted then, “the time is at hand to seek means by which society can identify, treat and temporarily isolate such individuals,” because “elimination of the instrument by which these crimes are committed cannot arrest the ravages of a psychotic murderer.”

    More recently, the NRA has supported legislation to ensure that appropriate records of those who have been judged mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to mental institutions be made available for use in firearms transfer background checks. The NRA will support any reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans. https://www.nraila.org/articles/20130124/mental-health-and-firearms

  • “Many Mormons are deeply and vocally supportive of the Second Amendment.”

    Then you are going to have to accept more gun murders and suicides as a result of this. If you make it easy for anyone to get guns with nothing in the way of training or oversight, then you make it easy for people who shouldn’t have guns to get guns without having to worry about training or oversight. More gun deaths and more Mormons being shot is the clearly foreseeable and unavoidable consequence of this position. If you aren’t prepared to own those consequences, change your position, because nothing else you do will change the results.

  • Jana,

    Many gun control advocates operate in bad faith. They have gotten gun rights advocates to compromise on past legislation, but they’ve moved the goalposts to legislation of dubious value and falsely claim supporters of gun rights don’t compromise by ignoring collaborative work on existing laws.

    A case in point is the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act you mentioned. It was a law I supported. It should be acknowledged, however, it was a significant compromise by those who support legal gun ownership considering the right is enshrined in the constitution with the caveat “shall be not infringed.” For perspective on that compromise, image how far anti-abortion measures would get if abortion rights had that protective language in the constitution.

    Your comment “just maybe, there might be something to the idea of sensible restrictions on firearms. Perhaps a background check?” indicates you are not familiar with what the Brady law does.

    The result of the Brady Law is that OVER eight out of ten (83-85%) gun purchases in the US now involve a background check. If you are a licensed gun dealer, you must perform a background check on every sale. That is regardless of whether the sale is out of their store, garage, or gun show. Since the law was passed, over 273 million checks have occurred. 2% of those checks have resulted in rejections.

    What of the purchases that don’t involve a background check? This isn’t a loop hole. It was part of the carefully crafted compromise to not make the law overly burdensome on private citizens, who aren’t dealers, to sell their own guns. If Peter wants to sell his .22lr Sig Sauer to use the money to purchase something else, he can sell it to his neighbor, Paul, or sister, Mary, without getting the federal government involved. It’s a pretty good compromise, since gun control advocates are hard pressed to show how lack of these additional checks would have prevented most of the shootings we read about. The fact that gun control advocates want to undo the compromise shows their lack of good faith.

  • There wouldn’t be Mormons in Utah if it wasn’t for guns. They would have been massacred long before they got there.
    Just got back from visiting the mission in Walla Walla Washington. The Whitmans were absolute fools.

  • A law that you can’t conceal carry in a church is no barrier to somebody who plans to shoot somebody else. That being said, let’s be reasonable. The Second Amendment is in the Constitution for a very good reason. Even Mormons–maybe especially Mormons with their history–benefit from the Second Amendment. However, there really is no such thing as an unlimited right to anything. Rights come with responsibilities. If a state wants to require a background check, I find it hard to see how that would be a violation of the Second Amendment. If a state wants to require that guns be locked up or secure in the control of the owner to ensure safety, fine again. Some not overly intrusive safety training? Good. Ownership age to 21, since that is the final age of majority in many states? Okay. It is hard to believe that the Second Amendment was designed to protect against any of those responsibility requirements.

    As far as Utah and Mormons, there is some recent research linking alcohol offenses, like DUIs, to violent crimes and gun crimes (4x-5x more likely to commit a gun crime or violent crimes with past alcohol crime, See BMJ Journals, Vol. 4, Issue 1). Maybe Mormons should ban drinking alcohol to reduce violent crimes–that’s right, they did. Of course, more states could take gun rights from those who are irresponsible with substances, including alcohol. How about banning violent entertainment, movies, and games? First Amendment? Are we sure that is what the Framers of the Constitution were trying to protect–the right to watch thousands of people be graphically murdered for entertainment? Really? And don’t tell me this stuff is not a factor in gun crimes. We are supposed to believe that a 30-second commercial can impact buying behavior and maybe even convince somebody to spends thousands of dollars, but a two-hour movie glamourizing violence has no impact at all. Gun crimes are going to be around for a long time to come, given all the rights and so little responsibilities.

  • I have never owned a gun. Gun ownership carries some serious legal, ethical, and other responsibilities.

    But you know, every church should have a well-thought-out security plan (just like any normal business or government agency would likely have), just in case. That seems ethically okay.

    So lately, I’ve been looking into some helpful church security resources that might come in handy, just in case. Nothing flashy, just good ole practical common-sense stuff. Fortunately, the good folks at “FPS Russia” are very up-to-date on these matters, so I feel comfortable sharing a reasonable cheap accessory they mentioned.

    https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=russian+40mm+magine+gun&view=detail&mid=8D52DD149E447274DC9E8D52DD149E447274DC9E&FORM=VIRE

  • Man, there must be a TON of Mormans in the inner city of Chicago…..
    And LA, Newark, Baltimore, Atlanta, etc.

  • You make a great point!
    I live in the American Redoubt. Probably more guns here than anywhere else. But yet hardly any murders. Most will ignore the correlation.
    I just moved from Atlanta simply to protect my family. The only crime here in the Redoubt is meth related crimes — shop lifting; car break-ins etc. The Tv show “Live PD was here for a time; but the ratings were terrible. Too many boring stories. Everyone loves police chases and shoot outs. Not too many are entertained by petty domestic issues. Thus Live PD bailed.

  • You have accept a lot of things if you want the Bill of Rights.

    The support for the notion that “you are going to have accept more … murders and suicides” is dubious. Yes to gun murders and suicides, but the methods used are a trivial matter.

    This particular murder would have been as lethal with an axe, a knife, a bomb, or any number of other readily available items.

    The problem appears to be the murderer rather than the weapon.

  • If the purpose of a firearm is to protect home, hearth, kith, and kin I find it hard to see how that could be accomplished with it locked up.

    Are you familiar with the SCOTUS Heller decision?

    Apparently the firearm used in this murders was secure in control of its owner.

    The Framers of the Constitution were not trying to protect the right to watch thousands of people be graphically murdered for entertainment. They were trying to protect individuals who might find that entertaining.

  • You find genocide of gay and trans people to be entertaining. No wonder you love guns so much.

  • It’s been awhile since I updated my violent crime numbers, but last I looked Utah was 43rd in the number of violent crimes with a Brady Ranking of only 12 … a ranking it shared with Louisiana, which was 5th in the nation for violent crimes. Of course, Louisiana’s rank in violent crime was only three above Maryland, which had the fourth highest Brady Ranking in the nation at 74.5. The level of violent crime involves more than just how easy it is to own a gun.

  • And your disparaging macho criticism apparently matters more to you than individual liberty.

    Disagree? Well it’s no less accurate than your statement on public health. Honest people of good intent acknowledge that both sides just have a different opinion on the cost-benefits of a policy.

    Here’s what you’re not appreciating – some (rightly, in my book) people believe guns in the hands of good people have done more good for this nation than the negative of guns in the hands of bad.

    And further, they hold the belief that the public health and liberty of the future is in greater danger from mere potential of multiple generations being unarmed than from a minority in every generation actually misusing those arms.

    There’s just no guarantee that 3 generations into disarmament we won’t have tryanny here. It’s not so simple as one day calling out the Marines on the populace and out of the blue after guns are banned and militias will hastly assemble and fight back… That isn’t the story that gun owners are expecting.

    But in every society with a tyrant, they all got to a point where it would not have been expected to “end like this” by the population, and they all by and large were disarmed.

    Sorry, but because you don’t agree with that, think it’s wrong, or don’t see the wisdom in it, doesn’t do away with the purpose of the 2nd amendment. We don’t need your permission. But you owe it to the rest of America to understand the basis of your government and its foundation before will dismissing it as outdated machismo.

    The blessings of civilization we enjoy are far more frail than the delicate environment that an environmentalist seeks to protect.

    The right of good people to prepare for the worst is not diminished when others misuse that right.

  • Those were my exact thoughts as I was reading the article. People forget that Utah is only 60% Mormon and Salt Lake County itself is only about 40% Mormon and of those only 65% or so are active members.

  • The focus on “gun murders” and “gun suicides” isn’t really productive in this debate. The only thing that matters is total murders and suicides. Having said that, there is some evidence that tougher gun laws reduce suicides generally, and Utah definitely needs to do whatever it can to address the suicide problem, but “gun deaths” isn’t a useful concept. Death by gun or by vehicle or by poison is all just as tragic.

  • Utah is stupidly pro-gun, which says less about the 2nd Amendment than it does about macho, egomaniacal rah-rah. The right to protect yourself is older than the republic. It’s fundamental. I agree with anybody who says it’s wrong to leave people defenseless. We’re not all going to be ninjas. But if you’re going to have guns in a society, you’re going to have to have gun laws.

    Even the right to bear arms, which was not created by the 2nd Amendment so much as cited by it, goes back at least to England’s Glorious Revolution and its subsequent passage of the English Bill of Rights. The EBR defends the ouster of King James for a dozen reasons, one of which was for “causing several good subjects, being protestants, to be disarmed, at the same time when papists were both armed and employed, contrary to law.”

    What was “contrary to law” was the selective disarmament of Protestants, leaving them sitting ducks against “papists” (English Catholics). Today, we’d talk about this in terms of Freedom of Religion, Due Process and Equal Rights. The EBR, which Prince William signed, declared “That the subjects which are protestants, may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions, and as allowed by law.”

    That’s the Right to Bear Arms, referred to in the American Bill of Rights (ABR). The Founders didn’t create it. They simply claimed it as free men. It was among the various “rights of Englishmen.” If anybody’s going to be armed, everybody “may have arms for their defense,” but notice the qualifications: “suitable to their conditions, and as allowed by law.”

    The Brits have since restricted gun rights in their own country. Americans are far freer, in part because our “conditions” included survival on the frontier. Early American colonists had to deal with the French and the Spanish and were, at various times, in varying conditions of peace and war, with the Natives. In the South, with its importation and continued detention of millions of people of African descent, as permanent slaves, guns were also popular, as the slaveowners were often outnumbered by the slaves they controlled. Both before and after the Civil War, Americans bought a lot of guns.

    So, America has had its own unique “conditions” making gun ownership more popular, for good and bad. The same could be said of Utah’s pioneers, who went to the Valley when it was still part of Mexico, who were driven there by violence and persecution, who found themselves surrounded by Natives and who were sharing a frontier with outlaws and in perpetual fear of a Union invasion, which eventually happened.

    Utahns love the great outdoors, live in a state with a very low population density, have a tradition of self-sufficiency, have nightmares of being the mass victims of violence, and love to hunt. If you mix that culture with the 2nd Amendment, it’s not surprising that so many Utahns would be fans of the right to bear arms. But there’s a difference between upholding the Constitution and being a certified gun nut. You can love guns – for their design, as a tool for hunting and sports shooting, and as a means of protecting your home and family. But nothing in that description requires the degree of insanity that typically echoes out of Utah whenever anybody talks about what should be “allowed by law.”

    Gun sales should not unregulated, even in Utah. If you have to have a license to run a restaurant, you should have to be licensed to arm people, especially since there are methods that so endanger the public that they should void your license and have you looking at jail time. People with serious mental disorders, compromising their ability to live their lives and exercise good judgment, should not have access to guns. Guns should be registered to somebody. When police find a gun at a crime scene, they should be able to trace it back to its legal owner. Except in self-defense or at a proper gun range, firearms should not be discharged within populated areas, as bullets have a tendency to travel and go through things – including people. Straw purchases should be illegal. The use of firearms in the commission of a crime should be aggravators. Nobody should bring a gun into a courthouse, a place of worship, an airport, a daycare, etc. Nobody with a conviction for domestic violence should be armed. Open carry, which has become the fashion accessory of so many gun nights, should not be happening in municipalities. Police shouldn’t have to decide whether the gun you’re waving around is mean to shoot somebody or your idea of a laser pointer.

    There are ought to be some limit on how armed anybody ought to be. Some guns, useful only as military hardware, should not be as easy to buy as a jug of milk. There are ought to be some qualifications for weaponry that poses a threat to large groups and the police.

    Of course, Utahns scoff at the idea of gun laws, so, as more and more people pour into the state – and its tiny towns turn into major metropolitan centers – you’re going to see more and more gun violence. Eventually, it will hit home. Sooner or later, Utahns will want something done about the problem. That’s how it goes.

  • Gun safety will not happen in Utah and leadership will only offer generic phrases because conservatism runs deeper than the gospel.

  • Most mormons now live outside Utah and the US. A lot of us think your constitution including 2nd amendment rights are stupid

  • The Book of Mormon has a hero named Captain Moroni. He encouraged weapons to defend family, country, etc.

  • Yes, the author has a clear bias (not an objective analysis), and quoted the LDS leader (SWK) that would most easily seem to support her conclusion. She conveniently forgot about the many prophet leaders of the Book of Mormon and Bible that literally fought on the front lines to defend their families and liberties from sworn enemies. Perhaps she does not study those books (and just writes for a living on LDS topics). We (as a society) need to eliminate hatred and anger against others. We should not allow social and mainstream media to allow a few youth to broadcast and promote their suicides. We have ridiculous amounts of exaggerated violence and gore in our movies, TV and video games. We must teach ourselves to shun fantasy violence. This would be a first step to curbing and eliminating murders in the streets. We see that Britain (which pretty much bans guns) still has much murder with knives and such. I’m not against reasonable controls regarding who can buy or own a gun. However, most folks are afraid to give an inch, because of those that would completely ban all guns (and want to take away even more basic liberties–such as freedom of speech).

  • “Gun safety” is rampant in Utah. You confuse that concept with “gun restriction.” Teach people correct principles and they govern themselves…

  • I have never owned a gun, but I’m grateful for a 2nd amendment which ensures I have the right to do so if ever I feel compelled to do so.

  • The church does not even follow that old adage from Joseph. Hell, Joseph didnt even believe it.You are misinformed. Death by guns in Utah places them at the 19th highest comparing states. Horrible.

  • these are psy ops unnerstyand guns are a last resort against a tyranical govt which is what we have , havent you noticed. this rag is for the most ignorant jew mind scrtewed people on erathgun control like right to carry are unconsttutional an used for prfiveleged few these days new york passed its gun laws because too many criminals were being shot dead. thats a fact

  • I think President Nelson was referring to your second amendment rights. Your constitution is like the emperor that had no clothes. It was said it was divinely inspired and so people believe it not because of the fruits it bears but just because people have said it.

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