Gun Violence, Gun Rights . . . and God
When mass murder by a gunman occurs at a school, concert, church, or night club, everyone agrees it is horrific and tragic. A debate ensues when one presses for a particular solution to such gun violence. One view says we need more stringent gun legislation which would restrict gun access and availability. Another view says more gun restrictions aren’t the answer to gun violence since these would invariably and unjustly restrict the moral and legal rights of law-abiding citizens. Both views agree that living human beings are valuable and have a right to protect their lives and well-being, but they disagree about how far that right should extend.
Mike Austin’s engaging book God and Guns in America fills a gap in this debate by showing how theism adds both clarity and complexity to the debate. Christianity holds that God has made human beings with immeasurable worth, and this provides the clear basis for their respect-worthiness as well as their right to life and well-being. This means no human being may be treated as a mere means to someone else’s ends; each person must be treated as an entity with special, unique, and irreplaceably value. Human worth, then, is the basis for the right to life and well-being, and by extension, a right to protect or defend it (21–31). Determining whether guns are a justified form of protection is complex, because theological evidence must be weighed along with philosophical, empirical, and legal evidence.
Some Christians hold that Scripture permits human beings to defend their lives with the use of force. According to this justified violence view, the offender forfeits his right to life when he threatens yours, so you are justified to use a gun to harm the offender in self-defense (69–71). The state, for their part, should promote and safeguard your right to life and defensive gun use. Christian pacifists, however, think Scripture provides weighty evidence against using force to defend our lives. Since human life is of immeasurable worth and irreplaceable, we should use nonviolent means to protect ourselves and our families. While such means might lead to your death, Jesus’ message and example teach self-sacrifice (66–68). As such, we have no right to defend ourselves or our dependents using firearms, so the state should remove gun access.
Mike Austin on Gun Violence, the Status Quo, and Peacebuilding
Mike Austin finds both views partially mistaken, so he argues for peacebuilding as a third way to think about gun rights and restrictions. The main problem for Mike is that America is riddled with gun violence (i.e., homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings), yet we have done little to address what might be done to reduce it. Call this the status quo. Austin agrees with the pacifist solution that Jesus teaches and embodies an ethic of love, and this means we should sacrificially will the good of others including enemies (66–69). However, Austin thinks, Jesus’ teachings about love are consistent with the limited use of force to defend oneself and family, if it is a last resort. Perhaps it is unloving to sacrifice your family for the offender. We should cultivate sacrificial loving minds and hearts that discern what to do in each situation (107–20).
Austin’s rejection of the justified violence view can be boiled down to two central issues. First, he disagrees with those who believe gun rights cannot be forfeited, overridden, or restricted. The yearly tally of homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths are salient evidence the right to bear arms may be justifiably restricted with new gun legislation (21–26). Second, he disagrees with Christians who take a “guns first” approach to self-defense. This runs afoul theologically by diminishing the value of human life (65–89); prioritizing violent approaches to conflict-resolution instead of peaceful ones (91–106); and cultivating character that is inconsistent with Christlike love (107–21). Austin’s peacebuilding solution urges the use of firearms only as a last resort. In addition, it urges the implementation of legal restrictions on firearms including: universal background checks, stronger criteria for who can purchase firearms, federal red flag laws, repealing stand-your-ground, mandatory, federal gun safety courses, liability insurance for gun owners, etc. (121–42).
Timothy Hsiao engages Austin’s work from a justified violence perspective, finding three areas of weakness for Austin’s defense of peacebuilding view. First, the empirical data does not support increased firearm restrictions. Rather, it supports defensive gun use, including more concealed carry and fewer gun-free zones. Second, Austin’s scriptural support for his view is mistaken. Hsiao argues the Bible supports being a committed Christ-follower and using firearms for self-defense. Finally, Austin’s peacebuilding view unjustly limits firearm use, though Hsiao agrees that the nature of gun ownership must be tailored to the nature of the threat. It follows that handguns and so-called “assault weapons” would be morally (and legally) justified.
Dolores Morris is sympathetic to Austin’s view, though she worries that Austin’s broad dismissal of Christian nationalism fails to engage the less extreme form more common among Christian gun owners. She thinks it is unclear that the peacebuilding view is entirely distinct from the justified violence view, and that it remains possible that increased gun use could reduce the loss of innocent life more than greater restrictions on gun use. Finally, she challenges Austin to explain whether it is only actual violence that is precluded by peacemaking, or if even the preventative threat of violence runs counter to this view.
Gregory L. Bock is sympathetic to a virtue-centered ethic that emphasizes sacrificial love; however, he finds two tensions in Austin’s peacebuilding view. First, it lacks a clear overarching framework that integrates Austin’s view of rights, duties, virtues, etc. Bock recommends the agapic ethics framework as holding promise for this task. Second, it’s unclear how the peacebuilding view can consistently maintain that gun violence is sometimes justified, while at the same time claiming it’s likely wrong for Christians to conceal carry at church.
Lucas Mather brings his background in political philosophy and law to critically engage Austin’s understanding of the status quo. He argues that there’s a crucial part of the firearms status quo that Austin ignores, namely, otherwise law-abiding citizens becoming felons by exercising their moral right to defend their life and well-being. Salient cases include conceal carrying in gun-free zones and possessing firearms with a magazine capacity exceeding the legal limit. Mather walks us through Supreme Court rulings in favor of the defendants in such cases, and the import these have for our legal right to keep and bear arms rather than the state’s right to restrict it.