Symposium Introduction

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).

Contributors

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.

Timothy Hsiao

Response

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

A Critical Examination of Michael Austin’s God and Guns in America

There is much to digest in Michael Austin’s God and Guns in America. Austin carefully considers arguments made by those in defense of gun ownership and those critical of it. Although he finds merit in both sides, he ultimately concludes that the “status quo with respect to guns in America is unsustainable and unacceptable” (xvi).

I respectfully disagree. In what follows I will outline several problems with Austin’s arguments. These are divided into philosophical problems, empirical problems, and exegetical problems. My criticisms aren’t limited to the ones listed here, but space considerations preclude a detailed analysis.

Philosophical Problems

Austin grants the existence of a moral right to own a gun. However, he argues (following David DeGrazia) that this right must be balanced against other rights, such as the right not to be shot and the right to live in a reasonably safe environment.1

This is not the right way of framing the gun debate. To see why, it is helpful to focus on how the right to own a gun is derived. Elsewhere, I have argued (and Austin agrees: see pp. 24–25) that the right to own a gun can be derived from the right to life.2

Now the right to life has two faces: the positive right to life and the negative right to life. The former is the right to be given (by another person) the basic necessities of life, while the latter is simply the right to stay alive. Now in order to stay alive, you must have the right to keep yourself alive. This sometimes requires that we forcefully repel attempts at causing wrongful harm (i.e., self-defense). On that point, gun ownership is morally significant because it provides an individual with the ability to reliably and effectively resist attacks on his life. Hence, the right to own a gun is grounded in the right to resist wrongful harm (self-defense), which flows directly from the right to life.

This point is crucial, because it means that the moral right to own a gun is not justified on the basis that guns will increase our average safety (even if that is the case), but on the basis that we have a right to be our own last line of defense. This right cannot be discharged by any good or service, such as a police force. I may have the right to be kept safe, but I also have the right to keep myself safe, and I retain this right even if I live in an extremely safe environment where my chances of victimization are low. Any violation of right to life is irreversible and non-recoverable, and so the right to be our own last line of defense cannot be something that is contingent on statistical averages, nor can it be overridden by the (alleged) safety benefits provided to others by denying me this right.3 The right to live in a reasonably safe environment therefore cannot trump my right to a reasonable means of self-defense. Austin fails to distinguish between the right to be afforded a certain threshold of security (the positive right to life) and the right to resist when we come under attack (the negative right to life). These are distinct rights that are not in competition with each other.

Consider the right not to be shot: such a right places a requirement on others that they refrain from (wrongfully) shooting you. But this does not at all conflict with the right to forcefully resist with a gun when someone wrongfully threatens your life. These rights actually complement each other: we have a right against interference and a right to fight back when threatened.

Thus, as long as there is a non-zero probability of wrongful victimization, we retain our right to defend ourselves (and therefore our right to a reasonable means of defending ourselves). The question of whether there is a right to own a gun is therefore chiefly a matter of the intrinsic fitness of firearms for fighting back, and not whether firearms increase or decrease our average safety.4 And on that question, there is little room for doubt.5

Elsewhere, Austin argues that stand-your-ground laws should be repealed because they are prone to abuse (29–30, 131–32). This strikes me as a rather weak argument. The fact that such laws are sometimes abused does not mean they should be abolished, any more than the fact that self-defense pleas, insanity pleas, and duress pleas are sometimes abused means that we should abolish them. Stand-your-ground laws remove the duty to retreat, thereby enabling individuals to defend themselves (i.e., be their own last line of defense) wherever they are legally allowed to be. And for reasons just considered, the right to be our own last line of defense cannot be overridden simply by appealing to the right to a safe environment.

Empirical Problems

Austin describes his book as an “attempt to be fair” and his intention as being an “honest broker of information and arguments” (xvi). Unfortunately, his use of sources is anything but fair. I am not saying that Austin is writing in bad faith, only that his handling of the evidence shows a lack of engagement with sources critical of his position. Here are four examples:

First, Austin relies exclusively on Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America as evidence that the “standard story” of American gun culture is wrong. However, Haag’s work (like Michael Bellesiles before her) can confidently be described as junk history.6 There is extensive evidence that guns were widespread and held an important place in early American culture. Many colonies required household gun ownership and even imposed duties to be well-armed in church and public meetings.7 The idea that American gun culture was the product of clever marketing by gun companies has been thoroughly discredited.

Second, Austin’s discussion of the meaning and background of the Second Amendment is one-sided. While Austin appears to favor the collective rights interpretation, he does not engage with or even mention any serious research put forth by those who defend the individual rights view, even though there is plenty of it!8 Despite claiming that his goal is not to critique the individual rights view, his framing of the constitutional issue stacks the deck in his favor.

Third, in discussing the number of annual defensive gun uses (DGUs), Austin cites a white paper by the pro-control Violence Policy Center (38, 50). According to this paper, there are 58,500 defensive gun uses each year, a number generated by using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). However, there are well-known problems with using the NCVS as a source for DGUs—one being that the NCVS doesn’t ask about DGUs at all!9 Respondents are merely given the opportunity to volunteer this information if they indicated that they were the victim of a crime. More than twenty surveys that are designed to measure DGUs indicate that DGUs are more common than criminal uses of guns.10 The NCVS is the only outlier.

Fourth, Austin defends a number of policy proposals for more restrictive gun control. The justifications for these proposals are quite brief and lacking in substance, and at least two of them reflect a lack of awareness about firearms handling and self-defense dynamics. Austin speaks favorably of requiring RFID or “smart gun” technologies that require a fingerprint reader.11 There are a host of obvious practical problems with these technologies, including: lack of fine motor skills during a defensive encounter, poor grip/positioning, wet/gloved/bloody hands, battery issues, a simple failure to read (which happens with my smartphone’s fingerprint reader all the time), and the fact that one will not always be wearing an RFID watch. Austin also defends a ban on “high-capacity magazines,” which he defines as anything over ten rounds. But it is not uncommon to fire multiple rounds in defensive encounters (the human body is surprisingly resilient), and a ten-round limit imposes a major handicap on individuals who may face multiple aggressors.12

Exegetical Problems

A number of scholars have argued that Jesus’s injunction to sell one’s cloak and buy a sword in Luke 22:35–37 supports armed self-defense.13 Austin argues against this interpretation in favor of a prophetic interpretation (101–5). There are at least four problems with his rendering of this passage.

First, the suggestion that the prophecy of being “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:12) was fulfilled by the two swords is directly contradicted by Mark 15:28, where the prophecy is stated to have been fulfilled when Jesus hung between two thieves. Now although Mark 15:28 is a textual variant that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, it does provide valuable insight into how Luke 22:37 was historically interpreted by the church. In Luke 23:32–33, the two thieves are referred to as “criminals” and are placed between Jesus on each side of the cross. That Jesus is being numbered among transgressors is the most natural reading of this passage.

Second, the fulfilled prophecy interpretation does not make any sense of the reference to the moneybag and knapsack. If Jesus mentioned the sword strictly to refer to the fulfillment of prophecy, then why did he also mention the moneybag and knapsack? These two items had no relevance to being “numbered with the transgressors.” The more natural reading is that these three items are mentioned because Jesus is instructing the disciples to take appropriate measures to provide for themselves.

Third, the timing of the instruction to buy a sword does not fit well with the fulfilled prophecy interpretation. The events of Luke 22 take place during the last supper. If Jesus was saying that the disciples needed swords that very night in order that he should appear as a criminal, then it is strange why Jesus would tell them to go buy swords at supper time, with only a few hours’ notice before his arrest. Given the time of day, it would be very difficult to find a merchant still doing business. It is more plausible to suppose that Jesus’s advice to buy a sword was intended for a later context, not the events of that night.

Notice that Jesus is addressing those disciples who did not have swords (“let the one who has no sword buy one”) and telling them to obtain them. But if Jesus already knew that the two swords among the eleven disciples were enough to make him appear as a transgressor, then there was no point in instructing those who did not have swords to obtain them, especially when they couldn’t have done so given the time of day. Again, the more natural reading of the whole passage is that Jesus is encouraging each of the disciples to become self-reliant at a future time. The fact that the command to buy a sword is bundled with the command to buy a moneybag and knapsack lends additional support to this.

Fourth, at no point during the trial of Jesus are swords even mentioned. If the swords were supposed to facilitate Jesus’s appearance as a revolutionary criminal, then why didn’t the Sanhedrin use that charge against him? Indeed, when they were searching for false testimony against him, nobody mentioned the swords (Matt 26:59–61)! This silence is especially strange when we consider that Peter chopped off Malchus’s ear in front of a large audience.

But what about Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Matt 26:52, where he says that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword”? Austin argues this rules out the self-defense interpretation. Not so. Jesus is rebuking Peter’s specific misuse of the sword to interfere with God’s plan (John 18:11: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”). In other words, Jesus is saying that we may not advance the kingdom of God by force (John 18:36).

Note that Jesus does not tell Peter to get rid of his sword. Instead, he commands him to put his sword “back in its sheath” (John 18:11; Matt 26:52). Indeed, John’s description of the rebuke completely omits any negative reference to the sword, reporting only the command to sheath it. Likewise, Luke (who is the only gospel writer who mentions the command to buy a sword) reports Jesus’s rebuke as simply him saying, “No more of this!” The sword is not mentioned. In separating the rebuke from the sword, John and Luke appear to be drawing a distinction between the sword itself and how it is being used in that particular situation.

Conclusion

While there is much to think about in God and Guns in America, I am not persuaded of Austin’s arguments against the status quo.


  1. Elsewhere, I have critiqued DeGrazia’s position. See Timothy Hsiao and C’Zar Bernstein, “Against Moderate Gun Control,” Libertarian Papers 8.2 (2016) 308–25; and Timothy Hsiao and Kyle Blanchette, “Guns on Campus: A Defense,” in Bob Fischer, ed., College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues That Affect You, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2020).

  2. Hsiao and Blanchette, “Guns on Campus,” and Hsiao, “How to Think about the Gun Control Debate,” Think: Philosophy for Everyone 18.52 (2019) 21–29.

  3. See Deane-Peter Baker, Citizen Killings: Liberalism, State Policy, and Moral Risk (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 19–34.

  4. “Intrinsic fitness” refers to the inherent design of guns as effective, relatively easy-to-wield, and proportionate (unlike nuclear bombs). See the discussion of reasonableness in C’Zar Bernstein, Timothy Hsiao, and Matthew Palumbo, “The Moral Right to Keep and Bear Firearms,” Public Affairs Quarterly 29.4 (2015) 345–63.

  5. But just in case, there is a clear consensus in the scholarly literature that guns are effective at self-defense (although statistics are at best indirect measures of intrinsic fitness). See Gary Kleck and Miriam Delone, “Victim Resistance and Offender Weapon Effects in Robbery,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 9.1 (1993) 55–81; Lawrence Southwick Jr., “Self-Defense with Guns: The Consequences,” Journal of Criminal Justice 28 (2000) 351–70; Jongyeon Tark and Gary Kleck, “Resisting Crime: The Effect of Victim Action on the Outcomes of Crimes,” Criminology 42.4 (2004) 861–909; Timothy Hart and Terance Miethe, “Self-Defensive Gun Use by Crime Victims: A Conjunctive Analysis of Its Situational Contexts,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 25.1 (2009) 6–19; Rob Guerette and Shannon Santana, “Explaining Victim Self-Protective Behavior Effects on Crime Incident Outcomes: A Test of Opportunity Theory,” Crime and Delinquency 56 (2000) 198–226.

  6. In 2000, Michael Bellesiles published Arming America, which argued that guns were uncommon in early America and that American gun culture arose largely after the 1850s. His book was praised by historians and won the prestigious Bancroft Prize before it was discovered that he engaged in fraudulent research. Nearly every page contained errors. The book was withdrawn and pulped by the publisher, and Bellesiles was stripped of his Bancroft Prize and forced to resign from his tenured position at Emory University. Haag’s research is nothing more than a repackaged version of Arming America. See Clayton Cramer, “Bellesiles’ Arming America Redux: Does The Gunning of America Rewrite American History to Suit Modern Sensibilities?,” Southern Illinois University Law Journal 41 (2017) 403–38.

  7. See Clayton Cramer, Armed America: The Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006); Clayton Cramer, Lock, Stock, and Barrel: The Origins of American Gun Culture (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2018); David Harsanyi, First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun (New York: Threshold Editions, 2018).

  8. See for example Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013); Eugene Volokh, “The Commonplace Second Amendment,” New York University Law Review 72.3 (1998); Randy Barnett, “Was the Right to Keep and Bear Arms Conditioned on Service in an Organized Militia?,” Texas Law Review 83.1 (2004).

  9. See the discussion in Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and their Control (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996), 152–54; and Gary Kleck, “The Frequency of Defensive Gun Use,” in Gary Kleck and Don Kates, Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2001), 229–35. Austin argues that Kleck’s own survey implies DGU overestimates, in that the number of DGUs for burglaries would have to exceed the total number of burglaries. This is addressed in Kleck, “Degrading Scientific Standards to Get the Defensive Gun Use Estimate Down,” Journal on Firearms and Public Policy 11 (1999) 77–138.

  10. Alan I. Leshner, Bruce M. Altevogt, Arlene F. Lee, Margaret A. McCoy, and Patrick W. Kelley, eds., Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence (National Academies Press, 2013), 15–16; also see the discussion in Gary Kleck, “What Do CDC’s Surveys Say about the Frequency of Defensive Gun Uses?,” SSRN Working Paper (2019) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3194685.

  11. Austin does not explicitly say that smart gun technologies should be mandatory, but all of the other proposals he lists in that section are framed as legal requirements.

  12. And it’s not even clear that a “high capacity” magazine ban would do much, as “no more than 15.8 percent of U.S. mass shootings (4+ dead) in 2012–2019 involved a shooter using such a magazine.” See Gary Kleck, “Do Mass Shooters Prefer Large-Capacity Magazines?,” SSRN Working Paper (2020), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3552203, and Gary Kleck, “Large-Capacity Magazines and the Casualty Counts in Mass Shootings: The Plausibility of Linkages,” Justice Research and Policy 17.1 (2016).

  13. See for example Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 556–57; David Lertis Matson, “Double-Edged: The Meaning of the Two Swords in Luke 22:35–38,” Journal of Biblical Literature 137.2 (2018) 463–80; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 1068–69; Trent C. Butler, Luke, Holman New Testament Commentary 3 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 371; John A. Martin, “Luke,” in J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 2:260.

  • Michael Austin

    Michael Austin

    Reply

    Response to Timothy Hsiao

    Timothy Hsiao’s disagreements with the views in my book are wide-ranging. He rejects my claim that the current status quo in America is “unsustainable and unacceptable” (xvi). But the following is part of the status quo with respect to gun violence in America: it is the leading cause of death for children and teens, there are numerous racial injustices related to it, and we are approaching forty thousand annual deaths due to such violence—over half by suicide.1 This is clearly unacceptable. I suspect Hsiao agrees, but disagrees about what, if anything, is to be done.

    Empirical Disagreement

    Hsaio objects to several empirical aspects of my book, all of which I cannot address here.2 Regarding the number of defensive gun uses (DGUs), I’m less concerned about the fact that the NCVS doesn’t ask about DGUs in particular, because it asks respondents about whether they did anything to protect themselves.3 There are problems related to the data generated by numerous surveys and studies.4 Hsiao points out some for the NCVS. Consider others. Gary Kleck has argued that there are 2.5 million DGUs annually in the United States.5 There are potential problems here related to personal presentation bias, the supposed anonymity of the survey, and whether or not Kleck successfully corrected for oversampling in places with high levels of gun ownership.6 I do not think we can resolve the debate about DGUs and gun violence more generally with “bare empirical data.”7 The methodology, interpretations, character, and armchair assumptions made by people across the ideological spectrum must be examined. Moreover, the moral and spiritual issues are more central.

    Exegetical Disagreement

    Given the enigmatic nature of Luke 22:35–38,8 it is unsurprising that many scholars can be found who support a variety of interpretations, including the prophetic one I hold to be correct. In addition to the arguments in my book (101–5), consider the following.

    First, while the fact that Mark 15:28 is a textual variant should not be minimized, there is no contradiction between it and the prophetic interpretation of Luke.9 Both events could fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12, especially in light of the multiple fulfillment of other prophecies.

    Second, why does Jesus mention the Isaiah prophecy here, if it is unrelated to the two swords and instead has to do with being crucified alongside criminals?

    Third, a close reading of the Luke passage lends itself to the prophetic interpretation. The beginning of v. 37, “For I tell you . . . ,” naturally refers to what immediately precedes it, the command to buy a sword. When the disciples point out that they have two swords, Jesus replies, “It is enough.” Enough to defend twelve people against a future attack? Perhaps, though it seems like they would need more than two, given that they won’t always be together. Enough to fulfill Isaiah 53? Certainly.

    Finally, while I do not argue in the book that Jesus’s command in Matthew 26:52 rules out a self-defense interpretation (105), it does count against it. Jesus does not merely command Peter to put his sword away because he must go to the cross rather than start a revolution. He tells Peter that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” which sounds much more like a wide-ranging moral claim than a narrow contextual one. My rejection of pacifism is challenged by this and other passages, because we are not to advance the kingdom of God by force (John 18:36). Given the all-encompassing nature of that kingdom, and the fact that everything Christ-followers do is to honor or advance it, one could construct a strong Christian argument for pacifism from these and other passages.

    Philosophical Disagreement

    Concerning stand-your-ground laws, my argument is not that they should be abolished because they are sometimes abused.10 They should be abolished because they are unjust. First, they encourage citizens to shoot first and remove the duty to retreat. Second, the presumed reasonableness of the belief that one’s life is in danger can be and is often a product of prejudice. In states with stand-your-ground laws, a white person who kills a black person is eleven times more likely to be found innocent compared to a black person who kills a white person (30). When legal structures and persons deem it reasonable to see unarmed black people as threatening, there is more going on than an abuse of the law (30). There is injustice, both personal and systemic.

    If I can safely retreat without shooting or killing another human made in God’s image, then it is incontrovertible that this is my Christian duty. This also preserves the right, if it is a right, to be my own last line of defense. Most importantly, it is a concrete way to love my neighbor, including my enemy, as myself.11

    Hsaio and I agree that there is a right to own a gun, grounded in the right to life. I agree that the positive right not to be shot and the negative right to be one’s own last line of self-defense can complement each other. But they also can, and do, come into conflict. What matters most is not the distinction between positive and negative rights, but the distinction between absolute and conditional rights (24).

    If the moral right to be my own last line of defense is in fact a right, and an absolute right, then does this permit individual possession of a fully automatic firearm? A tank or RPG? What about weapons of mass destruction? Hsiao might point to his claim that there is only a right to a reasonable means of self-defense. Much hinges on what counts as reasonable. I would argue that these weapons are unreasonable means of self-defense in part because of their great potential to harm or kill innocent people. This same reasoning undergirds the arguments and policy proposals I offer in the book.12

    If there were zero restrictions on who could own a gun, and on what types of weapons in general one could possess, then the rights of many not to be killed by a firearm or some other weapon—their right to life—would more likely be violated. As Hsiao points out, violations of that right are irreversible and non-recoverable. This is true regardless of the particular manifestation of that right in a positive or negative form. Given this, I think my framing of the debate is both accurate and helpful, as we attempt to better secure the right to life of all people. We can reduce gun violence while protecting the rights of responsible gun owners.


    1. See https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america and https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls.

    2. On Haag’s The Gunning of America, and my five-page discussion of the historical roots of contemporary American gun culture, consider the following. If Hsaio is rejecting the claim that current gun culture is solely the product of marketing, then I agree. In fact, I conclude the discussion of some of the relevant history as follows: “The gun culture that exists today is the result of different threads: pursuit of profit, life on the frontier, and self-defense” (9). To support this conclusion, I rely on Haag, but also two other sources. One of those sources—David Yamane, “The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture,” Sociology Compass 11.7 (July 2017)—claims that guns were needed on the farm and the frontier, and in light of this I state that “there is some truth to the American myth about guns” (7). I think the standard story is wrong in the sense that it is incomplete. Haag provides a missing piece that adds to, rather than replaces, the standard story. Any denial of the claim that marketing is one of the significant explanations for contemporary gun culture, which is my point in this section, is wrong. Moreover, against Hsiao’s unfairness charge, Yamane agrees that gun ownership was widespread in early America and relies on one of the sources that Hsiao wishes I would have engaged, namely, Clayton Cramer, Armed America: The Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006). Finally, I don’t have a view on the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment. Since I argue that there is an individual moral right to bear arms, and hold that moral rights ground legal rights, I don’t see how my discussion of this amendment “stacks the deck in my favor.”

    3. I state that the range is somewhere between 55,000–120,000 per year (54). On this, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, maintains that there are good reasons to be skeptical of survey-based DGU estimates (personal correspondence). Since my original research for the book, my confidence that we have reliable data about DGUs has decreased, given the limitations and flaws in the ways researchers have tried to gather and interpret that data, and the nature of DGUs. There are reasons for thinking that the NCVS data may be too low. Kleck’s numbers are almost certainly too high. There is a lot of space between the two, and many problems with correctly ascertaining where the truth lies.

    4. For example, in his Private Guns, Public Health (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017), David Hemenway observes that in several surveys conducted by Harvard University, a small number of civilians report the lion’s share of DGUs. In a survey of 800 people, 70 percent of the self-defense incidents reported involved only five of the respondents. In a survey of 1,900 people, 74 percent of the incidents involved three respondents. And in a survey of 2,500 adults, one respondent reported using a gun in self-defense fifty times (over half of all such uses in the survey). Hemenway rightly states: “One might ask, who are these people who continually use guns, and are all these events really self-defense?” (74). I would add that some alleged DGUs could and should be avoided, as the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin makes clear.

    5. Gary Kleck and Marc Gerz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun,” Journal of Law & Criminology 86 (1995) 150–87.

    6. Hugh LaFollette, In Defense of Gun Control (Oxford University Press, 2018), 136–44, 168–71.

    7. LaFollette, In Defense of Gun Control, 139. For those interested in a critical discussion of empirical evidence and how it is used in the debate about guns and gun violence, as well as its limitations, see chs. 5–7 of this book.

    8. See https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2014/let-the-one-who-has-no-sword-buy-one-the-biblical-argument-for-gun-control-part-two.

    9. Hsiao says Mark 15:28 gives us valuable insight into the way the early church interpreted Luke 22. Many church historians point out the commitment to nonviolence that the early church had as well. I think the potential of this textual variant to give such insight is overstated by Hsiao.

    10. Though if a law is written in a way that it makes it structurally prone to abuse, we have good reason to abolish or revise it.

    11. See Matt 22:36–39 and Matt 5:44.

    12. Hsiao states that the justifications for my proposals are brief, which is true, and that is why I cite sources for those who want to look into them in more depth. He also states that they lack substance and a lack of awareness about self-defense scenarios. I disagree. Perhaps we can return to these issues during the discussion here.

Dolores Morris

Response

Christian Nationalists and Armed Peace Builders

First, I want to thank Michael Austin for writing such an important and timely book. If there is one thing about which every American will agree, it is that something has to change when it comes to gun violence in America. We all know that children should not have to be subjected to active-shooter drills; that our churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls ought to be free from the threat of gun violence. The question, of course, is how? How do we effect this change? The moment we turn our attention to this crucial question, we lose all semblance of agreement. We should do better. We should aim for common ground, even if that means compromising on some of the details. We need more people to do as Austin has done, addressing the concerns on both sides of this issue—because nobody wants to see this violence continue.

To that end, I want to raise a few questions and concerns on behalf of the gun-advocates within our church community. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a gun owner. I do not come from a family of gun owners, nor do I ever expect to be a gun owner. My goal is to play the role of the devil’s advocate—not merely for the fun of it, but because I think it is important that we reach as many members of the church as possible with this message. Imagine if the church could unite against gun violence and in favor of clear, attainable, and effective measures of gun control. What a witness that would be; what a great use of the body of Christ.

My first concern is the cursory dismissal of Christian nationalism. Again, I am not a Christian nationalist! And yet, I worry that this position has been too quickly dismissed, and without much by way of argument. Quite a lot of this book does a great job of considering both sides of the gun-control debate. (Chapter 3, “Guns, Lies, and Bad Arguments,” provides an excellent treatment of the bad arguments for and against gun control.) For that reason, I was surprised by the initial treatment of Christian nationalism. In chapter 1, Austin describes Christian nationalism as “an extreme form of right-wing American Christian ideology” and goes on to define it as follows:

Christian nationalism includes several core beliefs, such as (1) the Bible should be the only foundation for all of American life; (2) the United States must be returned to its status as a Christian nation; (3) conservative Christians are superior and have a right to rule over America; and (4) Christians must keep our nation from its continuing slide into the corruption wrought by secular humanism. (15–16)

This isn’t a strawman, exactly, for there are surely some who would affirm all four of these tenets. Still, there are far more people who would affirm only some, and who might nevertheless self-identify as Christian nationalists. I can think of people in my own life who believe that the United States has always been, and should still be, a Christian nation, and who absolutely believe that secular humanism has wreaked havoc on our society—yet these same people would reject the claim that the Bible should be the only foundation for American life and the claim that Christians are somehow superior and entitled to rule America. What should we say to these people? Are they Christian nationalists? Does it matter whether they take themselves to be Christian nationalists?

They certainly think that it matters. In 2019, the “Family Research Council” issued a statement on recent criticisms of Christian nationalism. In it, they charged “the Left” with the deliberate misrepresentation of Christian nationalism. The author, David Closson, writes: “Clearly, these left-leaning church leaders . . . are seeking to redefine nationalism in a way that implies something sinister about conservative Christians who love their country.” He concludes:

Christians ought to affirm God’s providential working in history. The material blessings of the United States are not unconnected from the Christian morality that has undergirded our country, and Christians should continue to exert their influence at all levels of government, while allowing a free marketplace of ideas that allows for open debate and religious freedom.1

Personally, I am uncomfortable with Closson’s politics, and in particular with what I view as a conflation of the Republican party with the Christian church. Still, we can learn this much from Closson: the moment we define Christian nationalism in such an extreme fashion, we have lost the ear of an enormous number of Christians who’s ear we really ought to aim to have.

The unfortunate truth is that anybody who affirms all four of the tenets listed above is not a person who is likely to be persuade by a careful biblical exegesis on the life of Christ and his views on power and violence—that is, by arguments like the ones in this book. The others, though—those who fall somewhere on what I would like to call the Christian nationalist spectrum—are far more likely to be interested in these kinds of reflections. They are, I think, the ideal target audience for a book like this, and I worry that they will be put off by Austin’s treatment of Christian nationalism as a whole. Austin writes:

There are many problems inherent in [Christian nationalism.] First, Christians should not seek to build a Christian state, but rather a just state. Second, Christian nationalism is both morally reprehensible and theologically unsound. The idea that conservative Christians are superior is ludicrous, as is the related Christian nationalist belief that they have a right to rule the United States because Genesis 1:28 gives them dominion over all the earth. (16)

 

Each of these claims requires an argument; each of these claims should be treated separately, for they are very different claims. Taking the time to address each of these tenets in detail might significantly increase the number of readers who make it past the first chapter of this book, and that would be a very good thing indeed.

My second concern is a minor suggestion, but I believe it could have significant implications. In chapter 4, Austin gives a brief overview of pacifism and just war theory, ultimately contrasting both with his own theory of peacebuilding. One thing that I found myself wondering throughout this chapter was whether it really made sense to draw the lines in this way. More specifically, I wonder: are just war theory and peacebuilding different ways of answering the same set of questions? Or are they instead addressing two different questions entirely? It seems to me that just war asks: “When is war permissible?” whereas peacebuilding asks, “When must we employ violence?” If I am correct, then one could—and, I would argue, even should—be both a just war theorist and a peace builder. After all, we need not invoke violence every time that it is morally permissible.

This leads me to my third and final concern. I suspect that many gun advocates also take themselves to be peace builders. Austin acknowledges those Christians who believe that “the answer to gun violence is more guns” (85). I would go further—I suspect that many such Christians would agree with the basic tenets of peacebuilding, taking themselves to be peace builders with guns. Now, nobody can claim to be a “peace builder” while advocating actual gun violence—but what about those who argue that the mere presence of armed guards prevents gun violence? That the threat of violence is, in fact, what is needed in order to ensure peace? Could they not argue that peacebuilding is compatible with their commitment to increase the armed presence at churches, schools, and the like?

I don’t believe that they can. I don’t believe that peacebuilding, properly understood, is compatible with a peace secured by the threat of violence. I’m certain that Austin agrees, but I would have liked to have seen a more substantial defense of this incompatibility using the resources of peacebuilding. More specifically, I would like to hear more from Austin about why the preventative threat of violence is contrary to Christian peacebuilding ideal. I think I can summarize this last concern as follows: Austin gives excellent philosophical and theological evidence for the biblical call to be peace builders. He gives predominantly pragmatic reasons why more guns is not the right way forward. My worry throughout this book was that a reader who is inclined towards the good guys with guns approach might dismiss or reject the pragmatic worries and adopt, instead, an armed peace builder approach. Pragmatic concerns call for pragmatic solutions, and gun advocates have no shortage of those on hand.

To see what I mean, consider the following passage. When raising the question of “good guys with guns” in church, he writes:

Regardless of whether a church hires an off-duty police officer or private security, allows members to carry guns into its services, or does none of the above, there is one thing on which we should all be able to agree. Followers of Jesus should be working toward a world in which the risk of being a victim of a shooting anywhere, including a mass shooting at church, is minimized. (87)

I hope that Austin is correct, and that we can all agree that followers of Christ should be working towards a world with less gun violence. But Austin goes on:

If the primary response is to arm ourselves at church, then we are not being faithful to our calling as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20) Our enemies are not flesh and blood, they are spiritual (Eph 6:10–20) I am concerned that we forget these and many other important truths in our impulse to answer gun violence merely with more guns, especially in our houses of worship. (87)

The crucial question here is why? What is it about armed security guards that undermines our calling as ambassadors for Christ?

If the answer is that “our enemies are not flesh and blood, they are spiritual,” this will not suffice. In a recent church shooting, a gunman was thwarted by an armed congregant. This volunteer security guard (Jack Wilson) absolutely took himself to be fighting more than mere flesh and blood. In an interview with NBC news, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t feel like I killed a human, I feel like I killed an evil. That is how I am coping with the situation.”2 So this, by itself, cannot be the answer.

Neither can the answer be purely pragmatic. Austin does an excellent job of pointing out the dangers of increased gun ownership. More guns mean more gun accidents; more stolen guns; more suicides. Still, there are two reasons why I believe the pragmatic answer cannot suffice. First, I worry it is possible that more guns could work—if we had enough of them, with the right sort of requisite training. After all, as we just saw, the good guy with a gun sometimes does prevent a greater catastrophe from unfolding. More importantly, I suspect that the would-be armed peace builder will not be convinced by the data on gun accidents. The safest airport in the world (Ben Gurion) is absolutely riddled with armed guards; it is something of a macabre joke that “gun free zones” are the ones most likely to be the scene of a mass shooting. Armed with these facts, a gun advocate could certainly aim to increase peace by increasing guns in public spaces while requiring various safety measures—fingerprint locks, liability laws, mandatory gun safety training in schools, etc. In such a world, we might find ourselves in churches, synagogues, mosques, and schools with visible, ever-present armed guards. It seems possible that we could do so without significantly increasing gun accidents. It even seems possible that doing so might reduce gun deaths. In a world in which armed guards are ubiquitous, it may well be that gun violence declines.

The second reason is, perhaps, more to the point: the world I’ve just described is not a world I want to live in. I want nothing to do with it. I do not believe that the body of Christ ought to work to bring this world into fruition, even if it would mean reducing gun deaths. That is, even if Austin were wrong about the pragmatic risks of gun ownership, he would still be right about the proper role of the body of Christ. Peace that is achieved and maintained only by the constant threat of violence is, I think, neither biblical nor Christlike—even if it obtains in a world with fewer acts of gun violence than the world in which we live.

I suspect that Austin agrees with me. In the really excellent penultimate chapter, “Christ, Character and a Colt .45,” Austin raises the possibility that guns are being revered as idols, offering a false sense of security and source of identity to many Christians in the United States. This was, unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the book. Still, I believe Austin could go one step further. There are sincere, reflective Christians who fall somewhere on the Christian nationalist spectrum and who believe that good guys with guns are the answer to gun violence. Austin knows this, of course; they are surely part of his intended target audience. I worry that those readers could leave this book with the following impression: Christians are called to be peace builders, resorting to violence only when necessary; guns are dangerous, so proper training is essential. Thus, if the church would train its congregants in gun safety, then the pragmatic worries could be overcome and armed guards could safely ensure that our churches were safe havens from gun violence.

I think that Austin is right about the pragmatic risks of increased gun ownership. He also clearly demonstrates that the message of the gospel is a message of peace, not violence. So what more do I want? Only this—for the resources of peacebuilding to be expanded and applied in a way that clearly demonstrates the problems of using the threat of violence as a path towards peace. Austin does this for enacted violence, but those who advocate for armed guards in churches tend to agree that violence itself should be avoided. Where they disagree, I think, is on the question of preventative armed threats. It seems to me that Austin’s peacebuilding can and should confront us not only with the question “When must we use violence?” but also “When must we resort to threats of violence?” I believe this would be an immensely beneficial application of his theory.

 


  1. https://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=WA19G54.

  2. Scott Stump, “I Believe That I Killed an Evil”: Church Security Guard Who Stopped Shooter Speaks Out,” Today, December 31, 2019, https://www.today.com/news/hero-who-stopped-texas-church-shooter-speaks-out-t170874.

  • Michael Austin

    Michael Austin

    Reply

    Reply to Morris

    Dolores Morris raises important concerns related to my book. She is concerned about the quick treatment and dismissal of Christian nationalism, and about the nature and application of peacebuilding as a Christian approach to violence in general, and gun violence in particular.

    First, her points regarding Christian nationalism are well-taken. It is a difficult perspective to define, to give necessary and sufficient conditions regarding what it means to be a Christian nationalist. I agree that thinking about this in terms of a spectrum is helpful, and I do in fact think of it in this manner. However, that is not clearly communicated in the book, as Morris points out. I confess that one reason for this, as I look back on it, is my own disdain for anything that hints of Christian nationalism. But like Morris, I know people, including people I respect, who identify as Christian nationalists but would likely reject the first three tenets I describe in the book.1 At the time, I was torn between an in-depth discussion of this ideology, and a very brief one. I opted for the latter, but it would have been helpful to go into a bit more detail, in a more fine-grained way, for the reasons Morris gives.

    Second, Morris wonders about the distinction between just war theory and peacebuilding, as I describe it. The way I think of the distinction is that the just war theorist asks, “Is violence or war justified in this case?” whereas the peace builder goes further, asking, “Even if violence or war is justified in this case, is there a nonviolent solution we can employ?” Strictly speaking, the peace builder is one who takes the just war notion that violence should only be used as a last resort more seriously than has been done in actual practice. It seems to me that in practice, just war theory is used to justify violence, often in an ad hoc manner. We cannot fault those who developed the theory for how it is used, but I think the rhetoric and emphases of peacebuilding are a useful corrective here, for those who reject pacifism but are uncomfortable with the applications of just war theory.

    In reply to Morris’s related concern about peacebuilding being consistent with even the threat of violence as a means to secure the peace, I have no doubt that many gun owners take themselves to be peace builders—with guns. My position is that peacebuilding can be compatible with the threat of violence as a means to securing peace, in theory. But it is very difficult to pull off in practice.

    One practical difficulty has to do with the potential impact of gun ownership and use on one’s character. Since the publication of the book, my concerns about the potential harms concerning character have deepened, as I’ve continued to think about these issues.2 As Christians, peacebuilding is not merely a political activity, it must start in our own souls. Anything that has the potential—as some parts of American gun culture do—to lead to the deterioration of empathy, compassion, love, and other key virtues, merits sustained attention, careful reflection, and a cautious approach.

    Setting concerns about character aside, is peacebuilding compatible with securing peace by the threat of violence? I struggle with this question. I want to be more radical here, and take the view that to follow the Prince of Peace means that we never rely on violence or the threat of it to secure peace. The Christian life is a kenotic (self-emptying), cruciform life, one in which we are to love our enemies and even be willing to give our lives for them. I moved closer to this more radical view as I wrote the book, and have continued to do so since its completion. But I’m not there yet, in part because we are also to love our neighbors. If someone wants to harm or kill our brothers and sisters on a Sunday morning, what is the loving thing to do? I can see plausible arguments for a pacifist approach, as well as one in which measures are taken for protection against violence using the threat of violence. I can understand why church leaders pay for an off-duty police officer or trained security to protect their people on Sunday morning.

    My current view is that the two are, strictly speaking, compatible. There may be times when the only way to secure the peace is by violence, or the threat of violence. However, our tendency to depend on violence or the threat of it is, unfortunately and wrongly, a well-worn one. Peace builders make allowances for the use of violence or a threat of it, as a true last resort. They also realize that situations could arise in which they must nonviolently resist violence, even at the risk of their own lives. But what they will not do is settle for a world in which violence is as prevalent and pervasive as it is in our world. They will ask about the root causes of violence, about why concerns related to being shot on Sunday morning are real, and then address those causes via the ministry of the body of Christ: poverty, injustice, prejudice, fear, cowardice, psychological issues, and the various ways that sin is manifested in violent behavior, both in our churches and in the social structures of America.

    Like Morris, neither I nor anyone who opts for peacebuilding will want to live in a world where armed guards are ubiquitous, where guns are the preferred means of protection at church, school, concert halls, movie theaters, and so on. Peace builders refuse to accept that such a world is necessary, because it isn’t. As I say in the book, “Guns are not a sign of freedom or security. They are often a sign of fear and insecurity. There are cases, of course, where guns save lives. But ‘they bring no enduring safety. At best, they maintain a tense, fragile substitute, like the electric détente when two warring gangs hold each other off with pointed weapons. . . . In our American democracy, we have higher ambitions’” (55).3 Followers of Christ should share these, and even higher, ambitions for the world in which we live and move and have our being.

    Peace builders will marshal all of the resources of God and his kingdom to help bring about a more just and peaceful world. As Morris puts it, “Imagine if the church could unite against gun violence and in favor of clear, attainable, and effective measures of gun control. What a witness that would be; what a great use of the body of Christ.” This is my hope. Let’s unite around the common ground we can find, and do something to bring about a world where peace is secured without violence, or even the threat of it.


    1. Christian nationalism includes several core beliefs, including: (1) the Bible should be the only foundation for all of American life; (2) the United States must be returned to its status as a Christian nation; (3) conservative Christians are superior and have a right to rule over America; and (4) Christians must keep our nation from its continuing slide into the corruption wrought by secular humanism. These four tenets are drawn from Elicka Peterson Sparks, The Devil You Know: The Surprising Link between Conservative Christianity and Crime (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2016), 15.

    2. For why this is so, see my “Guns and the Shaping of Character” at Mere Orthodoxy, https://mereorthodoxy.com/guns-character/.

    3. The quotation in the latter half of this quotation is from Firmin DeBrabander, Do Guns Make Us Free? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 157–58.

Gregory L. Bock

Response

Guns and Peacebuilding

In his book God and Guns in America, Michael W. Austin explores the topic of Christians owning and using firearms and defends, in chapter 4, a view he calls “peace building.” He contrasts this view with two other approaches in the chapter: pacifism and justified violence. Peacebuilding puts the emphasis on finding nonviolent solutions to conflict, allowing for the rare occasion when violence is justified in the name of protecting oneself and others. In this essay, I examine the foundation of peacebuilding and explore whether the idea precludes Christians from taking their guns to church.

According to Austin, Christian peacebuilding means taking the teachings of Jesus seriously, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which says “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9) and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Christians should be characterized by kind and loving actions, not violent ones, and peaceful actions should flow from a character that exemplifies Christlikeness. Austin writes, “Jesus’s example is one of faith, hope, love, compassion, mercy, humility, and peace . . . [meaning] that a follower of Jesus should use violence only as a truly last resort, in the most extreme of circumstances. It also means that even in such cases, there may be times in which nonviolent resistance and even accepting one’s own death are the right course of action” (112). It means loving our neighbors in ways that can require setting aside our own preferences and interests and laying down our lives for them just as Jesus laid down his life for us. Austin describes how Christians could sometimes use violence to resist violent crime for the sake of loving oneself and others but refuse to resist violence inflicted upon themselves and others when it is a form of persecution (75).

He distinguishes peacebuilding from both pacifism and justified violence. Christian pacifism is the view that violence is never the Christian way. Justified violence is the view that killing is sometimes a necessary response to evil. First, he says that in contrast to pacifism, there do seem to be occasions when violence is justified, such as coming home and finding an intruder attacking your wife and children (72). Stopping the attacker without violence is preferred if possible, but if not, killing this person is permissible because “nonviolence is not an absolute . . . and can be outweighed by the higher mandate to love one’s neighbor as oneself” (76). Second, Austin says that in contrast to the justified violence approach, Christians should only employ violence as a last resort. He criticizes the approaches of Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr., who, he says, are too enthusiastic about the possibility of their followers using concealed weapons to take down shooters on their campuses (17, 72). This “trigger-happy” response to violent crime, albeit in the name of protecting others, is not the way of Jesus.

Austin’s moral reasoning depends on Scripture, but whether he is operating from a particular theoretical framework is unclear. He employs the language of rights, virtues, and moral principles at different times to address different aspects of the issue. He may have a good reason for this, but a single unifying framework would provide a stronger foundation for his peace-building thesis. Why should peacebuilding be understood as neither pacifism nor justified violence? The answer is that love takes priority. He says, “Jesus made it clear that love is central to following him: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35)” (136). A single moral framework grounded in love would also provide the tools to address the ambiguous passages raised by pro-gun Christians. For example, they may cite the image of Jesus as a warrior in Revelation 19:11–16 (110–12) in support of Christians being heavily armed, but this can be countered by understanding that whatever this obscure passage means,1 it has to be understood in a way that does not negate the obligation Christians have to be loving agents of peace, which the Bible clearly teaches.2

The moral framework of Christian love is known as agapic ethics (also called “agapism”).3 Agapic ethics emphasizes the primacy of love (agape) in biblical moral teachings. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest one is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. All other commands in the Bible depend on these two (Matt 22:37–40). For agapic ethics, this does not mean that love is the only moral principle but that it is the one that informs all the others. For example, the principle of justice is often construed as being in tension with the principle of love, but as Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.” Timothy P. Jackson writes, “Neither prudence, nor freedom, nor justice alone can do the work of agapic love, and in the absence of such love, all three of these other goods wither. When exponents of other virtues suggest . . . that they can supplant [love] in some quarter of life, they cut morality’s root in all quarters.”4 Nicholas Wolterstorff explains agapic ethics succinctly as follows: “One should seek to promote life-goods of everyone who is one’s neighbor as end in themselves, in the sense of ‘neighbor’ that Jesus gave to the term.”5

So, what does agapic ethics say about using lethal force? Christians are supposed to love their enemies, and this seems incompatible with shooting them. Christian pacifists contend that defending one’s family by killing an attacker is not permissible, but Austin argues that we can lovingly defend the lives of others, using lethal force, if it is the case that we foresee but do not intend the death of the attacker (72). The idea of foreseeing but not intending someone’s death is called the doctrine of double effect, which can be traced back to Thomas Aquinas. The purpose of the doctrine of double effect is to justify acting for a good end even if there are unavoidable negative side effects.6 The key element of the doctrine is in not intending the death of the attacker but intending only to stop the attacker from causing further harm. If there were a less violent way to stop the attacker, then it would be preferred. Another way lethal force could be justified in agapic ethics is if killing someone is itself an act of love. For example, Jackson writes, “Is it not likely that assassinating Hitler would have been a more agapic act toward Hitler himself, as well as toward his potential victims, than letting him become a successful mass murderer? Is it not possible, for instance, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was loving ‘der Führer’ as a neighbor even in plotting to kill him?”7 The idea of loving others by killing them may be too much for some to accept, and perhaps Bonhoeffer’s extreme situation only occurs rarely in human history. Nevertheless, agapic ethics does seem to permit the use of lethal force, although agapists of the pacifist variety would disagree. What agapic ethics does not condone is the cavalier taking of human life. The main lesson for Christian peacebuilding is that violence, while sometimes permissible, is always tragic. Agapic ethics affirms Austin’s conclusion: “If that person has good character, is empathic, compassionate, and loving, he will ‘feel regret at having been the agent of killing.’ The loss of life, even if necessary to protect other life, will be a source of pain and regret” (115).

Austin draws three lessons from his discussion of Christian peacebuilding, with which agapists can agree: (1) that peace builders should not be “trigger-happy,” (2) that peace builders should not idolize guns, and (3) that peace builders should support making guns more difficult to acquire for people with a history of mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence (83). Being “trigger-happy” is inconsistent with being a follower of Jesus. One can be prepared to pull the trigger to save a life if necessary without having the enthusiasm of Jeffrees and Falwell. In other words, it may sometimes be permissible to kill, but it is never okay to be anything but sad about it. Regarding idolatry, Austin says, “Idols offer a promise of power. . . . The power of prayer can seem impotent against the barrel of a gun. . . . In such circumstances, guns can become idols. They become our rock, our shield, our protector. Guns give us a sense of power. They make us feel safe from those we fear. But these are lies” (109). As 1 John 4:18 says, there is no place for fear in a life of love, and if fear is why someone buys a gun, then this represents a failure to trust in God first and foremost. Finally, keeping guns out of the hands of unstable individuals can help keep our families and neighbors safe, so love seems to demand smart legislation that allows only careful law-abiding citizens to own guns. Austin supports universal background checks, red flag laws, gun safety courses, etc. (129–35).

In spite of arguing against pacifism and for responsible gun ownership, Austin makes the curious claim that Christians should leave their weapons at home when they go to church. He considers three options for keeping congregations safe from the rising threat of mass shootings at churches: (1) allowing concealed-carry guns, (2) hiring paid security officers, and (3) not permitting any guns. He argues that only options 2 and 3 are acceptable on the basis that allowing concealed carry in churches makes accidents more likely, and he lists a couple of examples of gun accidents in churches (86–87). Also, he thinks concealed weapons represent a betrayal of our witness. He says, “If the primary response is to arm ourselves at church, then we are not being faithful to our calling as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20)” (87), but why is this the case?

His call for keeping guns out of church seems more consistent with pacifism than the peace-building position he defends. He thinks that lethal force can be justified in most any other location, so why not in a church? With church shootings like Charleston, South Carolina, (2015) and Sutherland Springs, Texas, (2017) becoming more common, bringing guns to church, if done legally and carefully, seems prudent and responsible. Again, guns should not be brought to church out of fear or bravado but out of concern for protecting innocent lives in response to the growing threat of mass shootings. This said, Christians should still be known for their love and not for how well-armed they are, but if Austin is right, then Christians can be armed and loving. In fact, if they follow current concealed-carry laws, then the fact that they are armed will not be known by others, and they can get about the business of loving others for all to see.

In short, if an armed Christian could be morally justified in killing a shooter at an elementary school, for example, then the same Christian could be justified in taking down the same shooter at a church. Perhaps Austin is simply concerned that the presence of guns in church will sully the image of the sanctuary. As important as houses of worship are, the same moral principles should govern Christians inside and outside them. Christians should be peace builders everywhere.


  1. Austin says this should be understood as metaphor.

  2. For example: Lev 19:18; Matt 5:43–48; Matt 22:37–40; Luke 10:25–37; John 13:34–35; Gal 5:14; 1 Cor 13.

  3. For more on agapic ethics (or agapism), see Timothy P. Jackson, The Priority of Love: Christian Charity and Social Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), and Gene Outka, Agape: An Ethical Analysis (London: Yale University Press, 1972).

  4. Jackson, Priority of Love, 6.

  5. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 16.

  6. Alison McIntyre, “Doctrine of Double Effect,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2019 ed., accessed July 5, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/double-effect/.

  7. Jackson, Priority of Love, 124.

  • Michael Austin

    Michael Austin

    Reply

    Reply to Bock

    Greg Bock examines the foundations of the view I articulate in the book—peacebuilding—and then analyzes its implications for whether or not Christians ought to take their guns to church.

    First, I would like to clarify the sense in which peacebuilding is distinct from just war theory. In one sense, peacebuilding as I describe it is really just war theory as it ought to function, holding that violence is only permissible as a last resort. One reason I characterize peacebuilding as distinct from just war theory is because the actual practice of just war theory often involves wrongly baptizing violence. Another reason has to do with the rhetorical emphasis that peacebuilding conveys, as opposed to just war. It rightly puts the emphasis on building peace, rather than justifying violence.

    Second, Bock points that whether or not I am “operating from a particular theoretical framework is unclear. He employs the language of rights, virtues, and moral principles at different times to address different aspects of the issue. He may have a good reason for this, but a single unifying framework would provide a stronger foundation for his peace-building thesis.” While I am not explicit about this in the book, and agree that it would have been helpful to be explicit, even in a short paragraph or two, I am operating from a broadly agapic framework throughout the book. The rights, virtues, and moral principles I employ in the book are ultimately grounded in love: love for God, love for one’s neighbor, and love for oneself. As Bock puts the point, “Agapic ethics . . . does not mean that love is the only moral principle but that it is the one that informs all the others.” Love informs and undergirds the other moral principles and virtues I make use of in the book.

    Third, Bock objects that if it is permissible to shoot an attacker at home or at school, then it is also permissible to do so at church. The same moral principles should govern Christians wherever they are. But context matters, and it informs what is morally appropriate. We can accept this without accepting moral relativism or some sort of misguided situational ethic. For example, there are things that it would be appropriate for spouses to tell one another that would be wrong to tell their children or members of a small group at church. There is something distinct about the relational contexts in play here. My intuition is that there may also be something distinct about the corporate gathering for worship that counts against congregants and pastors being armed in the sanctuary. Someone well versed in theological ethics and ecclesiology—or perhaps a pair of suitably trained scholars—ought to explore whether there are good reasons for allowing Christians to carry guns outside, but not into, their churches.

    I state in the book that “if the primary response is to arm ourselves at church, then we are not being faithful to our calling as ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20)” (87). Bock asks why this is so. Apart from the potential answer I raised in the preceding paragraph, I would add that I was intentional in stating that our “primary” response should not be to arm ourselves. This is part of what it means to be a peacemaker. Violence can be permissible, but always regrettably so, and followers of Jesus, especially in America, are much too quick to rely on it. Our primary response to violence in the community should be nonviolent love, expressed in ways that undermine the causes of violence. Moreover, while there are numerous instances of the failure of both violent and nonviolent solutions to our problems, we are often ignorant not only of the moral and spiritual importance of nonviolent solutions, but also of their many historical successes.1 In my experience, we tend to highlight the successes of violence and the failures of nonviolence, while ignoring (or downplaying) the failures of violent solutions and the successes of nonviolent ones. This should not be. I fear one reason this is the case is because our “common sense” is a product of a culture and a world that is set on violence, rather than the gospel and the kingdom of God, which is opposed to violence, even if it accepts it as a rare last resort.

    In terms of whether there should be armed individuals at church, apart from off-duty police officers or trained professional security, there is an option I had in mind that was not clearly communicated in my book. If a congregation or denomination concludes that they will allow guns in church, and are unable to hire off-duty police officers or trained private security, then perhaps having members who possess concealed carry permits and are also very highly trained, in a way that a private security guard or police officer is trained, is an option. I am open to this as a live option for followers of Christ.

    Finally, in this symposium and other recent discussion of my book, I have noted that my work on the book moved me closer to pacifism, and that this has continued since the book was finished.2 I am still not quite there, but I have deep intuitions, grounded in the agapic ethics Bock describes, that there is a heavy burden of proof on Christians who argue that it is morally permissible or even obligatory to kill another human being made in God’s image. There are cases in which this is a permissible option, but it is always a tragic, and not merely sad, option for those who seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ. With this in mind, perhaps the best way to close out this discussion is to emphasize that just war theorists, peacebuilders, and pacifists have common ground. All of them contend that we ought to avoid violence if at all possible. Pacifists say it is always possible and morally obligatory to avoid it, peacebuilders and just war theorists allow for some cases of it. Given this common ground, all three camps ought to work together by investing time, resources, and training large numbers of people to engage in effective nonviolent action as a way to be part of the answer to the prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”3


    1. On the historical successes of nonviolence, see Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015); and Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000).

    2. For example, I discuss this issue on the Mere Fidelity podcast: https://mereorthodoxy.com/god-guns-america-dr-michael-austin/.

    3. For a discussion of this common ground and how to work toward this end, see Sider, Nonviolent Action.

Lucas Mather

Response

Constructive Critique of God, Guns, and America

I’m honored to be a part of this dialogue. Mike Austin is a brother in the Lord. I guess that’s relevant because the book pretty clearly says “God” and other Christian stuff. Austin is also a classically and analytically trained philosopher who has gone for a romp in the discipline of American politics. I teach in five departments on campus in three disciplines, and in my view, it is very difficult to do what Mike is trying to do successfully—apply philosophy to American politics. Those are two very different disciplines, and I commend Mike for his good effort.

I believe not only that philosophy is useful in politics, but that politics is useful in philosophy. Many philosophers I know seem to just assume that politics boils down to Intro to Ethics or something. Donald Trump equals bad man, end of analysis (with premises and non-fallacious inferences, of course), or something like that, as if politics just is philosophy done badly; here, watch us do better. Mike doesn’t come off like that. In any case, it’s wonderful to see this effort.

In particular, I commend Mike for his good effort in the section of his book called “Guns, Lies, and Bad Arguments.”1 In that chapter, he takes ten slogans and analyzes them with standard Intro to Logic informal fallacy analysis. It looks like something that he might have done in critical thinking or logic classes that he himself has taught over the years. I have done similar things in the past, too. I find that this is difficult to do well. Mike is careful to phrase the slogan and its intended support in such a way to make sure the fallacy he wants to illustrate is represented in the material.

By way of constructive critique, if the book had a soul, I came away with the feeling and the thought that the book’s soul was inured to the suffering of a particular kind of innocent victim of gun violence. I can only comment on the book’s soul and not the author’s since I haven’t had a chance to speak to Mike directly and at length about it. (I don’t believe books have souls—I’m avoiding ad hominem. It’s ad-bookinem.) The book seems to me to be inured to the moral harm of criminalizing innocent conduct. When the state brandishes its guns against innocent people for innocent conduct, this is its own kind of gun violence against the innocent. When innocent conduct is criminalized because the legislature says so, the gun violence of police and the state is brought to bear on innocent people. The tendency is all too human. The Federalist Papers argued, based on extensive experience, that the legislature “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex. . . . It is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.”2 Every one of Mike’s legislative proposals would draw more power into that vortex at the expense of people, as each one involves the moral harm of criminalizing innocent conduct.

The book begins by recounting victims of statutorily defenseless murder as if we needed to hear their stories for the first time. Mike references “status quo” many times, and there always seems to be a problem with the status quo on Mike’s view, but nowhere does Mike mention the status quo as a problem where it criminalizes self-defense or otherwise innocent conduct, which the status quo does, such as possessing a magazine that holds eleven bullets instead of ten for lawful purposes, or borrowing ammunition from a friend, such as is the case in California. “Status quo” for Mike is radically incomplete.

In the spring of 2018, I was teaching Constitutional Law: Civil Liberties at a large Cal State. The Florida high school murders had just occurred as we finished the First Amendment and were now on the Second. My students asked me, what’s the solution to “gun violence”? I said, I think you mean, what’s the solution to murder, right? What happened was murder, and attempted murder. The law against murder is older than Cain and Abel. Is there a law against gun violence? I mean in the moral law?

I pointed out to my students that anyone could walk onto this campus and into this classroom. There’s not even Disneyland security with walkie-talkies or furrowed brows at pocketknives. In Spring of 2017 at LMU in Lost Angeles—and I captured this on video—class was disrupted by the intercom asking us to do a drill. Barricade the door, it said. Don’t fight. The door opened to the outside, I pointed out to the students on video—the class lost it. I pointed out the utter frivolity of campus security, and my own training and criminalization of self-defense. In 2015 after the Oregon campus murders, the NEA sent out a mailer instructing us to use staplers to fight back. Anything but effective self-defense—which is criminal. That is the status quo Mike somehow missed.

The police are not 24/7 bodyguards. I’m trained by Navy SEALs in small arms. I’ve been training in firearms responsibly since I was a kid. Not since I was a baby or a fetus, as Mike boasted in his book (xv, gentle humor, Mike). But most of my life. And I am a felon—California law regards me as equally bad as a murderer in that regard—if I effectively meet that threat or am prepared to with a small, easily concealable firearm for the protection of innocent human life from murder. That’s the status quo.

That was the status quo in Texas at the church in Sutherland Springs in 2017. A neighbor to the church ended the murders there after a deadly delay from running to the church. Had that NRA instructor there had that firearm in the church and stopped those murders before that tremendous loss of innocent life, he would have been a criminal under Texas law at that time. Texas Republicans changed that law, and last year, a similar murder attempt there in Texas was lawfully stopped within five seconds, again by a firearms instructor present in the church at the time. Florida Republicans likewise changed the law criminalizing effective self-defense on school grounds last year after their high school murders in 2018. They changed the status quo to relieve the victims of criminalized innocent conduct, lifting that moral harm from the gun-wielding police power of the state.

Which brings me to Mike’s treatment of the Second Amendment and the Constitution (see 9–14). Part of what contributed to my feeling that the book’s character and soul was inured to unique moral harm of criminalized self-defense and other innocent conduct was the fact that we never hear about precisely those victims in the cases he discusses. Who were the plaintiffs in those major cases? What was their injury by the gun-wielding police state?

Despite his professed racial sensitivity, Austin is silent about Otis McDonald, or exactly just how much taxpayer money the Democratic Party that runs Chicago (entirely) was willing to spend to ensure McDonald would be a morally innocent criminal himself if he protected himself with a gun absent the police. And they were absent. In Chicago, the police are complained about whether absent or present. Take your pick. They were absent as he was victimized, but present in case he defended himself and broke the status quo law which criminalized his right to defend himself. This was no bipartisan effort. Wait for the police, they instructed. When I tell my LA students that Democrats tell you that you must use the police as bodyguards, you should see their faces.

The book isn’t sympathetic with McDonald’s fears—very reasonable fears—or the moral harm done to him by the city. Austin is silent about both. The Supreme Court had strong words about the Klan in footnote 20 of that case, where we find out “kuklux” was a verb for disarming blacks.3 The careful opinion by the only black man on the court raised in the Democratic, segregated South had unsurprisingly not overlooked that aspect of criminalized self-defense.4 There the Supreme Court ruled that the verb kuklux meant to disarm a black man—exactly what Chicago did as a matter of policy. This is all relevant material, but it was ignored in favor of space dedicated to rehashed and sensationalized headlines.

Austin is also silent about both Tom Palmer and Dick Heller, plaintiffs in an earlier case, also in a jurisdiction run entirely by the Democratic Party—the same partisan side that advocates Mike’s legislative agenda. I’ve met Tom Palmer. He has a PhD in philosophy and is one of the most level-headed, virtue-minded, thoughtful people I have ever met. He was a victim of a violent crime, and he saved himself and his friend using gun violence. This was documented in the Washington Post.5 Gun violence saves lives. (Something I remind my students every Veteran’s Day—it’s a celebration of gun violence.) Palmer may have ended up a real-life Matthew Shepard had he lacked a gun with him that night, and had he not stuck the gun in the face of his attackers that night. The thanks he got? His attackers, enabled by the status quo which criminalized the innocent conduct of Palmer, threatened to bring the police power of the state against Palmer for his innocent conduct, compounding the moral harm done to Palmer that night. The state regarded Palmer as criminal for protecting himself against gay-bashers in public. But the gun violence Palmer brought to bear for self-defense saved multiple lives that night. This kind of sick, multilayered moral harm, revictimizing victims like Palmer, would be exacerbated by Austin’s legislative proposals, each expanding the administrative state and the police power to inquire about such things that are not morally criminal and that further traumatize innocent victims for and deter them from effective self-defense.

Every time a gun goes off, it is violent. Most gun violence is not only legal, but moral. Recreation, training, and self-defense are lawful (in both senses) examples of gun violence. Moral gun violence occurs every day all over the country. The law against murder is very old, indeed. Cain and Abel.6 By contrast there is no moral law against gun violence. If there was, that would mean Palmer’s self-defense was morally unlawful. His self-defense was a paradigm example—what Roderick Chisholm might have called a particular example—of known criminalized innocent conduct, innocent, criminalized gun violence.

To Austin’s credit, he understands at least partially that much. Which is why it was odd that Mike implied that Heller overturned two-hundred-year-old precedent when Dick Heller, a police officer,7 was decriminalized for having his service weapon at home for self-defense (9). Police officers can’t have a gun in the home for self-defense for two hundred years in American history? Really? We’ve made some mistakes in America, but that’s not one of them. That’s certainly not the American history most are rightly familiar with. It was five Republicans that made sure police officers, gay philosophers like Palmer, and black men like McDonald could have guns in the home for self-defense without relying on the police as bodyguards 24/7. This was despite enormous sums of public and private money spent by Democrats fighting those efforts to decriminalize innocent conduct. In one case, that Democratic tax money went to the NRA, which got attorney’s fees for defending Otis McDonald so that he would be able to effectively fight those Democratic policies.8 He could not have afforded to have his innocent conduct decriminalized, otherwise.

These are what Al Gore might have called inconvenient truths. But Mike is a thoughtful and highly trained guy, and so I’m interested in seeing how, in dialogue, he would defend each legislative proposal as I attempt to pick them apart. I wish that I had had more room to discuss the spiritual aspects of the book, but we leave that to another time. Maybe over a few rounds at the range, and then the pub. God bless ya brother. Again, I’m grateful to be in dialogue on these important topics.


  1. Michael W. Austin, God and Guns in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), at 33–63.

  2. The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter, introduction and notes by Charles R. Kesler (New York: Signet Classic, 1999), 306.

  3. McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010) at 3039.

  4. McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010) at 3059 (Thomas, J., concurring).

  5. David Kopel, “Licensed Handgun Carry Now Legal in District of Columbia: Palmer v. DC,” Washington Post, July 28, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/07/28/licensed-handgun-carry-now-legal-in-district-of-columbia-palmer-v-dc/.

  6. See Genesis 4.

  7. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) at 2788.

  8. National Rifle Association v. 100% Democrat-run City of Chicago, 646 F.3d 992 (2011) at 994.

  • Michael Austin

    Michael Austin

    Reply

    Reply to Mather

    Like Lucas Mather, I think it is difficult to step into the field of American politics, as a moral (rather than political) philosopher. While my undergraduate training was in political science, the political aspects of my book were challenging issues to address. It’s worth pointing out that the soul of the book lies in the field of ethics. More specifically, the book centers on the development and application of a Christian ethic to guns and gun violence in America. There are obviously political implications, but my primary aim in the book is to offer one Christian perspective on these issues so that Christians can approach not only the social and political questions, but the personal ones, from a perspective informed by their faith.

    The primary criticism Mather offers—that my book is “inured to the moral harm of criminalizing innocent conduct”—is both interesting and important. He contends that each of my proposals for legislative action (129–35) related to gun violence would draw more power into the vortex of legislative power over people’s lives, and that they involve “the moral harm of criminalizing innocent conduct.”1 He goes on to say that this is part of the status quo that I neglect in my book, and offers examples related to ineffective means of self-defense such as campus security and staplers.

    I am less worried about the purported legislative vortex, likely due to a difference in political philosophy and my longstanding rejection of political libertarianism. What else is there to say here, in reply to these concerns?

    First, I agree that citizens should be allowed to use a firearm for self-defense purposes, and that truly innocent conduct should not be criminalized.2 But I believe that those who seek to own and potentially use a gun for such purposes should demonstrate their competence, for at least two reasons. First, this would reduce certain forms of harm done by gun violence due to incompetence and negligence. Second, it reflects the moral principle that with rights come responsibilities. Those who cannot exercise the right to own and use a gun in a responsible manner should not be allowed to do so, at least until they can demonstrate such responsibility.

    Second, I do address the aspects of the status quo recounted by Mather, but in ways that do not center on the further proliferation of guns in the hands of people at schools and universities, concert halls, theaters, and houses of worship. As I discuss in the book, I grant the right, both moral and legal, to own and use a gun for the purpose of self-defense. I do not address the wrongful criminalization of this because I do not see that as the primary problem with respect to the status quo. In addition, there are other effective means of self-defense, and I contend that we ought to develop more effective nonlethal means. More importantly, there are things that we can do not only in the legal realm, but also in the moral and spiritual realms to reduce the suffering and death of innocent people due to gun violence (135–41). But to be clear, one of the arguments in my book is that high-quality legally mandated training is one (incomplete) way to reduce gun violence in America. But we should not rely solely on this strategy. Many do not want to carry a weapon, and the state has an obligation to provide other means of safety apart from an armed citizenry. Moreover, part of my response to Morris’s essay is relevant here:

    “There are cases, of course, where guns save lives. But ‘they bring no enduring safety. At best, they maintain a tense, fragile substitute, like the electric détente when two warring gangs hold each other off with pointed weapons. . . . In our American democracy, we have higher ambitions” (55).3 Followers of Christ should share these, and even higher, ambitions for the world in which we live and move and have our being.

    Responsible gun owners should not become felons. But neither should America become a place where guns act as a substitute for a nonviolent commitment to the common good.

    Third, it is not clear to me how the proposals for change I offer in my book criminalize innocent conduct. No law is perfect, and no law is enforced perfectly, but I do not think this is the source of Mather’s concern. That concern seems to have more to do with the power of the state to pass and enforce the reforms I propose in the book, and with the state criminalizing using a gun for self-defense. Along these lines, consider the proposed federal extreme risk protection order law—sometimes called “red flag law”—which is aimed at giving the state the tools to remove guns from the possession of those who are a danger to themselves or others. These orders have saved lives, and have likely prevented more mass shootings at schools (131). As long as they are formulated and applied in ways that respect due process, such a law should be implemented at the federal level. This is one way to work toward preventing the loss of innocent life, while protecting the rights of competent and responsible gun owners to defend themselves. I think further dialogue on the particular ways my proposals would criminalize innocent conduct could be very fruitful.

    Mather also recounts a discussion with his students about the solution to gun violence. He states that there is a moral law against murder, yet no such law against gun violence per se. But the claim that there is no moral law against gun violence is the wrong way to frame the question, or at least less helpful than an alternative approach. The view I defend in the book is that there are moral laws governing gun violence, including moral laws against particular kinds of gun violence. The status quo in America does not align with those moral laws. The nearly forty thousand annual deaths in America by gun violence provide evidence for this claim. In addition, and regrettably, the beliefs and practices of many Christians who seem to relish the power to kill that their guns afford them also do not align with the moral law governing gun violence (115–16). This is why I devote extensive space in the book to examining many relevant biblical passages on violence, the potential negative impact of gun ownership and use on character, and argue for moral and spiritual solutions to the status quo.

    In sum, Mather and I share some common ground. Innocent conduct should not be criminalized. I believe it is morally permissible to use a gun for self-defense, under certain conditions. But my focus is on the innocent people who die every day by gun violence due to lax gun laws and psychological, moral, and spiritual dysfunction. We can protect the rights of responsible gun owners while reducing the number of such deaths. We have not only a political obligation, but also a moral and spiritual one, to do so.


    1. With respect to the worry that law-abiding citizens who are responsible gun owners might lose their Second Amendment rights or become felons, could this be an unintended consequence of the policies I propose in the last chapter of my book? Certainly that could occur, and if it does, it ought to be corrected. There are no perfect laws, nor perfectly enforced laws. Innocent people have been executed, after all. But this is not a necessary consequence of the policies themselves. If the policies are well-constructed and properly enforced, such worries ought to be assuaged. And given that the Supreme Court has held that their interpretations in the Heller and McDonald cases allow for certain limitations on the right to bear arms (13–14), and that one reason for this is the state’s compelling interest to legislate and enforce those limitations for the protection of its citizens, we ought to work hard at crafting and enforcing laws that protect innocent citizens from harm. This includes responsible gun owners who arm themselves for the purposes of self-defense, but it also includes others who have a right to not be shot by irresponsible or criminal gun owners. The status quo is unacceptable, and we can do better.

    2. My purpose in discussing the Second Amendment was to point out that the Supreme Court did not explicitly state that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own a gun for self-defense until 2008. I think it is important for the reader to know the history on this issue. Does that mean that police officers could not have a gun in their homes for self-defense for two hundred years? No, but it does mean that interpreting the Second Amendment as it relates to individual and communal rights is not as clear as many would have us believe, when looked at in historical perspective.

    3. The quotation in the latter half of this quotation is from Firmin DeBrabander, Do Guns Make Us Free? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 157–58.

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