Over the past couple weeks we have witnessed an all-too-familiar sequence of events: a horrific mass shooting, followed by demands to “do something” about gun violence, followed by Congress’s inability to agree on what to do.
How should Christians think about gun control and the right to “keep and bear arms,” which the Second Amendment guarantees? On the left side the political spectrum, some Christians have argued that as peacemakers, Christians should support tight gun controls. On the right, some Christians have described gun ownership as a sacred obligation given to us by God Himself.
A little historical background will illuminate the original meaning of the Second Amendment. Original meaning, as the lates Justice Antonin Scalia taught us, is always a good place to start when discussing constitutional questions. As Robert Shalhope’s 1982 Journal of American History article “The Ideological Origins of the Second Amendment” explained, the Second Amendment was born out of a conviction that citizens needed to keep guns to protect the republic against tyranny.
The Baptist writer John Allen, probably the second-most influential pamphleteer of the Revolution behind Tom Paine, warned the British in 1773 that they could never impose tyranny on Americans, because virtuous American citizens would defend their rights by force. “Americans will not submit to be SLAVES,” Allen wrote, “they know the use of the gun, and the military art, as well as any of his Majesty’s troops at St. James’s, and where his Majesty has one soldier, who art in general the refuse of the earth, America can produce fifty, free men, and all volunteers, and raise a more potent army of men in three weeks, than England can in three years.”
Shalhope notes that when states were proposing gun ownership amendments to the Constitution in 1787 to 1788, they “continually reiterated four beliefs relative to the issues eventually incorporated into the Second Amendment: the right of the individual to possess arms, the fear of a professional army, the reliance on militias controlled by the individual states, and the subordination of the military to civilian control.”
In other words, the Second Amendment granted individuals the right to bear arms, not primarily for hunting or protection against criminals (though the founders presumably would not have opposed those reasons), but to represent a check against national political and military power. An armed citizenry provided a defensive bulwark in the states, without having to keep a professional army during peacetime. The founders commonly believed that a “standing army” was a leading indicator of government corruption and tyranny. Why do you need an army, they reasoned, if there was no war?
We live in a different world from that which framed the Second Amendment. Obviously, firearms have become far more reliable and destructive. And Americans today have accepted the reality, for better or worse, of a continuously existing national military, and interminable wars, including the “War on Terror.” The founders had hoped that military power could be distributed throughout the states in militias, to protect against the rise of a military dictator and tyrannical armed forces. But we live in a massively militarized nation. Preserving more powerful state militias instead of a large national army has, in a sense, been rendered irrelevant.
We have also accepted the idea that the “right to bear arms” does not include the right to keep certain powerful weapons, such as nuclear bombs. Much of what we debate now, such as the legitimacy of private citizens owning an AR-15 rifle, is about which weapons are too powerful to entrust to regular folks.
Historically, then, the context of the Second Amendment and its implementation has changed a great deal. Yet the basic point of the Second Amendment—the right of individual gun ownership—remains in effect, unless we decide to amend it. (Given the Senate’s inability to make even modest changes to gun laws, an amending of the Second Amendment seems implausible.)
So how should pastors and laypeople think about gun control? The best approach is a judicious ambivalence about guns, gun violence, and the Second Amendment. As illustrated again by Orlando, we know that people with murderous intentions can do awful things with guns. Yet sometimes the only way to stop such people is with more guns, ideally in the hands of police. As a matter of conscience, Christians considering gun ownership for personal and family protection need to think about what the injunction to “turn the other cheek” means with regard to committing violence in self-defense.
On a larger scale, the American Revolution illustrated a scenario where citizens took up arms to defend themselves against governmental tyranny. And let’s not imagine that tyranny could never rear its head in modern America. Yet Romans 13 and other passages enjoin us to submit to the authorities. So what role could or should Christians play in any armed revolt against government? I hope you and I won’t ever have to decide that question!
On guns, there are plenty of reasons for Christians to be ambivalent. In the current debate, however, one thing seems clear: if there is a legitimate suspicion that a person has terrorist ties, we should suspend his Second Amendment rights and not allow him to purchase guns. I understand concerns about “due process” and how people end up on “terrorist watch lists.” But the point of the Second Amendment was never just that people should be able to own guns. It was that people should be able own guns for the good of our cities, and the good of the republic. That means that certain actions, or personal histories, negate a citizen’s right to bear arms.
A final way that the context of the Second Amendment has changed is that we now have to deal with the regular threat of mentally unstable people, jihadist terrorists, and others using guns to commit mass killings. Some people committed gun crimes at the time of the founding, of course, but mass shootings by individuals—especially ones inspired by jihadism—are a novel development. Blunt strategies of simply outlawing guns don’t work, and they violate the Second Amendment. Yet there must be legal, constitutional ways for us to alleviate the threat of mass shootings by making it harder for terrorists, the mentally unstable, and others to commit them.
It is unseemly for Christians to be pro-gun zealots who automatically say “no” to even the most modest reforms. Yet we also know the nature of man, and the nature of governments. Sometimes, as a people and a nation, we must confront forces of violence by using armed force in return.