Friday, 26 June 2015

Guns, Governments, and God

I’ve never really understood why citizens of the United States love firearms. Even in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 children and 8 adults were killed (including the shooter), there seems to be no widespread desire to enforce tighter gun laws or abolish private ownership of firearms. As a born-and-bred Englishman, and a politically naïve one at that, I find it very difficult to believe that Americans cannot see that fewer guns in the hands of the general public would lead to fewer shootings. Granted, if a person tips over the edge so much that all s/he wants to do is slaughter, that person is likely to find a way to do so by whatever means available: gun, knife, homemade bombs, intentional hit and runs, and so on. But guns and rifles are quite easily available to the average American, and so mass shootings seem to be more common in the United States than in other Westernised countries – though there are notable exceptions, as the recent killing sprees in Norway and France prove.

Gun ownership is entrenched in the American psyche. For me, this is nowhere clearer than in the stance the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre adopted in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre: the answer to guns is . . . more guns! And the reason gun ownership is entrenched in the American psyche is down to the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which affirms ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’ in order to preserve the freedoms and security of a state. Arguably, as a friend of mine said to me the other day, and as this BBC article suggests, the Second Amendment has birthed an almost religious devotion to gun ownership and the privileges or rights that such ownership entails. If this is so, then the pistol and the rifle are no more than lifeless but dangerous idols.

However, life is far too complicated just to denounce the American fondness for weapons. Two of my wife’s cousins happen to be married to Americans and now live in Georgia and Oklahoma. I’ve been having an extensive conversation on Facebook with the husband of one of the cousins, and with a few others. If I recall correctly, the husband – whom I shall refer to as ‘B’, for ‘B’ is the first letter of the husband’s name – B served in the US Air Force and was stationed over here in the UK for a few years, and so has the relatively uncommon experience of living in both countries for a substantial amount of time. In the course of the conversation, B had no problems admitting he now owns a gun and that he carries it around with him, even when attending church services (B is a practising Christian). As a result of that Facebook conversation, I no longer think the American attitude towards guns is as crazy or daft as I first thought. I certainly haven’t changed my mind – I’m convinced that fewer guns equals fewer massacres – but I recognise now that the dialogue over gun ownership and control is not as clear-cut as I’d first supposed, and that there are genuine and seemingly valid reasons for why so many US citizens possess firearms.

One reason for the entrenchment of gun ownership in the American psyche is down to a geographical factor, namely, the sheer size of the United States. B seemed certain that slow police response times are a major reason why Americans keep guns. In the case of a home invasion, the hostile person could well have killed all the residents in a house before the police arrive. Now this could happen in any country, including the UK, but the sheer size of the United States means that the cavalry cannot guarantee a timely arrival, especially in certain areas. (But can anyone ever guarantee the timely arrival of emergency services?) Another reason, of which I wasn’t aware at all, is that the Second Amendment apparently was introduced as a means for US citizens to protect themselves against corrupt government. As B implied in the Facebook conversation, Americans typically do not trust the government for their protection, and thus to own the means by which they can protect themselves is a necessity. Conversely, UK residents tend to look to their elected government to help enforce the laws and services designed for the people’s protection.

This may be a very simplistic overview of both the Facebook conversation and the issues surrounding gun ownership in the US. I said above that I’m politically naïve, and I confess I haven’t a good grounding in the history of a country I’ve never even visited, let alone lived in for a time. But what interests me about all this is the attitude to the government’s role in protecting people, and this attitude in relation to Romans 13:1-7, which indicates that governments are established by God and for the good of the people. (For the record, I think that 13:1 talks about governing bodies generally rather than particular governing bodies, e.g. the present Conservative government in the UK.) In trusting their own ability to use a handgun appropriately but effectively rather than the US government’s policies on national and state security, does the typical gun-favouring American deny the government its divinely appointed role – that is, do the people seek to take back the power they ostensibly give to local and national governments in elections? Does it imply a lack of trust in God?

I dare say that most Americans would not see things in this way. But is there another possibility? Rather than holding to the right to keep and bear arms in case a corrupt government imposes tyranny, is it possible that lobbying the government, protesting against the government whenever it falls short, is actually a more effective way to protect one’s family and property in the light of Romans 13? Owning a gun for personal protection may well be a viable, even good, short-term answer, but it isn’t going to address the systemic evil perpetuated by a corrupt government. Only a properly Christ-centred protest against unjust rule is likely to have any long-term effect – even though, historically speaking, Christians who protest against unjust rule are more likely to be slaughtered or ridiculed than affirmed in any perceived right to keep and bear arms.


  1. The Declaration of Independence says, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This is a result of the heavy influence of the philosopher John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers upon the Founding Fathers. And though I would agree generally that Christians should submit to the authority of their government, I don't believe we are bound to submit to an unjust or tyrannical government. Was Bonhoeffer wrong to oppose the Nazi regime? Here is an interesting commentary on the balance and context that is worth reading.

    Let's put this in a more personal sphere and compare it to a marriage. The man is the head of the home. He has all the responsibilities of government in that sense: protection, provision, and support. When it works, it works well. But what about when the husband fails in those responsibilities? Or, even worse, abuses the wife? Is she under a moral obligation to stay with him? It may be desirable to try to work out the problems and heal the marriage, but is that not a decision she has to make on her own? And is it something she should do absent repentance of the husband?

    1. I don't think anything I've said implies that an unjust government shouldn't be resisted. In fact, what I say about protest is resistance, albeit not (usually) armed resistance. So for me the issue here isn't about whether an unjust government should be resisted - it should - but what form that resistance should take.

      The Bonhoeffer example is interesting (we discussed it briefly last night in my home group). But I do think there's a vast difference between a group of people plotting to assassinate a tyrant and a disenfranchised teenager on a shooting spree. But the social, cultural, and political causes of both sorts of killers need to be addressed.

  2. I just read an unrelated article which also comments on Romans 13:1

    To be clear, under our constitutional republican form of government, "We the People" are "the governing authorities," and our elected officials in Congress and the White House are the hired help. They are subject to us, and we are all subject to God, who is the Final Authority.