Though I own guns, I do not believe they should be exempt from safety requirements, wise regulation, and restrictions. Guns are made to kill. America has an abominable record of balancing an individual’s right to have a gun with the public’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Public safety in the company of three hundred million guns should not be a wish or the pipe dream it is today. Children in the United States are twelve times more likely to die from firearms injury than children in twenty-five other industrialized nations combined. Gun murder rates in the United States per one-hundred thousand people are more than seventeen times higher than those in Australia; thirty-five times higher than in Germany; thirty-seven times higher than in Spain; and 355 times higher than in Japan. If the United States respected both the constitutional right to keep and bear arms and the right of its citizens to live on safe streets, these figures would drop precipitously. We should be embarrassed to be first in the developed world for gun deaths.
In every generation people have bowed down and worshiped everything on earth, including themselves, stones, flowers, trees, streams, wells, oceans, and animals. Yet, they have never really worshiped anything that did not represent what they both cherished and feared the most . . . power.
Many biblical scholars agree when the Israelites fashioned the golden calf they had no intention of rejecting the God who saved them from bondage in Egypt. They planned to use the calf only as a tangible symbol of their redeeming God. They could not see their God, nor could they see Moses who was up on the mountain with God, but they could see and touch the calf, which served as a vivid reminder of God’s power and presence. They believed this symbol enabled them to tap into God’s power as they struggled in the desert. This young, virile bull also confirmed their own dreams of being virile and powerful, just like their God.
As the golden calf gave the ancients a false sense of security, many twenty-first century Americans look for security in weapons. When our leaders are absent or fail us; when our God is invisible and from all appearances is absent from our lives; when we don’t know how we can keep going; when we are consumed by our fears and feel threatened by those who are not like us, those are the moments when new idols are imagined and fashioned and desperate people give them their ultimate concerns, devotion, and focused attention.
Our national trust in our weapons has grown exponentially since the Second World War and has led us to purchase more and more of them. Part of America’s national creed is that the tools of violence, be they large, as in war materiel, or small, as in handguns and assault weapons, will keep us safe, secure, and “free.”
America’s military, for example, possesses 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds. We lead the world in spending more for military preparedness at $698 billion a year, compared to the expenditures of the next nineteen countries combined. The U.S. Navy is larger than the next thirteen navies of the world combined, eleven of which belong to our closest allies and partners. Domestically, we possess more than 300 million guns, almost enough for every man, woman, and child, and an additional three million come off assembly lines each year. Has all this firepower made us more secure? Have these weapons removed or reduced our fear? Suppose we only spent more than the next ten nations combined or if our navy was only larger than the next seven navies of the world combined, would we be any less secure? Are we safer today than we were four years ago when America had twelve million fewer handguns and assault weapons?
Signs of the Gun Empire’s demise are increasingly evident as people of good will grow sick and tired of its endless assertions that bigger and more sophisticated weapons will bring security. Albeit slowly, people are gaining new understandings that instruments which bring only death are incapable of providing peace.
The day draws near when people and nations that have invested so much money, blood, and tears acquiring weapons, will realize how grievously they have been deceived by the idols of power and deadly force. The day is coming when all the nations will testify that security and peace are God’s gifts, and are not really ends in themselves, but rather the by-products of living in just and loving relationships with God and neighbors.
 Krug et al., “Firearm-related Deaths,” 214–21.
 Perlo-Freeman, et al., chapter 4: “Military Expenditure,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook.
 Zakaria, “Be More Like Ike,” Newsweek, August 16, 2010, 70.
James E. Atwood is the author of the recently published America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose from Cascade Books. He is also Pastor Emeritus of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Arlington, Virginia, from which he retired in 1999 and presently the Chairperson of Heeding God’s Call of Greater Washington, a faith-based ecumenical movement that encourages gun shops to adopt a code of conduct that deters illegal purchasing and the trafficking of handguns.
Krug, E. G., et al. “Firearm Related Deaths in the US and 35 Other High- and Upper-Income Countries.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research (1998) 214–21.
Perlo-Freeman, Sam, et al. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Zakaria, Fareed. “Be More Like Ike.” Newsweek (August 16, 2010) 70–75.
2 thoughts on “America’s Guns, the Golden Calf — James Atwood”
Just a quick comment about the statistics on “children” gun deaths. The word “children” brings up an image of seven year olds playing on swings. But, if you look at the studies that cite these numbers, you’ll find that the definition of ‘children’ is usually from 0-19 years old (sometimes to 20 or 21). And if you then look at the distribution of the deaths by age, the line is highly exponential, with about 90% of deaths occurring from 16 years onward.
And of course, many of those deaths are inner city youth caught up in gangs and drugs. Now, every one of those deaths is still a tragedy and they are all someone’s ‘child’.
But let’s be honest, these are mostly not what we would call ‘children’. Those who kill at this age are tried as adults. Calling them ‘children’ and using the raw number without explanation in reports is somewhat deceptive. One dead child is still too many, but the way this statistic is cited is clearly deceptive.
Al, if you want to be honest, most 19 year-ols still live at home under their parents’ care. Especially in this economy. The law considers people 18 and older as accountable for their actions, but scarcely any of them can fend for themselves. And look at how colleges treat the matter–youvare considered a dependent as a matter of course until you are 24. My son owns his own home and has a child and at 23 still has to provide documentation proving I don’t support him at 23 years and 10 months.
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