Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun

Catholic Social Ethics

The school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left seventeen students and teachers dead, has reignited the debate about gun control and the Second Amendment that flares up every time there is a mass shooting. The same thing happened after the shooting at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas last year and the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando in 2016, and in each case both advocates for greater gun control and for the rights of gun owners speak out in indignation, but with no legislative action. Some believe that things may be different in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, since a group of students from the high school have taken to social media, the news media, and the halls of Congress and the Florida legislature in a sustained effort in support of measures like universal background checks and a ban on the sale of assault rifles like the AR-15 used in Parkland, but the results remain to be seen.

It is easy to attribute the lack of action on gun control to the influence of the NRA or to American individualism and gun culture, and those factors shouldn’t be ignored. But discussion of gun policy in the United States is also hampered by pervasive false beliefs and misperceptions about guns and gun violence on both sides of the debate. As I have written in an earlier post, “the American public’s gross misperceptions of the facts affect our ability to carry on meaningful debates about public policy.”

For example, while the horrific nature of mass shootings spur gun control advocates to propose solutions that will supposedly prevent the next attack, mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Parkland are responsible for only a tiny fraction of gun deaths. Indeed, two thirds of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Among gun homicides, according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh, in 79 percent of cases, the person responsible possessed the gun illegally. This suggests that the issue is not simply one of putting more restrictions on who can purchase guns legally, but also one of how to prevent guns from falling into illegal hands and reducing the number of illegal guns in circulation.

In this post, however, I want to focus on a different sort of misperception: the belief that the legal possession of guns makes us safer. This belief was manifest in President Donald Trump’s call for arming teachers who are trained in the use of firearms in the hopes of preventing a school shooting like that in Parkland, but it is also held by the millions of Americans who keep guns in their homes or who carry concealed firearms with them outside the home. Obviously, the idea is that a gun allows a person to defend themselves against an attacker, often deterring the assailant before any violence occurs. And of course many people have personal anecdotes in which a gun did indeed deter an assault or ward off an intruder.

That being said, when considered at the macro level, the evidence is clear that guns do not make people safer, but rather make them more vulnerable accidents and death. A 2003 study by Douglas J. Wiebe and colleagues found that individuals who lived in households with guns were 41 percent more likely to be the victim of a gun homicide (either accidental or intentional) than individuals who lived in homes without guns. The authors note that while these results might suggest that individuals keep guns in their homes because they live in environments where they are more likely to be the victim of violence, the fact that both populations were equally likely to be the victims of non-gun homicides militates against this interpretation. Likewise, the study found that women who live in households with guns are 172 percent more likely to be the victim of a gun homicide (compared to merely 23 percent for men) than those who live in households without guns. The most likely explanation for this gender disparity is that in homes where women are the victims of domestic violence, abusers are more likely to use a gun when a gun is present in the home. This suggests that overall, the presence of a gun in the home does not make the residents safer, but rather provides a temptation to use the gun or greater opportunities for accidents. A 1998 study by Arthur Kellermann and his colleagues found that guns kept in the household were four times more likely to cause an accident than to be used in self-defense.

There is also some evidence that carrying a gun outside the home makes a person less safe. A 2009 study conducted by Wiebe and his colleagues found that individuals possessing guns were nearly 4.5 times more likely to be the victim of assault by a gun than individuals not carrying guns. The study used a complex methodology (victims of gun assaults in Philadelphia were paired with a random population of non-victims sharing similar characteristics, and their rates of gun possession were then compared) that may not fully take into account the fact that many individuals possess guns because they are engaged in illegal activity, putting them more at risk of gun violence. The study concludes, however, that even individuals in possession of guns who are not involved in illegal activity may have an inflated sense of confidence making them more willing to engage in behaviors that put them at greater risk of violence. Likewise, brandishing a weapon might lead to an escalation in violence in a situation that otherwise might have just resulted in a robbery, for example.

My point here is not that guns never make households safer, or that people should not be able to have guns for their own self-defense. I think people ought to be able to decide for themselves whether possessing a gun would make them safer or would be more risk than it is worth, based on the circumstances; certainly, there are situations where owning a gun might make sense. Rather, my point is that pervasive misperceptions about guns and gun violence make it more difficult for people to make this decision.

In the post I cited earlier, I argued that our most pervasive false beliefs concerning public policy are the result of powerful narratives we hold about the world and how it works. The widespread belief that we are at high risk of violence or crime and that possession of a gun makes us safer is the result of just such a narrative. It results in part from the pervasive individualism of American culture, which emphasizes self-reliance and underestimates the benefits we reap from public goods such as public safety. This narrative likewise sees the person as an autonomous, rational individual while downplaying the role of desire (Elizabeth Bruenig has made a similar point about the thinness of consent as a sexual ethic); it can only imagine the rational uses to which a gun in the home (or school) could be put, while failing to grasp that the presence of a gun creates an increased desire to use the gun for less rational purposes. It is also a narrative rooted in our cultural memory as a country fashioned out of the chaos of the frontier by colonists, pioneers, and lawmen all armed with guns.

One of the most mystifying facts about guns in the United States is that we have prohibited public funding for studies of what is clearly a public health problem. In 1996, in a bill proposed by Rep. Jay Dickey, a Democrat from Arkansas, cut funding for the Center for Disease Control’s research into gun-related deaths, and this funding has never been restored. The bill was promoted by the NRA after the first studies showing results similar to those cited above began being published. It is as if Americans are so wedded to our false narrative about guns that we refuse to even look at facts that contradict it.

In my earlier post, I claimed that uncovering our blind spots and biases is a type of conversion, and ultimately depends on our receptiveness to God’s grace. I also noted that churches can play an important role in this conversion process by offering preaching and formation that provides people with alternative narratives that help counter the false beliefs that contribute to poor public policy decisions.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides Christians with just such a counter-narrative. He proposes that his followers should “offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt. 5:39). Likewise, he teaches that his followers should “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). Jesus’ teachings are often interpreted as a higher ethic, providing a heroic standard toward which Christians ought to strive but which is not strictly obligatory. For example, in this view, while Christians should strive to “turn the other cheek,” they nevertheless have the right to self-defense if attacked, and in some cases, such as when others are being subject to violence, they may even have an obligation to use force.

Although there is something to this perspective, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are better understood as ways to break the cycles of sin in which we find ourselves. Jesus’ point is not so much to provide a higher ethic of non-retaliation, but rather to break the cycle of retaliation and vengeance at the heart of so much violence. In reality, Jesus’ teaching is not an abdication of self-defense but rather a way of life through which a community can reduce the circumstances in which people have to defend themselves in the first place. This realization helps us understand Jesus’ statement later in the Gospel that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52), which he utters after an unnamed disciple (whom the Gospel of Luke identifies as Peter) cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant as Jesus is being arrested. Jesus is not claiming there is a strict cause and effect relationship between using violence and dying from violence, but rather making clear that the resort to force often perpetuates the cycle of violence from which one is seeking to escape. In Peter’s case, the violent defense of Jesus only perpetuated the sin which necessitated Jesus’ death.

Although we must craft gun policies that balance civil liberties, the need for self-defense, and public safety, we also must question our own faith in the efficacy of violence in preventing violence. We have bought into the narrative that guns make us safer, but must learn from Jesus that, in a sense, if we live by the gun, we will die by the gun.

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