Live by the gun, die by the gun

Krattenmaker-tomBy Tom Krattenmaker
Award-winning Portland-based writer

The easy availability of guns did not make 6-year-old Jacob Hall safer. It helped make him dead.

We ought to remember this boy, who was fatally shot at his elementary school in Townville, S.C., just as we ought to remember the brilliantly applicable teaching of Jesus when he famously quipped, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

Swap in “gun” for “sword” and you have an apt description of what’s happening to us.

The mental and emotional problems of the teenager who shot Jacob last month turned lethal because a gun was available — probably in his household, which was known to keep firearms.

The 14-year-old shooter first used the weapon on his father, leaving him dead at the family home, before driving to Jacob’s school and resuming shooting. The teen injured another child and a teacher in addition to firing the fatal shot that struck an artery in Jacob’s leg.

When will our culture wake up to the reality that the guns we get to keep us safe only make society — and thus each of our lives — more dangerous?

It’s heartening to hear a growing chorus of activist voices, including those connected with churches, clamoring in protest against our insane proliferation of guns. Earlier this month, the venerable Riverside Church in New York hosted 100 clergy and lay people for a two-day “God and Guns” training. The assembled ministers weren’t trained how to use guns; they learned how to shoot down the lie that guns are the best way to protect ourselves from … guns.

“Our faith teaches us to support policies and programs that protect life, but instead Christians have been complicit for too long in allowing our country to be guided by the rhetoric of fear,” Riverside’s senior minister, the Rev. Amy Butler, said.

Because most of us watch movies, we can picture the scenario conjured by the Second Amendment enthusiasts: You and your family are menaced by a weapon-toting bad man. He is intent on robbing or killing you. But you whip out your gun and turn the table. He flees or, if he does not, you shoot him. You and your gun have saved the day.

Or maybe you come upon a mass shooting in its early stages. Thanks to your gun, you take down the evil shooter and keep the casualty count to, say, two, rather than two dozen.

Fair enough. In situations like these, guns can protect lives. The problem is, these are perfectly framed scenarios that are more the stuff of movies than real life. When we examine the more complex and large-scale realities around the circulation and use of firearms, we can see how our reliance on guns and our commitment to making them widely available contribute dramatically to the widespread violence from which we seek protection.

Take, for instance, the rash of highly publicized cases of police shooting unarmed black men. Officers invariably justify their unnecessary use of lethal force by saying they feared for their life; they thought the suspect had a weapon. Implicit racial bias plays a role. But it stands to reason that the ubiquity of weapons also contributes. Guns are everywhere and easy to get, greatly increasing the likelihood that the person being confronted by an officer might actually be armed.

Just as fear can give a police officer an itchy trigger finger, psychological research shows that fear can make us foolish. It activates the fight-or-flight instinct and shuts down our capacity for calm, rational thinking. Seems like a good explanation for why we continue to rely on guns for safety when the guns are so much a part of why we are not safe.

Fear’s cousin, impulsiveness, also leads to the guns in our homes being turned on us, whether by suicide, domestic killing or fatal accidents. This type of violence kills 92 Americans each day on average. A new investigation by The Associated Press and USA Today shows that every other day a minor is killed by accidental shootings in this country.

One would hope that a country so steeped in the Christian tradition would take its cue not from the National Rifle Association and its fear-based pro-gun arguments, but from Jesus. How instructive that when the guards came to arrest him, and one of his entourage prepared to fight, Jesus told the disciple: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26: 52)

If we want to be safe from guns, the answer is not more guns. The answer is transformation — the long-overdue, difficult but necessary transformation where we find safety in solutions that are a lot more “surefire” than guns: trust, solidarity and the cultivation of a healthy society in which there is much less of the desperation, anger and dis-ease that fuel violence.

It’s a long way from here to there, and sensible measures are needed in the meantime — like the ones voters in several states will consider in next month’s elections. Among those proposed laws is the extension of would-be-buyer background checks to far more gun sales than are currently covered.

Let’s hope these pass. More important, may we please stop falling for the illusion that the way to keep the wolves at bay is to get our own wolves. They have a nasty habit of turning on us and our communities.

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