Let’s start here: The recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR was a tragedy of the first order. The loss of precious human lives was entirely unjust and their families along with the wounded and their families will be recovering for a long time. They deserve our prayer support.
That being said, the point of fixation for most of the writing community at the Baptist News Global, the political left, and the mainstream media has been the fact that this was yet another incident of the out of control gun violence plaguing our nation. If there were only more laws related to the sale, possession, use, and storage of firearms, things like this could be prevented. President Obama even went so far in his press conference the evening of the shooting to suggest that at least part of the blame for the tragedy lies right at the feet of those who have recently opposed what are often referred to as “common sense” gun laws. In fact, in the wake of each of the last several mass shooting events in the nation, the loudest refrain has consistently been something to the effect of: If only there were fewer guns and more laws to regulate them these kinds of things could be prevented.
Now, on the one hand, I completely understand this reaction. Guns were the instrument of choice for all these brutal slayings and so if we could somehow make guns disappear, the slayings would stop. That makes sense. It makes sense emotionally. It makes sense culturally. Legally things are a bit trickier, but there are indeed some further laws that could make an impact on the issue (broader background check requirements, mandatory training, increased security, etc.).
But, with a bit more thought, there are several counterpoints to this standard refrain that deserve to be made.
First, the one thing that seems to be consistently missing from the many arguments in favor of “common sense” gun laws is exactly what the nature of these laws would be. What exactly are some of the proposals here and what is it about their sensibility that it should be considered so common? I posed this question to a contributor recently who had made such calls, and he graciously responded with several specific ideas that I agree would be steps in the right direction and would likely attract a broad base of support. As an acknowledged gun owner and hunter himself, he brings a perspective to the issue that many commentators do not; it is one that grasps the culture of gun ownership in the country in ways that many other commentators who fall more to the left on the issue do not. Unfortunately, many critics do not approach the issue from his perspective.
Second, while it would be theoretically possible to put a halt to the increasing number of guns in the hands of private citizens in this nation, the simple reality is that there are hundreds of millions of guns already out there and short a national policy of gun confiscation (which would be legally impossible, not to mention politically and socially so), there is no real way to reduce this. What’s more, a great number of firearm sales take place between private individuals and are not easily within reach of federal regulation. Neither of those facts are comfortable, but they are what they are and if we don’t start with a realistic assessment of our current location we will not be able to move anywhere more positive.
Third, while mass shootings like the one in Oregon seem to be growing more common, the actual percentage of gun violence in the nation is on the decline. A Pew Research study from 2013 found that gun violence has dropped nearly 50% from its high water mark in 1993—a fact of which the public is generally completely unaware. It would appear that rather than bemoaning excessive gun violence, some truth-telling would be in order here. Furthermore, since the number of legal gun sales in the country has spiked rather dramatically in the last few years, it would seem that an increase in the availability of guns has played at least some kind of a role in the decrease of gun violence on the whole. Adding one more layer to this, when you accurately compare the U.S. to other European nations we actually rank about 10th in terms of number of mass shootings per capita. We may have a violence problem here, but we’re neither alone nor particularly egregious in our struggles with it.
Fourth, while guns certainly are dangerous in and of themselves, any realistic reflections on the nature of the problem of gun violence and mass shootings that do not take into account the culture and worldview of the shooter are simply not worth our time. Given that the vast, vast majority of gun owners in the country successfully own their guns without ever having any problems it would seem that the better choice of foci in dealing with the problem here is not the owning of guns, but the worldview beliefs of the shooters and the specific elements that inform them. If we can as a society take steps to address those it would seem we could accomplish a great deal more positive good than simply passing more laws to cover for our brokenness.
Fifth and speaking of laws, every time we are forced to pass laws to cover for a decrease in virtue (both public and private), we as a people become a little less free. As Paul makes abundantly clear in his writings to the church in Galatia and Rome, laws exist where freedom does not and real freedom requires virtue to maintain. Perhaps if as a culture we took a great many more active steps to encourage virtuous public and private behavior in our society while at the same time actively discouraging those cultural elements which undermine it we could make some real headway here. For instance, the Oregon shooter apparently posted about his plans on an internet message board and rather than anyone raising a red flag, most contributors took it as a joke and openly encouraged him to go for it with some even offering advice as to the best ways to do the most damage possible. Such are the symptoms of a sick culture in need of the kind of healing that can only come through the generous encouragement of virtue.
Sixth and finally, rather than fixating on the gun rights issues at play here, why not invest a great deal more time and energy in celebrating the bold souls who courageously clung to their faith in Christ even as they knew they would be shot for it. What an incredible display of the kind of tenacious commitment to Christ that will see us one day standing in His presence and enjoying the life that is truly life. Several of the Umpqua victims were bona fide faith heroes and their stories can and should be used to encourage others to take up the Christian faith and to live for something that is absolutely worth dying to have. Let us pray for their families that as they mourn they will stand strong on this faith legacy worth emulating. Such faith as these demonstrated will no doubt move mountains. Tertullian observed that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. If this tragedy allows the kingdom of God to expand into the lives of those currently not living in it then their deaths, while tragic and unjust, will not be in vain.
So again, what happened at Umpqua Community College was a tragedy, but if we zero in on the wrong message it runs the risk of becoming merely a senseless tragedy when it has all the potential of the kind of tragedy that God gloriously redeems and uses to accomplish great things in the advancement of His kingdom into this world through the church. I think the right message in all of this is here: While our culture has a gun problem, the worldview problems it faces are a great deal more significant. We as the church hold the keys to the solutions to those worldview problems and if some of the victims here were willing to take a bullet because they were so convinced that Jesus is Lord, then surely we can have the courage to lovingly and humbly engage an increasingly hostile culture with the words that are designed to lead them to life. Gun violence is certainly a problem that needs addressing, but this is something worth giving your life for.