Curbing the Out-of-Control Numbers of Gun Deaths in the US

By Glen H. Stassen

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from notes of his presentation to the Peace and Justice Advocates student group on January 15, 2013, at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Time-sensitive and anecdotal references should be considered as related to this meeting.

Vice President Joseph Biden and President Obama are advocating a national background check system so fewer dangerous persons can buy guns, a ban on semi-automatic guns and their automatic clips of bullets, and over a dozen actions the president can take even if the Congress blocks other options. Some action will happen, whether Congress agrees to pass a new law or not.

Before talking about possible action in this category, I first want to suggest something about togetherness versus individualistic distrust.

Fearful Lonesomeness, A Sense of Togetherness

HT_patch_sandy_hook_school_kb_121214_wg20 kindergartners were each shot more than once with a semi-automatic weapon, along with six teachers dedicated to helping little children grow up well. We have all felt compassion and a sense of togetherness with the people of Newtown, Connecticut, and our nation is witnessing a degree of compassion, togetherness, and commitment to the common good of all. Picking up on this, President Obama said yesterday, “If everybody across party lines was as deeply moved and saddened as I was, then we’re going to have to vote based on what we think is best.”

Someone from Newtown, Connecticut, said that they need a sense of support, of togetherness, from other communities and suggested that other children might want to send snowflakes. So many children from across the U.S. responded with compassion and caring, cutting snowflakes out of paper and sending boxes of paper them, such that truckloads of these boxes filled with snowflakes arrived each day. At this point, there is no way that Newtown can display them all. But the multitudes of snowflakes communicate this: very many people, including children, are feeling solidarity and community with the parents, teachers, and children of Newtown.

By contrast, the mother of Adam Lanza had her sense of togetherness with community damaged when she got divorced. And she purchased five guns to keep her safe from outsiders. Adam chose from among those weapons, especially the semi-automatic guns, when he killed his own mother and then those children and teachers. Adam himself had certainly lost his sense of togetherness with others.

When people lose their sense of togetherness – their sense of the common good – they are more likely to rely on weapons to keep them safe from the outsiders. That likelihood increases when a person has racist distrust toward other groups and/or lives in a large city without a sense of neighborhood. Research shows some correlation between the size of a city, a diminished sense of neighborhood, and a higher homicide rate.

On the other hand, when an area in a large city blocks through-streets from allowing cars to drive straight through their neighborhoods, and thereby creates a greater sense of belonging to a neighborhood for their members, the homicide rate goes down. My son, Bill, lives in one such such neighborhood (Fairmount) in the large city of Philadelphia. Such neighborhoods have a greater sense of solidarity and the common good and a lower amount of gun violence.

Jesus says that God gives rain and sunshine to all people, the just and unjust alike. God loves all people. So churches can follow Jesus by being concerned for the ethos of the nation, for all people. Churches should not be saying that the whole nation is only individualistic possessiveness, that churches should be concerned only about themselves, “gated communities” focused only inward on themselves. Churches should be spreading a sense that all of these are our children, children in Newtown and children in South Central and children in Baltimore and Philadelphia, children who have grossly inadequate schools and children of Latino immigrants.

Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords had a gift for creating community with diverse others. This came to expression when Mark Shields said of her:

This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.

E pluribus unum.

We do this at Fuller Theological Seminary: We build community across denominational lines, across international lines, across ethnic lines, and across gender lines. Churches, like First Baptist here in Pasadena, are doing much of this.

“Own Shooting”

Let’s switch gears for a moment and talk specifically about firearm possession.

When I was living in Kentucky, the Louisville police once told me (and a group of others) about something they called “own shooting.” At that time, the police officers said that for every one time someone successfully uses a gun to defend their home against a burglar, there are 100 times when someone in the home uses the gun against someone else in the home.

In the January 15, 2013, edition of the LA Times, Michael Shermer updates these statistics in “A rational response to Sandy Hook”:

According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, for “every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” In other words, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense. . . .

According to FBI crime reports, between 2007 and 2011 the United States experienced an annual average of 13,700 homicides, with guns responsible for 67.8% of those. That’s an average of 9,289 people shot dead a year, 25 a day, a little more than one an hour.

By contrast, according to James Alan Fox, Northeastern University criminologist, between 1980 and 2010 there were, on average, 20 mass murders a year (defined by the FBI as four or more killings in the same incident) with an average annual death toll of about 100. That’s a mere 0.01% of the average homicide total.

If we want to save lives by preventing gun deaths, the larger problem of individual homicides, suicides and accidents is the place to begin, not events such as Sandy Hook.

Preventing gun violence is largely about “own shootings.”

“[T]he gun-control debate concentrates on stranger crime rather than on the more common ways guns are used – that is, between or among acquaintances and family members” (Hampton, Preventing Violence, 44). Swords were what people used instead of handguns in Jesus’ day. Jesus told his disciple to put up his sword: “All who take up the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52).

This is also about where we put our trust.

Does gun control make a difference?

Perhaps these statistics tell us something about whether gun control makes a difference: “In 1996 handguns murdered 2 people in New Zealand, 13 in Australia, 15 in Japan, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany, and 9,390 in the United States. God Bless America” (Peaceways, 8).

David Gushee and I have compiled additional research in our book Kingdom Ethics (pages 189-190):

Marian Wright Edelman, Director of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), said in 1994 that 25 American children, the equivalent of an entire classroom, are killed by guns every two days (Hampton, Preventing Violence, 58). According to a CDF study, an average of 135,000 children per day take guns to school. “A 1991 study found that the United States had homicide rates among youth that were eight times higher than the rates in other industrialized countries” (Hampton, Preventing Violence 160).

“In 1989 gun attacks resulted in about 12,000 homicides–about 60% of all homicides. In addition… 5.7 nonfatal gunshot injuries occur for every homicide…. For 1985, Rice and associates estimate the total cost of intentional and unintentional gun injuries at over $14 billion.” In gun homicides for which the type of weapon was known, handguns accounted for nearly 80% in 1989, compared with 8% for rifles and 12% for shotguns” (Reiss, Understanding and Preventing Violence, 256-260). How many more deaths will it take to shock Americans into effective action?

A study of King County, Washington between 1978 and 1983 found that 2% of the gunshot deaths occurred in self-protection; 98% were suicides, murders, or accidents. People justify handguns because they are intended for self-protection, but, overwhelmingly, their actual use is for self-destruction. Another study of 88 cases where young children in California fatally shot a playmate or themselves concluded that 75% occurred while children were playing with a gun or demonstrating its use” (Reiss, Understanding and Preventing Violence, 267). “Comparing experience in Seattle and Vancouver, two neighboring jurisdictions that are demographically and socio-economically similar but have different gun laws, Sloane et al. (1988) found no differences in … burglary and simple and aggravated assault rates–but Seattle, which has more permissive gun laws, had an overall homicide rate more than 60% higher and a firearm homicide rate 400% higher” (Reiss, Understanding and Preventing Violence, 268).

The 1977 Washington, D.C. law that prohibited handgun ownership by virtually everyone except police officers, security guards and previous gun owners was evaluated in three studies. “During periods of vigorous enforcement, the D.C. law did reduce the rates of gun robbery, assault, and homicide during the three years following implementation. The effect was especially strong for homicides arising from disputes among family members and acquaintances.” There were “decreases of about one-fourth in D.C. gun homicides and suicides immediately after passage of the law. The effect …was not mirrored by trends in D.C. nongun homicides or suicides, or in gun homicides or suicides in nearby suburban areas that were not subject to the law” (Reiss, Understanding and Preventing Violence, 278). This indicates that other factors were not causing a decrease in homicides generally, apart from the effects of the law.

Notice that the focus in Washington was on handguns, not hunting rifles. Handguns can be put in a pocket or a backpack and carried around the neighborhood or taken to school without being seen; rifles do not fit in a pocket. Rifles are hard to conceal and not likely to be used in robberies. They are more likely to be used in hunting or target-shooting, or even in defense. They have built-in transparency. There is almost no ambiguity about whether the rifle-carrier is armed. Handguns contrast on all these points. There is a similar issue with automatic weapons designed for killing people in war, not for hunting.

We Can Do This / Si Se Pueda

Now back to the possibility of action.

Many think the NRA is enormously powerful. reports that the NRA’s Victory Fund invested a significant amount of money to back candidates in the congressional election, but less than 1% of their candidates made successful bids. For instance, they backed Mandel in Ohio, Mourdock in Indiana, Mack in Florida, Akin in Missouri, and Allen in Virginia. All lost. The NRA is not invincible.

We believe in a God who acts to bring delivering justice. I have experienced this truth in many situations that initially looked depressing and disempowering. For instance, I was depressed about:

  1. our initial failure to ban racial segregation in housing in Louisville in 1967
  2. our struggle with the Reagan administration to stop building more and more nuclear weapons as the object of idolatrous trust in “horses and chariots” and military weapons that do not deliver
  3. avoiding a bloodbath in South Africa
  4. our failure to convince the Bush administration not to initiate a war against Iraq

But in each case, people turned against idolatrous policies, and eventually the breakthrough we had been praying for came.

Regarding the critical mass to take action at present, see polls by the Pew Research Center and by the Washington Post and ABC News, reported by the LA Times, January 15, 2013: Over 80% want federal background checks for all gun sales, and slimmer majorities want to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Let us not be agents who spread cynicism and a sense of powerlessness. God does not always come on our time, but God does come.

Glen Stassen is Executive Director of the Just Peacemaking Initiative and Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.

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