By William A. Dyrness
I have a confession to make: I was a member of the National Rifle Association when I was growing up in the Midwest. At summer camp I competed in their approved program of marksmanship. Somewhere in my attic are probably the graying targets and awards that show my growing ability, as I moved up through the ranks—toward the goal of sharpshooter (which I never reached). I read their magazine, and I think it was an ad in that magazine that I responded to when I sent off for my first B-B-Gun. I still remember the carving on the handle when it arrived and the long shiny black barrel—it occupied a special place in my bedroom. My friends and I would take our guns and ride our bikes out to the empty cornfields outside of town—shooting our feeble charges at rabbits and crows.
That was a long time ago and I am no longer a member of the NRA; in fact I cannot imagine being a member today. The events of the last month have made me think about all that has changed since those days. While many of us grew up in small towns; now we mostly live in sprawling metropolises; summer camps and their competitions have given way to gun clubs and sprawling gun shows. Indeed in some places today it is as easy to buy an automatic weapon as it was for me to buy my B-B-Gun.
But the events of this month have made me reflect on something else, more important than any of these developments, something that has not changed since I was growing up, something I want to speak about it in this article: Guns occupy a special place in the American imagination, one that is defined more by emotion than logic. Guns are nothing like the lawnmowers and tools that we keep in our garage—all the instruments we use to order and repair our homes. They occupy a special place, literally and figuratively, in our lives. For many people guns have a symbolic meaning that transcends any actual function they may have. In part, I understand this: I still remember the feelings I had when I opened the gun when it arrived in the mail and when I carried it around on my bike. It defined special places and times that still resonate in my imagination.
On the most basic level, for many, guns embody gee-whiz technology and spiffy materials, put together with highly skilled craftsmanship. Comments in the press since the Sandy Hook shooting have sometimes referred to this fundamental, aesthetic response to the gun—I like the way it feels in my hand, one is quoted as saying. This attraction to the technology of weaponry is nothing new, it is characteristic of the human condition since Saul tried to persuade David to wear his armor when he took on Goliath. In the Aeneid Virgil says Aeneas “couldn’t gaze enough” at the beautiful weapons that Venus had given him:
“The fearsome helmet with its flaming crest,
The deadly sword, the blood-red corselet rigid
With bronze: enormous like a cloud.” (VIII, 620-622).
Responses to owning and carrying guns of course go beyond their aesthetic appeal. They represent, for many people, a space in their lives that they treasure and share with their closest family and friends. For many the annual hunting trip is fixed in the schedule for years ahead, and for these, hunting—like fishing or skiing or surfing—is such a central (and pleasurable) activity that they cannot imagine life without it. Even here, I can understand how people can come to “live for” their regular hunting trips, or their competitive shooting. It is hard for me to see that there is anything intrinsically wrong with this—it can be seen as part of the fullness of life that God allows his children to live amidst the goodness and gifts of the created order.
But there is a further appeal of guns that surfaces frequently that I find troubling—where that special place the gun occupies takes on a more sinister character. For too many people, guns have come to represent protection from some perceived threat from their neighbor. These feel vulnerable, so they claim, when they do not have the “protection” that is represented by a gun. This fear is evidenced by the spike in gun sales any time some official even speaks about gun control. People respond to all such discussions as though the chief threat from the government is that it will deprive people of their right to protect themselves from some lurking assailant.
Though I find these fears difficult to fully comprehend, I recognize that they constitute one of the strongest attractions drawing people to guns. It is a further example of that unique place that guns occupy, one that is nurtured as much by imagined terrors as by remembered pleasures—that is by fear as much as desire. And this is what makes any rational discussion of restrictions on gun ownership so difficult. Somehow it doesn’t matter, for example, that the threat from an armed intruder is far less than a serious automobile accident; I still need the security represented by a gun in the drawer beside my bed.
What concerns me as a Christian is that the fears that correlate with gun ownership (of which Christians I’m sure make up their fair share), are not seen as a moral issue that call for careful biblical and theological reflection. I cannot do justice to the issues involved in this small space, but let me simply raise two of them here and suggest why they are important.
First, it seems particularly worrisome that a reflex response to an encounter with strangers, whether they live down the street or across the ocean, is to arm ourselves. One of the wisest responses that I read to the tragedy of the school shooting, was that of a psychologist who stressed that we insist to our children that while there are some bad people out there, most people are good and helpful. The obsession with arming ourselves—and if NRA had its way, arming officials at schools, suggests that the world is a hostile place and that many people are dangerous. Indeed such attitudes can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. When we treat strangers as invariably dangerous we can easily create tensions that otherwise would not exist. Contrariwise if we treat strangers as potential friends, we can diffuse whatever tensions might exist. Even enemies, Christ insisted, are to be loved; and persecutors prayed for.
Second, the impulse to arm oneself suggests that we must be responsible, by ourselves, for our own safety and security. One of the most astounding claims repeated in recent weeks is that, after all, guns represent the reason that we now live in a free country—guns won the West. This reflects a fundamental failure to understand that our lives are bound up with our neighbor, and our security is, finally, in God’s hands, not our own. This does not mean that police or military should not be armed, and may not use weapons to protect the populace. But it does mean, as Scriptures remind us, that even when the watchman is armed and patrols the city, unless God watches the city the watchman watches, but in vain.
Bill Dyrness is Professor of Theology and Culture and former Dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.