Guns in America: Ideology or Idolatry?

Guns take a life every 16 minutes in the United States—92 lives every day. In a compelling op-ed for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the time has come to address gun violence in response to a public health crisis.

Gun rights activists will quickly retort that guns ensure greater safety and that placing restrictions on gun ownership will only result in fewer innocent civilians being able to defend themselves. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found this to be the overwhelming reason Americans own guns (60% of respondents said personal safety or protection, compared to 36% for hunting and 5% because of the Second Amendment, for example). Even though it is widely claimed that guns keep millions of Americans safe and prevent crime (as touted by the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and conservative politicians), the facts don’t actually substantiate this belief (which you can read about here or here or here, for example).

Still, 1 in 3 Americans report owning a gun, although estimates indicate there may be just as many guns as people in this country. Even with all these weapons meant for protection and crime prevention, there is more crime in the U.S. and gun homicides in the U.S. are at least triple that of other developed countries. This is less the result of random violence or criminal plotting than it is a symptom of violence erupting in family life: more than half of mass killings are family-related. Americans are hurting and they’re turning to guns to do something about it. Domestic violence – a reality for 38 million women at some point in their lifetime and to which 10 million children are exposed each year – although not exclusively a gun issue, reminds us that violence is not only happening in public, even though media coverage on gun violence predictably spikes when there are mass shootings in public places. Even more troubling, most coverage is given to the shooters, rather than those affected by the violence. The costs of gun violence extend far beyond the 33,000 who are killed, the 80,000 who are injured, and the thousands of loved ones who witness the violence, share in the grief, and accompany the recovery of the survivors every year. Yes, mass shootings are on the rise: 238 days into 2015 and there have already been 247 mass shootings. But these public tragedies ought not eclipse the reality that every day, 7 children and teens die from guns (the vast majority of those shot, even accidentally, are boys) or the fact that, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out, more Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 than in all U.S. wars (which, importantly and unfortunately, is true because of the massive numbers of death by self-inflicted shootings).  One economist has even measured the annual cost of gun violence to be at least $8.6 billion, with as much as $221 billion more in indirect costs.

Taking into account these figures – and the immeasurable heartbreak experienced by all those touched by gun violence – it is mystifying why responsible gun regulation continues to elude us. As these 17 charts poignantly illustrate, this is a problem unique to the United States, but there is no measurable momentum to make solving this problem a national priority. This is not for a shortage of worthy proposals (like this or this, for example), some of which have widespread bipartisan support, like expanding background checks (supported by 85% of Americans), the creation of a federal database to track gun sales (favored by 70%), and laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns (79% approval rate).

Americans’ views on gun control haven’t changed much in recent years. Not after the 32 killed and 17 wounded on a Spring day at Virginia Tech in 2007, the 27 lives (including 20 six and seven year olds) cut short at Sandy Hook Elementary School just days before Christmas in 2012, or the 9 murdered in a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this summer. In fact, shortly after the Charleston massacre, President Obama somberly stated, “It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues just now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it.”

These tragedies have not been enough to galvanize the political will to pass any meaningful gun regulation. On the contrary, NRA board member Charles Cotton blamed the murdered pastor for the death of his 8 church members, since, as a State Senator, he opposed a 2011 bill that would have permitted gun owners to bring their firearms to public places (like the AME church), and Dana Loesch, a conservative talk radio host, used the Charleston shooter’s example to illustrate the ineffectiveness of laws designed to limit access to guns.   The NRA has been effective in shifting the conversation toward mental health rather than responsible regulation. And although it is true that most of these mass killings have been perpetrated by those who may be diagnosed as mentally ill (and this is a serious public health issue in its own right), we cannot ignore the way the gun lobby grows its extensive influence in Congress (you can see the NRA figures here, notable because the organization has been found to violate federal law). Some blame a lack of gun regulation on political cowardice among our elected officials. But this still doesn’t explain why more Americans aren’t demanding reform of the practices and policies that continue to permit these kinds of tragedies to shape the American psyche and enervate our social bond, particularly among Millennials.

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Some dismiss this simply as a byproduct of a “gun culture” that is part of the fabric of American history. Others point out the link between gun views and ideology and racial identity, which reveal that whites are nearly twice as likely as African Americans and Hispanics to prioritize gun rights over gun control as well as other views that follow gun ownership trends.

But perhaps more than ideology, this is really a matter of idolatry. I’m not the first person to suggest this, of course. Publications ranging from Sojourners to America, the L.A. Times to The Week have offered well-informed and insightful arguments on the need to question America’s love of guns. For a country that prints “In God We Trust” on our money, it is odd that so many Americans unquestioningly profess fealty to the right to bear arms that they believe is granted by the Second Amendment (which, it is worth pointing out, was written in 1789, before the invention of an automatic handgun, to say nothing of an assault riffle – and, moreover, is not an absolute right, just like the freedom of speech does not come without appropriate limitations).

Theologian Jon Sobrino has proposed that the opposite of faith is not unbelief, but idolatry. Idolatry, or the practice of the “creation of divinity by humans,” as Sobrino sees it, leads to death because of the way people use power to advance their own selfish interests and to maintain an unjust status quo. This was a concern shared by Pope John Paul II, who made a point to criticize two attitudes “opposed to the will of God,” namely “the all-consuming desire for profit” and “the thirst for power.” John Paul II lamented that in today’s world both these attitudes are “indissolubly united,” not just among individuals, but across nations. This reality contributes to the “structures of sin” and a modern form of “imperialism” that represents “real forms of idolatry: of money, ideology, class, and technology.” John Paul II explained that his reason for exposing this social reality is to “identify precisely, on the level of human conduct, the path to be followed in order to overcome it” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, #37).

To honor the victims of these idolatries, Sobrino insists the primary theological objective is to shine a light on the idol, the lies that lead us astray, and the death that snuffs out the lives of those sacrificed for profit and power “at any cost.” The duty to unmask idolatry follows Jesus’ promise (in John 10:10) to bring the fullness of life for all: as Sobrino writes, “In the name of the true God we give life to other human beings; in the name of false gods we give death to them” (The True Church and the Poor, 57).

With more than $6 billion in annual gun sales, it’s hard not to see how profit and power drive Americans’ trust in guns as a form of idolatry, tempting far too many to turn away from the recognition that gun control is a pro-life issue.

Whether these mass killings are fueled by racist hatred or in response to feeling marginalized or misunderstood, we need to understand why the perpetrators of these horrific crimes continue to turn to guns and have ready access to them. Parents of victims have begged their American peers to stand with them to demand change. Catholic bishops have called for action and some politicians and organizations are working diligently to cultivate coalitions strong enough to effect change. I deeply appreciate Kristof’s op-ed and those calling on our country to address gun violence as a public health issue. But let’s be honest: we cannot ensure perfect safety by simply addressing personal behavior alone. As a matter of prudence, we should make it harder to access weapons and make the gun industry more transparent and accountable (as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence aims to accomplish).

Fr. Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who works with former gang members in East L.A., is no stranger to gun violence. Even though he’s buried dozens and dozens of men and women killed by guns, he isn’t vociferously calling for gun control. Instead, Fr. Boyle’s approach is to emphasize the innate goodness in each person, to remind everyone that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that, above all, we belong to each other in a spirit of kinship. He is well aware of the ways that guns might make someone feel “bigger than God,” but his answer is not legislation, but compassion (which he defines in terms of the act of being who God is in the world). Instead of expecting laws to change us, Boyle recognizes that we have to be changed first. That starts with what we think, how we feel, the language we use, and who we spend our time with, and how we are shaped through these experiences and relationships together.

Those who call for gun regulation often cite the statistic that more than 30,000 lives are taken by guns each year (predicted to surpass vehicle-related deaths this year), without giving due attention to the fact that two-thirds of those deaths are the result of suicide. What are we doing to address this suffering and alleviate this sense of isolation? Gun violence is a complex problem that requires more than political savvy to solve. It’s a symptom of a deeper issue, a pervasive hurt, and an inclination to do harm. Violence dehumanizes and creates division; it is the opposite of the love shown throughout Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry and the fullness of life he worked to extend to everyone.

Americans’ love of guns is more than ideology; it’s an idolatry that delivers death to far too many of our brothers and sisters and makes the rest of us sickeningly indifferent to their suffering. As we prepare for the Holy Year of Mercy and Pope Francis’ focus on overcoming indifference, let us commit to thinking and feeling with those who are impacted by gun violence and imagining possibilities for treating the root causes of the hurt so that, in the spirit of compassion, we can more fully actualize the truth that we belong to each other.

Mother Teresa once said, “If we do not have peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” If we took this more seriously and worked to overcome the obstacles that keep us from recognizing this more consistently, imagine all the lives – from Alison Parker to Tamir Rice, Alexander Teves to Madeline Hsu to the thousands of others whose names we’ll never know – that could bring us closer to the fullness of life Jesus envisioned for all.

Until then, how many more innocent lives will be sacrificed to the idolatry of guns?