One Nation Under The Gun

Shortly before my return to this pulpit, after several months away, I realized that one of the topics I was itching to explore with you as soon as possible was guns and gun ownership. What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut last December was more disturbing than I can say. And then in April, we had gun control legislation in the Senate that easily secured the support of 90% of Americans and a majority of US Senators but not the required super-majority, and definitely not the National Rifle Association, so it failed. Afterwards, I saw President Obama on TV expressing his outrage. “I’ve heard folks say that having the families of victims lobby for this legislation was somehow misplaced. ‘A prop,’ somebody called them. ‘Emotional blackmail,’ some outlet said. Are they serious? Do we really think that thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don’t have a right to weigh in on this issue? Do we think their emotions, their loss is not relevant to this debate?”

Then there was my man John Oliver from the Daily Show, who said, “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns.”

In short, things right now seem seriously messed up around guns and gun control in this country. Exhibit A is the Newtown massacre, and Exhibit B is the inability to pass sound gun control legislation in the wake of Newtown. Or Aurora. Or Virginia Tech. Or Columbine. I could go on all day.

I mean, what is going on?

That’s the question—and inevitably, part of the answer is what we bring to it, in the sense of personal history. In no way am I assuming we’re all on the same page.

What’s your experience of guns been?

Definitely mine has not been like that of Tom Palmer. From the reading today, we learned that Tom Palmer is an openly gay man who was one step away from being gay bashed and probably murdered by a big group of 19-20 young guys, but he saved himself by showing his assailants the “business end of a pistol.” Anyone in here have a story like that? A gun saved your life?

If this ever happened to you, you will bring this personal experience to the gun debate. Your tendency will be to ask hard questions about gun control and to be harshly skeptical towards legislation that is more symbol than substance. You’ll find yourself scoffing at gun control efforts like that of the District of Columbia which, in July of 1976, banned all handguns in an effort to make D.C. a gun-free zone. You’ll scoff and you’ll shake your head when you hear that D.C., just 10 years after passing that gun control legislation, repeated a Prohibition-era pattern, was flooded with black market out-of-state guns, and became known as nothing less than the “murder capitol of America.” Gun control here did NOT mean less crime. Gun control needs to smarter than this. It’s not that you necessarily disagree with gun control. Owning a gun is not equivalent to agreeing with what the crazy NRA says. 72% of gun owners support background checks and a five-day waiting period. 66% support extending background checks to private sales, thus closing the “gun show loophole”; 79% support mandating gun-safety courses for gun buyers. You want gun control to be smarter than the D.C. law, smarter than the equally lame 1994 ban on assault weapons. You want this because you know just how valuable a gun can be in the right circumstances. You know, because you’ve been there. Just like Tom Palmer.

But, as I said, I’ve never been there. My experience is different. Four memories come to mind. One is when I’m eight, and my Dad decided he needed to go hunt down a goose for Canadian Thanksgiving. We were gonna have goose. That morning he pulled out his rifle from some deep dark place somewhere in the house—I’d never even seen the thing before—and off he went with his good Ukrainian friend Wally Mycek into the woods. Couple hours later he was back with goose in hand, but now he had a problem. He’d not anticipated how difficult plucking a goose was. The rest of the story takes place at the local rock quarry: Dad’s chosen site for the carnage that was to be a goose plucked. Feathers everywhere. Feathers stuck on his sweaty worried forehead. The day cruising by, the sun waning in the sky. We never did eat that goose.

But perhaps a secret transmission of manliness had taken place anyhow, despite the failure with the goose, so that several years later, I found myself fascinated with guns. Dad had let me shoot a pistol or two of his into beer cans from twenty paces, and the recoil always shocked me, I never lost a fear of that…. But since I was too young for a gun of my own, Dad got me a BB rifle. As soon as I got home, I began targeting things. Unfortunately, I was successful in targeting a bird, and that bird fell to the ground dead, and all of a sudden I was filled with remorse and felt dirty and it became clear to me that hunting was not and would never be something I could stomach. (And as I say this, I can feel Thomas Jefferson spinning in his grave. Here’s what this Founding Father and fellow Unitarian had to say about guns and growing up, in a 1785 letter to his nephew Peter Carr: “…I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize, and independance to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.” That’s Thomas Jefferson, the genius writer of the Declaration of Independence. Not a baseball, football, soccer, or tennis fan—and forget about figure skating. If you want boldness, independence, and enterprise—if you want character—shoot guns.)

Fast forward to my teenage and college years, when the guns were no longer hidden in deep dark places in the house but far too easy to find, and drug abuse and mental illness were making things more and more dangerous. One night at college I got a call from my Dad telling me that my younger brother had taken one of the guns and threatened his life with it, the life of my Mom, and his own life. Hearing the news back then was so traumatic; and after the Newtown massacre it reminded me of Nancy Lanza. She kept guns at her house for self-defense purposes, but irony of ironies, her son took her guns, killed her with them, and then went on to kill 27 teachers and schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary. And I lived in the shadow of that, in my own home.

Finally, the fourth memory. It’s September 23rd, 2008, and I am at the Georgia State House speaking before Republican State Senator Mitch Seabaugh who chairs a study committee looking into the possibility of making it legal for permit holders to carry concealed handguns into houses of worship like this one. I did not make the joke (though it was tempting) that it was a matter of protecting bad preachers from the wrath of disappointed parishioners. What I did instead was talk about what happened at our sister congregation in Tennessee just two months earlier on July 27, 2008, when, during Sunday morning services, a gunman who hated liberals opened fire, wounded many people, and killed two. I argued that others carrying hand guns would not have deterred the shooter, Jim Adkisson, who was prepared to die. I argued that most gun permit holders are untrained as shooters and would probably have missed their target. I argued that the presence of guns in a house of worship does not so much minimize the possibility of violence as multiply it—through accidents or hyper vigilance or in some other way. I also argued that putting a sticker on the door saying “no guns allowed” is not nearly as powerful a deterrent as an actual misdemeanor charge for breaking the law. I argued all this and more. I had my serious Senior Minister hat on. Senator Seabaugh and his colleagues were polite and smooth and appreciative but then they made their opinion pretty clear that the Second Amendment was absolute in scope and there should be no limitations whatsoever to gun ownership and use. With that, the meeting was over. Just a couple weeks later I heard on the news that they went ahead and tried to push the legislation through to make it legal to carry concealed handguns into congregations and thank Buddha it failed. They tried again just this past March and failed again. And no doubt they will keep on trying, and, as far as I can, I will want to help them keep failing.

These are four of my formative gun experiences, and now that I have articulated them, I am seeing that they tend to put me in the complete disarmament camp. I’m sorry Thomas Jefferson, but I will take figure skating and tennis over hunting any day. I’m sorry, but keeping guns at home does not necessarily make you safer and in fact may one day make you dead. I’m sorry, but more good guys with guns will, generally speaking, not stop rampaging bad guys. And as for people who insist on an absolute scope to the Second Amendment—I just wonder what they are smoking. I’m sorry: this is just what I’ve experienced. This is what I bring to the gun debate.

And while I affirm it, frankly, it’s just not enough. So it’s a good thing I did some research, to help me get out of my ruts and perhaps write a big and bracing-enough sermon that won’t get me shot. One of the main things I read was a book entitled Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, by constitutional law expert Adam Winkler. I browsed to find it, and of all the many books on guns out there, it seemed to do the best justice to the different sides of the issue. I needed to walk a mile in the NRA’s moccasins. Or at least in the moccasins of those who value guns.

In the opening pages of the book, certain sentences and phrases jumped out at me: “Pro-gun and anti-gun forces debate each other with passionate intensity. One side views guns as essential to personal freedom, while the other insists they are instruments of mayhem and violence. Guns are lightning rods in American culture…. The culture war over guns…. [S]takes portrayed as nothing less than the future of life, liberty, and justice…”

Does it sound like this is on track? Does it ring true?

Later on in the book, I read this sentence: “If liberals ignored the long tradition of gun rights because of their politics, conservatives ignored the long tradition of gun control because of theirs. Liberals didn’t like the idea that ‘the people’ had a right ‘to keep and bear arms,’ and conservatives didn’t like the idea that gun owners could be ‘well regulated.’” I read this, and as a political liberal, I went whaaaat? at that phrase “the long tradition of gun rights.” What long tradition?

Well, Thomas Jefferson and his attitude towards guns should be a hint. But even further back is the English Bill of Rights from the 1600’s, which recognized “the right of having and using guns for self-preservation and defense” which was seen as “an auxiliary right necessary to preserve the basic rights of personal security, personal liberty, and private property.” That’s what the English Bill of Rights said, and guess who borrowed from it liberally? The Founding Fathers. They borrowed from it the right to petition the government (which is our First Amendment), the sanctity of due process (our Fifth Amendment), and the right to keep and bear arms (our Second Amendment).

But this Second Amendment: doesn’t it grant the right to bear arms only to militias—that is, only where there are groups of people assembling in defense of the nation, is there a right to bear arms? This is called the “militia theory” of the Second Amendment, and it has a long history in American jurisprudence. But scholarship in recent years—scholarship by politically liberal academics, I will add—has shown it to be wrong. Scholar Don Kates, for one, writing in the Michigan Law Review, shows that that phrase “the right of people,” when you look at its use throughout all the Amendments, is consistent with “individual rights.” The right of the people to bear arms means, therefore, the right of individuals. And not just for the protection of the state, but also for self-preservation. Again, historical context matters. If the English Bill of Rights emphasized gun use for self-protection, why wouldn’t the American Bill of Rights, which drew so heavily from the English?

The tradition of gun rights in America is a long tradition. It’s Thomas Jefferson, it’s the English and American Bill of Rights, and it’s also State Constitutions. “Forty-three of the fifty state constitutions contains language that clearly and unambiguously protects the rights of individuals to own guns. Several of these provisions date back to the founding.” “This right is one of the oldest and most firmly established rights in America—regardless of the Second Amendment.” That last part really pops. “Regardless of the Second Amendment.” People can’t stop talking fast enough about the Second Amendment, but even if it didn’t exist, gun rights would!

What it means is that guns aren’t going anywhere. They are part of America’s DNA, for better or for worse. And just practically speaking, there are an estimated 310 million guns out there in America—how could the government possibly round them all up? Disarmament is impossible. There can be no workable means of prohibition. Guns are here to stay.

This, in fact, is one of the main messages of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling on District of Columbia vs. Heller. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion. He said that the D.C. gun ban was unconstitutional. But then he also said this—which takes us to the other side of things, the fact that, in America, there’s been a long tradition of gun control as well. He said that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” and then he went ahead and gave a laundry list of Second Amendment exceptions. Nothing in the opinion should “be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidden the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings [and churches], or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The Second Amendment is not a right “to keep and carry any weapon for whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” That’s what arch-conservative Antonin Scalia said in this major Supreme Court ruling. Antonin Scalia! (Say it like that and you can scare children!)

My point is that political conservatives (including Charles “From my cold dead hands” Heston) are being reminded by one of their own that gun control is needed too. One of the most fascinating parts of Adam Winkler’s book Gun Fight is how he shows that we’ve always had gun control in America and that any given gun control measure is not a slippery slope to total disarmament and total governmental oppression of the individual (which is what the NRA says about every gun control initiative, even in the wake of Newtown!) Gun control is a tradition in America too! So, for example, in Revolutionary times, the guns that Thomas Jefferson used to build personal qualities of boldness, independence, and enterprise: they could lawfully be seized by the army, whenever necessary, to mount a defense against the British. And people back then got it. No one shouting “from my cold dead hands” with Charles Heston.

Then there was gun control in the Wild West. Oh yes. When people think of the Wild West, Hollywood images come to mind of gunslingers coming in to town with Clint Eastwood attitudes, guns in holsters, itching for a fight. But manslaughter rates in those frontier days were kept ridiculously low because of stringent controls. “In 1887, Montana banned the concealed carry of any ‘deadly weapon’ within city limits, including pistols, daggers, slingshots, and brass knuckles.” It’s a similar story for the rest of the frontier states. It meant that your Clint Eastwood-style cowboy: in city limits, all he had in his holsters was air. Only time he could legally carry his weapons was out there among cows and mountains. That’s our history! Gun control is an American tradition too! The NRA spirit within Georgia state congressmen howls in rage when people are blocked from carrying their guns whenever and wherever they want, and I’ll bet part of that rage is a made-up version of American history. Crazy thing is, the Wild West, because of gun control, was a lot safer than our so-called civilized time. We could learn a thing or two from the Wild West.

While my personal experience inclines me towards disarmament, it’s just not going to happen, and it’s not in America’s DNA. For better or worse, guns are here to stay. But also within America’s DNA is control. Writing about Newtown, New York Times author Nicholas Kristof says, “I’d like to see us take a public health approach that reduces the harm that guns cause. We could limit gun purchases to one a month to impede traffickers, make serial numbers harder to file off, ban high-capacity magazines, finance gun buybacks, require solid background checks even for private gun sales, require microstamping so that bullet casings can be traced back to a particular gun and mandate that guns be stored in gun safes or with trigger locks. And if you need to enter a code to operate your cellphone, why not to fire your gun?” Why not? Let’s take a public health approach. It’s as America as mom, apple pie, and July 4th.