Friday, March 1, 2013

Christianity and Gun Control

G.K. Chesterton once remarked that the expression “birth control” was something of a misnomer since those who used the expression typically favored neither birth nor control.  The dangers of discussing gun control are not precisely the same, but the expression is sufficiently vague to require clarification if we are going to use it.  It might mean simply owning a gun responsibly, using it carefully, and keeping it locked when not in use.  Today, though, when people speak of gun control, they mean efforts to restrict or ban the ownership and use of guns in society at large.  I want to consider to what extent Christianity allows or mandates such “gun control.”  To what extent is “gun control” part of creating a culture of life?

First, what I will not discuss.  I am not interested in what the second amendment of the  U.S. constitution says or means.  That deals with the legality of gun control, I am interested in its morality.  The lawyers and Supreme Court may argue questions of legality, but legality does not imply morality.  Everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal.  Nor am I much concerned with arguing whether or not a magazine holding 20 bullets is moral and one holding 25 immoral.  Such a question may be worth asking and answering, but I do not offer such an answer here.

I begin by assuming that a Christian is not obligated to pacifism.  The words of Jesus Christ to “turn the other cheek” are most typically cited by those who think a Christian should be a pacifist.  Such an interpretation of His words ignores a certain incident where He armed himself with a belt of cords and proceeded to defend His Father’s house, violently driving out those who had no right to be there.  When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do to be saved, he told them to stop extorting money and to be content with their wages, but never suggesting they give up soldiering (Luke 3:14). 

On the contrary, it is plausible that forcible defense, of self or others, might not only be a right, but a duty in certain situations.  That Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, calls self defense “not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm” (2265).  Surely this is much more plausible than not.  If a man is walking down the street with his wife and three men attack them and try to force the man’s wife into a car, presumably he has not only the right, but the duty to defend her.  If an intruder armed with a knife or gun breaks into a man’s house and heads for his child’s room, presumably we would think less of a man who did not defend his child than one who did.

Active defense, then, of self or others, may not only be a legal right, but even a moral duty.  This leads to the next point.  If a man has the right or duty to defend himself or others, then it follows that he has the right to tools that will be adequate to the task.  It is vain to claim that a man has the right to life, but not to eat.  It may be that in some cases ownership and use of a gun is necessary for effective self-defense.  Indeed, it would border on folly to argue that a man could effectively defend himself against two men (or even one) armed with knives with anything less than a gun.  Or suppose a weaker man of slight build without great physical strength, or an older man, or a 100 pound woman.  Such people have no less a right or duty to defend himself or their families than those of greater physical strength.  

Banning guns would not necessarily create a “culture of life,” it might just as easily lead to a society where the physically weaker members are at the mercy of the physically stronger.  It could lead to a world where a father is unable to effectively defend his children against an armed invader or a 65 year old husband is unable to defend his wife and home against a younger invader.  Surely in at least some cases, the man (or woman) who picks up a gun to defend self or others is doing far more to create a culture of life than he would be if he ignored his duty to active defense. 

This, of course, says nothing about which type of gun should be owned or banned or not.  On this, I am open to speculation.  For many, a shotgun may suffice, but for some women or weaker men (the present author perhaps), a shotgun may be difficult to use effectively and an AR-15 more practical.  Second, a shotgun is less easy to carry about and since one’s duty to defense of self or others does not end when one leaves his house, I would be skeptical of attempts to ban or overly restrict handguns.  Such points may be debatable.  If I have shown, however, that in principle it is plausible that a man may have the moral right and perhaps even duty to own and be able to use a gun, I am satisfied.   


  1. Great post! Great points! I never really thought about it from a morality angle before.

  2. Problem that I see is that situations in which a lethal defence is necessary are rare. So one also has to weigh need of a weapon against it being turned against you should you keep it locked up or a child accidently discharging it or in cases of school shootings being stolen.

    A whip is easier to defend against than a gun. Jesus could have just as easily used a sword like st. Peter did. But he didn't. The lash is more for punishment not defence. So that argument doesn't hold water.

  3. So Delta, my interest here is establishing only that it is plausible that in principle there may be cases where owning and being able to use a gun is not only a moral right, but perhaps a moral duty (consider the examples I gave).

    In practice, you are, of course, correct that there will be multiple factors that will go into whether or not an *individual person* will decide to own, carry, or use a gun. These could include, can I store the gun safely when not in use? Will I make the effort to learn to use it safely and stay in practice? If the answer to such questions is no, then certainly I would expect that individual not to own a gun. If, however, a person will put the effort into being well trained, to storing the gun safely to keep it from intruders or children (my grandfather never had a problem with this and he raised 5 boys), then gun ownership may be a responsible decision.

    This then, should answer the other concerns you raise. If one can store and use a gun safely, thereby minimizing the potential downsides of gun ownership, then the other considerations I discuss could easily lead a responsible person to own or carry I gun.

    Jesus used a weapon that was adequate to the task (see my 5th paragraph)of defending his Father's house and those weaker members of society who were being cheated by the sellers in the Temple. Obviously, I don't think a person should point a shotgun at someone whose dog poops on their lawn (well, maybe for repeat offenders?). My point here is only that Christianity doesn't entail pacifism. If you are skeptical on this point, I like C.S. Lewis's essay, "Why I am not a Pacifist" for a consideration of this question.