Readings: Guns kill kids

This is kind of old news by now, but relatively new to me thanks to an editorial at Two studies in late 2018 offered some interesting, tragic fact.

The first is that children in the U.S. are far more likely than kids in other countries to die by gun:

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While the death rate from guns remained flat from 1999 to 2013, it jumped 28 percent in the next three years, to 4 deaths per 100,000 American kids. “We’re seeing increases in both gun homicide and gun suicide” among children and adolescents, Cunningham says.

Cunningham says she’s not sure why gun death rates have increased. But she says it should be addressed. “I don’t think it’s acceptable for firearms to be a preventable cause of death and remain the second cause of death of children and teens,” she says. “We’re not doing enough to keep kids safe.”

The other study, from November, suggests that laws make a difference:

Compared with U.S. states with the strictest gun control legislation, gun deaths among children and teenagers are twice as common in states with the most lax gun laws, a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found.

“A child is 82 times more likely to die in our country of a firearm injury than in any other developed nation,” said senior author Stephanie Chao, MD, assistant professor of surgery at Stanford. “We focus a lot on the federal government and the things they can do to protect our children from firearms. But our study shows that what states do at the state level really does have an impact.”

Guns are killing our children. That’s a choice we’re collectively making.

Can you be a gun-lover and a good Christian?


Dear Rebecca:

Serious question: Is there a good theological case for the ownership and use of guns by Christians?

I’m not really aware of one, but I raise the question for a couple of reasons:

• I have friends whose faith is far more sturdy than mine who are also avid gun owners. They live a more authentically Christian life than I do, but with one glaring (it seems to me) exception.

• I think there are robust theological arguments against Christian gun ownership. (But then I would wouldn’t I?) The latest comes from Charles Marsh at Religion & Politics:

Suffice it to say, the call to an armed laity puts the evangelical gun loyalist in an exceedingly awkward relation to the teachings of Jesus.  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus tells Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Everyone who uses a sword will be killed by a sword.” This is not to say that the Christian tradition is, or ought to be, uniformly pacifist; still, the religion of Jesus clusters undeniably around the practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, and the preferential option for nonviolence. “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer,” wrote one of the fourth-century authors of Christian orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria. An armed church is a church without martyrs.

Marsh goes on to ask: “What real significance can the Gospel have if its ambassadors so readily gamble with human life?” And it seems like a good question to me.

Still: Talking about martyrdom is easy – living a life in preparation for it is really hard. And maybe this is one of those areas where I notice the speck in my neighbor’s eye without checking the cinder in my own?

One of the most straightforward cases for Christian gun use I can find is here, in a post called “Why Some People Need a Good Killing.”

 While it is true that Jesus told Peter to put away His sword because he must be crucified for the sins of the world (Matthew 26:52), he told them that very night to buy a sword in advance of their coming persecution (Luke 22:36). While Jesus’ exhortation that we turn the cheek from insult (Matthew 5:39) has been taken by pacifists (defined by JD’d dictionary as “those who let others die for their lives and liberties”) to be the locus classicus text for passive non-resistance, a robust theology of persecution reveals that that the thrice-holy God has indeed called his people to self-defense, protection of the innocent through violent means, and promotion of the general welfare through war. There is no logical reason to believe that God’s call to arms throughout Scripture has been abrogated in this current dispensation, for God does not change (Malachi 3:6) and his Word is immutable (Hebrews 6:17). Furthermore, the call to martyrdom that we see repeated throughout the New Testament does not imply that our death for the sake of the cross be a peaceful surrendering of ourselves over to injustice or voluntary death.

That seems … like a rationalization to me.

Let me explain: It seems like the New Testament most clearly implies that “our death for the sake of the cross be a peaceful surrendering of ourselves” with one knockout blow: The example of Jesus himself, where the author of this paragraph begins. If Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away, why would I — the follower of Jesus — be encouraged to do any differently?

I want to be fair to my gun-loving friends of faith. But I have a hard time seeing the case for their stance. Defending yourself is the most natural, most human thing in the world. Living a martyr’s life? Not so much. That’s why I expect it’s probably the more Christian stance to take.


Thoughts and prayers for Las Vegas

Dear Rebecca:

When a horrific event happens, as happened in Las Vegas overnight, I’m torn between competing impulses:

• To cry for justice.
• To shut up.

The two impulses aren’t necessarily contradictory. One can hope for justice and still have a sense that the loss of live deserves a little reverence, a little silent contemplation, a little bit of awe for the horror we humans can visit upon one another.

We’re really good, as a society, at arguing about what’s right, but we’re really shitty at taking the moment for silence. This is understandable: To take that moment feels like conceding important rhetorical ground to people we don’t really believe have our best interests at heart.

I think it’s still important anyway.

So here’s the prayer I composed around the time of the Orlando massacre. It continues to be useful, unfortunately.

Lord, forgive me.

Lord, forgive me my need to make a point right away when tragedy happens instead of taking a moment to lament and grieve.

Lord, forgive me my refusal to see the fears that other people have and to understand how those fears shape their responses to each other, and to the tragedies of the day.

Lord, forgive me for failing to discern evil where it exists, and for inferring evil from mere disagreement.

Lord, forgive me for the anger that springs up in my heart when people refuse to give me and my friends the benefit of the doubt.

Lord, forgive me my failure to give the benefit of the doubt.

Lord, forgive me for any action that compounds the evil of an evil act.

Lord, guide me to help create peace and diminish injustice where evil is done.

Lord, forgive me my refusal to shut the hell up.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Lord: Comfort and bless the families of those who suffer tonight.


I will come girded for battle tomorrow. Today, I mourn.


The mythical “Responsible Handgun Owner”

Dear Joel,

Recently over at PennLive, you asked for an honest conversation about guns, which can only begin if we start by admitting that guns are for killing. In the US, there are a lot of guns owned solely for this purpose. I encountered one of them last week.

I had taken the kiddos out to Chuck-a-Rama, which is like a better Hoss’s (if you are from PA) and a much, much better Bonanza (which raises the question: Why are so many buffets Western-themed?). It’s perfect if you are feeding bottomless teens or preschoolers who have been pushed past their limit and need food NOW. The key detail here is that it’s a buffet, so you get up from your seat frequently.

Still, the table next to ours had been empty except for dirty dishes for a long time when I saw that there was a purse left on the bench seat. I watched it for a bit longer, but no one returned, so I asked by littlest (the hungry preschooler now in heaven because of the endless Jell-O options) to pick it up, and, escorted by me, he carried to the the parking lot, where we hoped to find a woman who realized she’d left it when she wasn’t able to find her keys. No luck, so we opened it, hoping to find a cell phone without too much sorting through someone’s personal belongings (The thing was huge!) so we could call the In Case of Emergency number and let them know that we’d found the purse. They couldn’t have gotten far, I thought.

That’s when I saw the little pink handgun, floating right there amid assorted cosmetics, tubes of lip balm, and a miniature pack of tissues. Which, by the way, is totally legal in Utah, where I live.

Utah is an open-carry state with very few laws that protect the public from the mishandling of weapons. Utah has a higher-than-average rate of accidental gun deaths among children, which is not a surprise at all given that we have the youngest population and many, many guns. And accidents from guns that are tossed into bags happen (like this one, this past April, in a busy college cafeteria) which is also not a surprise.

I say that gun accidents are “not a surprise” because handgun owners are inherently irresponsible.

Granted, I know a lot of dirtbags, but I also know of no–not one single one–responsible handgun owners. By this, I mean that I don’t know a single person who I know owns a handgun who is able to insure that these guns are kept in such a way that they have never presented a danger to the public.

Certainly not the woman who left her handgun in her bag. She hadn’t disappeared after all. She’d left it there on purpose while she went to the restroom, then refilled her plate. After, shaking with anger, I’d delivered the purse to the manager (Seeing that he did not share my fury about this, I realized that I should have just kept it, a justified theft, I think.)  and returned to my seat, I saw her seated again. She didn’t even realize that the purse was missing! How silly of her!

And how common. And how deadly.

If you are in my family and own a gun and my claim that you aren’t responsible with it hurts your feelings, ask yourself honestly: Have you ever lost track of that gun, even for a moment? Forgotten where it was? Told yourself that you didn’t need to lock it up because you’d hidden it somewhere where the kids wouldn’t find it? Not known exactly how many rounds it had left in it at any moment? Shown it off to someone because you wanted their admiration? Let a friend handle it who wasn’t trained properly? Taken it out in public when it didn’t need to go? Felt safer because you were carrying it (even though you’re not)? Not known the laws in the place where you were carrying it? Brought it into the home of someone you know who didn’t want it? Left your house or car unlocked while a gun was inside? Allowed your safety and shooting skills to lapse but not gotten rid of your guns?

Lest I sound too harsh, I’ve forgotten and lost many things: keys, phones, wallets, purses, children. I’ve left jackets hanging on the back of bathroom stalls, and I just forgot my favorite cardigan on an international flight. I’ve had to page children at the swimming pool, grocery store, and farmer’s market. I’ve forgotten where I parked the car and which one I drove to the grocery store.

Which is why I don’t believe that anyone should ever own a handgun. Handgun owners cannot be responsible enough to keep handguns safe because handguns are inherently dangerous (which is why we prize them), and to be used for their purpose–to kill people–they must be always kept in a state of constant dangerousness. If that woman’s handgun wasn’t loaded, what the hell was the point? (What was the point, anyway? If you really think you might need to use lethal violence there, why are you at Chuck-a-Rama?)

The point is always to kill, but to be constantly ready to kill requires constant vigilance–which most people (perhaps only members of the Secret Service and other bodyguard types) simply aren’t able to give.

This past May, Utah did not charge a father who rested his gun against the wall of the room where his two young children were playing while he went to wash up in the bathroom. While he was gone, his three-year-old daughter shot and killed his two-year-old son. The father, like about half the adults in such situations, wasn’t charged. The state called it an “accident”–though it is not an accident at all but an outcome that is going to happen to some children as long as we have handguns in homes. This doesn’t give me much hope that if my son had been the one to unzip that handbag and he had used that gun, that this woman would have been held responsible. A tragic accident, born out of her selfishness, fear, arrogance, and inattention.

We can’t make guns safe because they’re not. And, of course, many gun owners don’t want them to be safe–and neither does the gun industry. They want them to be stylish, accessible, deadly, and everywhere.


Gun purseTeal gun


Top, a handbag, with matching wallet, designed to store a handgun, which I suppose is an improvement over the free-floating weapon. It’s statement of faith–“With God all things are possible”–seems at odds with the faithless choice to carry a handgun. Below, a matching handgun. 

Political Anger and Political Violence

Dear Joel,

Let’s talk about threats of political violence.

No, not Kathy Griffin. (Though we can talk about her, too. I think a severed Trump head is a fine form of political speech, not a threat against the president, and I wish that someone cleverer than Griffin had done it, that the image had been more meaningful, not less graphic. In fact, I’ve been warning conservative Christians about the risks of a symbolic Trump beheading for awhile now.)

I mean Kim Weaver, a Democrat running who was running against Iowa’s Steve King for a seat in the House. King is a racist and a nativist, and he’s quite open and proud of those beliefs. Weaver had run against King in 2016 and was gearing up to run against him again for 2018. She dropped out of the race this week, though, citing, in part, the toll that constant threats–including death threats–was taking on her.

And I mean Stephanie Clayton, the Kansas House Republican who was threatened with hanging on social media after she announced that she was voting with her moderate colleagues to keep guns off Kansas’ campuses, a choice that most faculty on those campuses support.

And Clementa (“Clem”) Pinckney, a Democrat serving in South Carolina’s House, who was killed when a white supremacist opened fire during his church service two summers ago.

And I mean Gabby Giffords, who had been targeted by violent right-wingers high on the violent rhetoric of Sarah Palin and others long before she was shot in a mass shooting that killed 6 others, including a Judge John Roll–who had also long faced death threats–and a child.

And Robert Smith Vance, a federal judge killed in his Alabama home by a mail bomb sent by a man who’d also been bombing civil rights advocates.

And James M. Hind, the first member of Congress assassinated. Hind, representing Arkansas in the House, was gunned down by a Klansman for his support of the rights of former slaves.

And John W. Stephens, a North Carolina state senator, who was murdered by Klansmen for his popularity among black voters, whose support had brought him into office.

And Tomás “Tomasito” Romero, a Pueblo who was assassinated after his capture for daring to rebel against US annexation of Mexico.

Above, Clayton, Hind, Vance, Pinckney, Giffords, and Stephens–all threatened or murdered by people whose political conservatism drove their violence. 

What do these folks have in common? They all represented a symbolic threat to the rule of conservative white men, and they were all threatened or killed because of it.

It’s not the political violence doesn’t happen to conservatives or that those on the left don’t commit violence (McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, as just one example.) But the violence and the violent rhetoric trends one direction: conservatives fomenting violence and hatred toward those they see as liberal or progressive.

Compare the rhetoric of the Women’s March to that of any Tea Party rally.


Does he know he’s quoting Malcolm X?

[Above, a man at a Tea Party rally wears a hat indicating that he’s a Desert Storm veteran. Behind him is the Gadsen Flag, which has become associated not simply with the Tea Party but with anti-government extremist and hate movements. He holds a sign saying “By ballet or by bullet restoration is coming.”] 

Ask yourself: Do Democrats have to monitor their events to insure that participants aren’t unfurling a Confederate flag?

Consider the millions of racist images of the Obama family, including images of President Obama lynched. Or find the online images of a digital Hillary Clinton being sexually assaulted. (Better yet, don’t.)

In an attempt to find common ground in what feels like a very polarized America, it’s tempting for good liberals to suggest that we’re all guilty of othering our political opponents, that we’ve all engaged in debased language, that we’ve all been demeaned by the current political climate.

But we’re not all equally guilty. Not by a long shot.

Our pal Erick Erickson, in an article denying that we should be concerned about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, said recently that he “would actually be really surprised if we make it to December 31st of this year without people in this country taking up arms against each other.” He’s part of the problem, of course–and he’s ignoring the fact that it’s almost always been social conservatives who have threatened civil war and see it unfolding with every new sign of equal treatment for women, African Americans, and LGBT people, not progressives. Factions of the right have been living in 1832 South Carolina for all their lives. They’re slobbering for a fight–all the time.

Speaking like a man in the first session of his court-ordered domestic abuser treatment program, Erickson goes on:

If the left really does believe the Republican Party is a criminal enterprise in league with the Russians, they’re either moral cowards without conviction in their beliefs or about to take up arms to defend their country. If the right really does believe the left is engaged in an unconstitutional coup against the lawfully elected President, they’re either moral cowards without convictions in their beliefs or about to take up arms to defend their country.

That’s right: If we really mean what we say when we say about our political opponents, in Erickson’s view, the only courageous option is civil war. Erickson, protected by his own privileges, doesn’t seem to understand what that would actually mean for the world. and doesn’t have the moral imagination to create solutions to these problems outside of violence. And Erickson is typical of many other conservatives in this regard.

So I’m not believing the crocodile tears of Republicans or their feigned horror over Kathy Griffin’s stunt.

And I’m not arguing that since they are propagators of violent rhetoric  we should be too. “When they go low, we go high” is a pretty good motto. And I don’t think we’re near to a civil war, despite Dennis Prager’s might tempt you and me to worry about.

But I am arguing, ever more forcefully, that we shouldn’t cater to the anger of Trump voters. So much post-election analysis expressed surprise at how angry these folks were, calling on good liberals to try to understand things from the perspectives of white voters in the exurbs and in rustbelt towns and places ripped apart by heroin and opioid epidemics. But underneath all that analysis was the idea that we should be afraid of these people. They are desperate… they are angry… they have guns…

And they tell us this themselves in threats veiled and explicit.


Above, protestors at a rally in defense of the display of the Confederate flag on public property display a giant flag from the back of a Cadillac SUV. Superimposed over the stars and bars is an image of an assault rifle and the words “Come and Take It.” I’m clearly supposed to be afraid of these people, who are just itching for a fight. 

But I’m angry too–and not just at Trump but at every fool who embraced his bigotry or willfully ignored it in order to get scammed by the biggest heel in reality TV.  That anger isn’t going away, and I’m not adding fear to it.






Can You Be a Pacifist Without Religion? (Maybe.)


Great post. You’ve touched on an area where my agnostic side and my Mennonite side clash in a fairly thorough way.

While I was still (for lack of a better word) churched, I found Mennonite pacifism relatively easy to adopt. My logic went something like this.

  • God is the God of eternity.
  • Any losses you suffer in this life are thus short-term in nature.
  • Ultimately, through faith in God, Good wins out over Evil.
  • Taking up arms, then, would have a couple of effects: It would hurt our witness — hard to convert the mind and soul of somebody you are killing — and it betrayed a lack of faith in God to win the ultimate victory.

Now? I really don’t know if there is God, or if it’s in the nature of God to win out over evil as I define and perceive it. Which leads me to wonder if it’s not the right thing now and again to pick up a gun and kill a bad guy — for the greater good.

But that withdrawal from total pacifism is kind of theoretical. In practice — and as in many other things — you can take the boy out of the church, but it’s not easy to take the church out of the buy. In practice, I’m pretty dovish.

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Some of that’s a result of being American, I guess, where we tend to exalt violence as a solution to many of our problems. Our popular entertainment is soaked in blood, our president wants to gut the State Department while putting even more money into a cash-rich defense department, and we no longer talk about the use of nuclear weapons as an event to be ardently avoided. Any small pacifism is an important counterweight in a society where violence seems to be the only hammer and every problem — no matter its nature — looks like a nail.

I’m also dovish because as a practical matter, war doesn’t seem to work that often. I thought we were justified, for example, going to war against the Taliban back after 9/11. But we’re still in Afghanistan. I’m not certain the country isn’t worse for it, or that we’re safer from terrorism as a result.

Really, there aren’t many wars — the ones fought in my lifetime — that didn’t seem to cause as much trouble as they mitigated. Afghanistan is a tar pit. Iraq is beset with terrorists. Libya, where we “led from behind” still ended up a mess. War rarely fixes problems and often expands the suffering that was already present.

So even though I’m not strictly pacifist these days, pacifism still informs my outlook.

Violence is easier than pacifism, because pacifism requires patience. Violence provides immediate feedback: Pull a trigger, watch a body drop. Push a button, watch the explosion. But those bodies, those explosions, aren’t necessarily solutions — though they’re often mistaken for such. Pacifism doesn’t provide that kind of immediate gratification, and never will, which is one reason it’s doomed to forever be a minority position.

In our private talk, you said you thought there was an atheist defense of pacifism. I think that’s right. If you’re an atheist and you snuff out a life — even if there’s a good reason — that’s a life forever ended: No chance to change, no chance at redemption. Even the least spiritual among us recognize an elemental difference between “alive” and “not.” There are few good reasons for erasing that distinction.

On the other hand, I can’t swear that there are no good reasons for it, either.

Back to your initial question though: Is self-defense a “sacred” right for Christians?

I keep coming back to this:

51At this, one of Jesus’ companions drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52“Put your sword back in its place, Jesus said to him. “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.53Are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?…

If Jesus is God, and we’re not allowed to use violence to defend God — nevermind the fact that we actually do — then what excuse do we have? It’s the Mennonite in me speaking, but gun-toting Christians confuse me.

— Joel