University of Southern California

Center for Religion & Civic Culture

Would Jesus Use a Handgun or an Assault Weapon?

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A 43-year-old African American man—a member of my church—was shot in the back nine times and over 50 bullets riddled the yellow SUV in which he sat. At his funeral service, no one asked if the guns that killed him were handguns or assault weapons. In that moment, my most difficult task was to prevent his 18-year-old son from picking up a gun to murder those who had murdered his father. While I have experienced similar events in my ministry experience in Los Angeles, this tragedy took place in Orange County, California, supposedly one of the safest places in America.

Shootings or murders take place almost every day and, understandably, following the logic laid out by National Rifle Association (NRA) vice president Wayne LaPierre, there are family members contemplating revenge by guns. When is America going to say enough is enough? When are Christians going to demonstrate their commitment to human life by fighting for limits on the type and availability of weapons in this country?

As Vice President Joe Biden speaks about potential gun control legislation with a broad range of interest groups—including victims rights groups, the NRA and even Walmart—we need to be clear on the debate we are having.  Gun control does not equate infringement on our constitutional right to “bear arms.” Whether we have the right to bear military style weapons must be debated, as well as the values that underlie the insistence among large segments of the American population that gun ownership should have minimal or no regulation.  The Second Amendment states that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  The NRA focuses exclusively on the final clause as their argument against gun control, but their opposition to regulations came about as late as 1977. 

An Atlantic Monthly article, “The Secret History of Guns,” explored the NRA’s role in constructing the Uniform Firearms Act, which required that no one could carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police and a “proper reason” for carrying the firearm.  The act also required gun dealers to report handgun sales and imposed a two-day waiting period. The NRA of old believed that constitutional rights and regulations could indeed coexist. 

Somehow we as a nation—as a community of fellow Americans—have strayed away from logical, spirited but cordial debate, and have gravitated to a counterproductive all-or-nothing approach to disagreements.  We will never find common ground if we continue to believe that those who think like “us” are the good guys, and those who don’t are enemies of American values.      

As evidenced by media glorifications of violence in movies, television and the news cycle, and the popularity of hyper-violent video games, I can only conclude that violence is as much a core American value as individualism or freedom. Certainly the Constitution guarantees the right of Americans to bear arms, but make no mistake, the purpose of a gun is to kill.  Guns may wound or maim, but their purpose is to kill. Nonetheless, there are more regulations on vehicle ownership and operation—and on the purchase of allergy medication—than there are for buying a gun.

While legislating the demons in people’s minds and hearts will never be successful, it is possible to regulate consequences and opportunities. Making it more difficult to obtain guns—particularly military grade arms—and creating consequences for the sellers and purchasers of these types of weapons is certainly possible for people of good will who desire to see a more peaceful and vibrant nation and communities.

Let us remember that we lose dozens of people every day to gun violence.  Let us not forget those people killed in our inner cities. Let us not forget that families are continuing to grieve while we try to remember what we are arguing about. 

The horrors of the Newtown tragedy, and even more recent shootings, have launched a national conversation about controlling access to certain types of guns. The American faith community now has the opportunity to step up and become a voice for reducing violence, and thus demonstrate that they truly value each life.  For many years we have heard the demands for the protection of the unborn—often at the expense of the living—from some segments within the Christian church. But if we are really for life, I must ask where is the cacophony of voices for stricter gun control laws to protect the lives of the living? I say enough is enough! Would Jesus use a handgun or an assault weapon? Neither! “For God so loved the world” that God gave us a Son who used no weapons.

Photograph by Bill Butcher/USFWS