Let’s Change Our Gun Laws…and Preserve “Qualities of Heart and Spirit”

One month (actually, a month and a day) after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, issues around gun violence and gun control are still making headlines. Vice President Joe Biden’s policy recommendations will be shared today. As someone who has written and cared about gun control for many years, I can’t help but be a bit optimistic. Might this time be different? Might we actually make some common sense changes in how guns are regulated, bought, and sold in an effort to lessen the odds of another mass shooting, as well as the much more common types of gun violence, such as suicides, accidents, and domestic homicides?

I am working with fellow blogger Katherine Willis Pershey on gun violence issues. We will be recruiting other bloggers to post on the 14th of every month in honor of the Sandy Hook victims (this post is a day late….obviously) and to keep the terrible toll and potential lessening of gun violence on people’s minds and hearts. We may partner with an existing organization to ask how we can use our social media platforms to lessen gun violence in America. There is much work to be done, and lots of details to work out. There are also many, many people and organizations already doing great work, and we will be directing our readers’ attention to those people and organizations. (For example, one of the most thorough post-Sandy Hook posts that I’ve read is from the Patheos Faithful Democrats blog.)

I am hopeful that concerned citizens, including concerned Christians, might actually help prevent another mass shooting by continuing to raise our voices in favor of common sense gun regulations—banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, closing the gun show loophole, etc. I am also hopeful that the other major issues raised by the Sandy Hook shooting, such as the need for more accessible and affordable mental health services and increased school security, will continue to ignite our collective imaginations to come up with effective solutions to complex problems.

But hope for policy changes with practical results is just part of what motivates me to continue speaking up in favor of more effective gun control. The poet and essayist Wendell Berry has written:

Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

Along similar lines, there is an often-repeated story about a man who, during the Vietnam War, stood in front of the White House every day with a lit candle. A reporter finally asked him, “Do you really think you’ll change the world by holding a candle?” to which this man replied, “I’m not trying to change the world. I’m trying to keep it from changing me.”

I believe that one reason that gun control has largely failed up until now, and that we have allowed gun violence—not just mass shootings, but suicides, accidents, and homicides—to escalate without adequate effective responses to turn the tide is that the reasons given for an unregulated or barely regulated gun culture are reasons we can all identify with, if we are willing to look at ourselves honestly.

I want to protect myself and my family, and part of me believes that the only way to do that is with locks and barriers and weapons of some kind or another. I don’t really trust that I will be safe if I allow myself to be vulnerable, to be in relationship with people on the margins, to open my doors (the literal doors of my house or the symbolic doors of my heart) to those who might hurt or steal or con. I would like to believe that I am only responsible for myself and my little family, and that those who kill themselves out of despair or kill each other out of dysfunction are not really my problem.

In a heated Facebook exchange in the days after Newtown, someone on a friend’s conversation thread said something like, “I’d like to go back to the days when crazy people just shot themselves in their basements, instead of taking a bunch of kids with them.” The implication? Someone shooting himself in his basement isn’t a tragedy, isn’t worth trying to prevent.

I will continue to protest against gun violence and in favor of better gun control because I believe we can significantly lower the chances of another mass shooting, as Australia did in the aftermath of a mass shooting there in 1996. I will continue to protest against gun violence and in favor of better gun control because I believe that all suicides, accidents, and homicides involving guns are tragic, and statistics make clear that a gun in the home is far more likely to be used in a suicide, accident, or homicide than in self-defense. I will continue to protest against gun violence and in favor of better gun control because while it’s true that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” the presence of a gun increases the likelihood that an altercation will turn deadly, and also greatly increases the murderous potential of violent or unstable acts.

And I will continue to protest against gun violence and in favor of better gun control because, as a Christian, I want to preserve the “qualities of heart and spirit” that I believe Jesus had and wants us to have—recognition of all people as God’s beloved children (including mentally ill people who are tempted to shoot themselves in their basements), safety and security enabled by concern for the common good and care of the vulnerable rather than weaponry and violence, a willingness to consider our individual wants, needs, and freedoms in the context of what is best for our communities, not just for ourselves.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.