Bill Bennett: Gun-Free Zones Are Really “Defenseless Victim Zones”

Bill Bennett wrote a pot-stirring essay at CNN a few weeks ago on gun rights. I’ve been mulling it over ever since. It includes a fascinating stat that has not been discussed in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting:

John Lott, economist and gun-rights advocate, has extensively studied mass shootings and reports that, with just one exception, the attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, every public shooting since 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns. The massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, all took place in gun-free zones.

These murderers, while deranged and deeply disturbed, are not dumb. They shoot up schools, universities, malls and public places where their victims cannot shoot back. Perhaps “gun-free zones” would be better named “defenseless victim zones.”

Bennett also calls attention to what certain campuses encourage students to do in the wake of a shooting:

To illustrate the absurdity of gun-free zones, Goldberg dug up the advice that gun-free universities offer to its students should a gunman open fire on campus. West Virginia University tells students to “act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.” These items could include “student desks, keys, shoes, belts, books, cell phones, iPods, book bags, laptops, pens, pencils, etc.” Such “higher education” would be laughable if it weren’t true and funded by taxpayer dollars.

The debate over gun rights is a hot one. If we step away from the rhetoric, we can understand why. The rash of shootings we’ve seen nationally and internationally in recent years makes the blood run cold. But there is something worth considering in Bennett’s piece. From a cursory read, it does not seem that gun-free zones in America are helping matters. They seem to be creating environments where people end up as helpless targets. That’s worth thinking about, even if one is reflexively drawn to an anti-gun position.

I think we can all agree that something is amiss in our national culture. Mass shootings are becoming a horrifically regular event. Something is eroding in this country, and I think it is directly related to the worldview shift we’ve witnessed in the last fifty years. In such a setting, it looks like we will have to accept an increasingly militarized culture. This is surely a tragic development. Everyone, of polar-opposite convictions, can see this.

Schools, malls, theaters, and many other public places need to think very hard about Bennett’s stats. Concealed-carry provisions and beefed-up security look like necessary provisions at this time, terrible as the reality of mass killing is. And Christians need to consider the oft-overlooked command of Christ to his apostles to buy a sword from Luke 22:35-38. This is an enigmatic text, but one that needs to be thought about:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

Leading evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem has written about this text in this helpful book, which I commend to you.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Bennett’s argument is worth considering to be sure, but even as a non-Pacifist, this seems to be a strained reading of the text. It seems to make more sense to read it as a hyperbolic command meant to emphasize the danger of coming persecution. Two swords simply wouldn’t enough for a fight, or even for self-defense if they were attacked. and the disciples’ question shows that they have once again missed the point of Jesus’ words.

  • ostrachan

    It’s possible, Derek, that this is hyperbolic. But it seems pretty straightforward to me. Jesus is going to the cross; the kind of unusual protection and spiritual sufficiency that the apostles have enjoyed is coming to an end. Going forward the apostles will need to take care that they are provided for. The Messiah is reaching the end of his journey.

    It’s not a text that receives much elaboration, but either you read it literally, which makes the most sense in light of what I just said, or metaphorically. I suppose it’s possible that this is a metaphorical teaching, but if it is, then why do the apostles point out real swords that Jesus approves of?

    Jesus, in other words, doesn’t take his words metaphorically; neither do the apostles. Neither, it seems, should we. Self-defense is not wrong.

    • Derek Rishmawy

      As G.K. Beale points out, there’s reading a text literally and then there’s reading it literalistically. Given Jesus’ penchant for hyperbole (“better to cut off your hand…”), and that fact that elsewhere he tells his sword-happey disciples that all who live by the sword die by it (Matt 26:52), and the fact that later on in the chapter Jesus chastises them for their use of the sword (Luke 22:50-51), and the fact that 2 swords for a minimum of 12 guys seems highly impractical even for self-defense, we have some good reason for thinking it was a hyperbolic warning of impending persecution.

      Again, I generally agree with the article, and I have no problem with self-defense, I think that’s legitimate in a lot of cases, but this verse doesn’t seem to fit as a justification for a gun-control position.

      • Derek Rishmawy


        I type too fast sometimes.

      • ostrachan

        It’s true; the disciples aren’t to live by the sword. I would buy your hyperbole argument if there was cause for thinking that the other elements in the passage were metaphorical. But I plainly don’t think they are, and despite your commendable interest in exegetical care, I’m inclined to think that sometimes a horse is a horse. 2 swords might not be a ton, but it’s 200% more than 0, right?

        If this verse isn’t literal, Derek, I have trouble seeing what it is. It seems pretty clear from Acts that the apostles will need things like moneybags. Paul will be a tentmaker. They will no doubt use practical things like knapsacks. I’m not sure my interpretation qualifies as “literalistic,” because I’ve actually tried to set my interpretation in the redemptive flow of Luke’s trajectory. Everything is shifting with Jesus going to the cross; their entire physical situation is changed. They must now fend for themselves. And as I said earlier, it would seem strange for this exchange to be hyperbolistic, because they actually do take up swords!

        And though this passage is often used by the other side, how interesting that Peter does indeed have a sheathed sword in John 18. He is clearly in the wrong in attacking Malchus, so let that be said. But nonetheless, he has a sword, and Jesus tells him after his attack to sheath it. That’s worth thinking about. The implication of Christ’s rebuke to Peter seems not to be that swords are bad (that would, after all, contradict Luke 22:37), but that this is not the time for swords. No defense of Jesus is needed. But Peter’s bearing of a sword makes perfect sense when you read it in light of Luke 22.

        There’s much here to think about, clearly. The “Jesus is a pacifist” argument doesn’t seem to hold water.

        • Derek Rishmawy

          I just saw this. A few points:
          1. You’re right, I don’t think you’re being “literalistic” in a ham-handed sense at all. That being said, I just don’t think it’s a stretch at all to see this text as a piece of hyperbole for the reasons stated above.
          2. This isn’t necessarily a “Jesus is a pacifist” argument. I don’t think it is, and as I said, I’m not a pacifist. My only point is that I don’t think we can extrapolate anything about gun control in either direction on its basis. It’s not intended to speak to the issue of Christian weapon-bearing.
          3. It’s not strange for the passage to be hyperbolic given that the disciples took up swords. The disciples were morons most of the time, consistently confused about their Lord until the Resurrection.
          We could keep going back and forth on this one, but I’m just wary of making judgments on gun-control policy in connection with a verse this up-for-grabs.

          Well, take care!

  • Cumulus

    So. Has anybody compared gun injuries/deaths in gun-present zones to ‘gun-free’ zones? First of all, to actually have a ‘gun-free’ zone, as opposed to a place where it’s illegal to carry guns, you have to get rid of the guns. When that’s done … of course there won’t be injury or death by gunshot. So the entire argument above is just dumb. For example, look at Australia, where regular folk are not impeded by a 2nd amendment. They effectively removed guns from most citizens’ hands and, guess what? Life improved, injuries and deaths were reduced, even the suicide rate went down. Just saying. So far as I can tell, people who want AK weaponry really want it because it’s “fun” and not because they need it.

    • ostrachan

      Hi Cumulus–nice name–read all the way through Bennett’s piece if you haven’t. He actually covers that pretty early on. Pretty big part of his argument, in fact. Gun deaths have been falling, oddly enough, since the ban on assault rifles was lifted. Clearly we all can look at a tragedy like Newtown and be sobered. But that data is real.

  • Leslie

    Gun violence has not been falling. And he conveniently forgets gun violence on an army base where there were plenty of people with guns all around.

    • ostrachan

      I don’t think an army base in considered “public,” Leslie. I don’t know what you’re looking at; I’m glad you cited hard data, but much of the data actually does seem to indicate a decrease in gun violence. That’s not true for suicides, but the homicide rate is way down comparing 1981-2010. Firearm deaths are also significantly down.

      I’m not a statistician, but the data you linked to actually seems pretty encouraging.

      By the way, here’s the story Bennett linked to from the FBI:

  • jose

    I remember when the religious used to refuse to be enlisted in the military because they believed in peace.

    • ostrachan

      I get your concern, Jose. Christians should dislike war and violence, of necessity.

      But I think we need to be careful about a deficient understanding of peace. Peace does not only come by not picking up the sword; because of sin and evil, it comes by subduing evil. It’s not “peaceful” by one definition to ever kill; but I think many of us are glad that the Allies picked up guns in WW2 and defeated the Axis powers. On a smaller level, I’m thankful that the folks mentioned in Bennett’s article picked up weapons to oppose gunmen who would have killed many more had they not been there.

      Christians are idealistic, but we are also realists. We must be. We know the doctrine of sin. We see what evil people do, and we know what our own evil hearts are capable of. We know that the government bears the sword by God’s intent (Rom 13). So we fight when we must, in order that we might spread peace as far and wide as possible before Christ returns and the reign of peace begins in full.

  • Dorfl

    “Something is eroding in this country, and I think it is directly related to the worldview shift we’ve witnessed in the last fifty years.”

    I said more or less the same thing to Bill Blankschaen on his post about the Newtown shooting: While they do sometimes happen elsewhere, school shootings are still very much an American phenomenon. That means that if you seriously want to identify their causes, you have to look at factors that are unique to America. Would you say that America has undergone a greater worldview shift in the last 50 years than the rest of the industrialised world has?

  • Jonathan

    Lott’s claim is obviously false – what about the hunter in Wisconsin who shot 8 people (6 died) when ALL of them had guns? That obviously wasn’t a “gun-free zone”. I wonder how many others Lott is hiding?

    Google his name – he’s been caught fudging gun-control stats before.

    • ostrachan

      I’m not sure it’s about fudging, Jonathan. I think it’s about the definition of “public,” as I noted earlier. Think about Columbine, Aurora, and now Newtown: all very clearly “public,” right?

      I don’t think he’s “fudging.” I think he’s defining “public” along the lines of “mass grouping.” Makes sense to me.

  • kevin

    Yup, an emotional topic for sure.
    Just mentioning the name “John Lott” and it either disqualifies you in the eyes of the pro-gun-control crowd, or gives you props among the NRA crowd.
    It’s frustrating that we can’t even agree on the base set of facts with talking about this issue.
    But, as one sympathetic to Bennett’s argument, I found Rich Lowry’s post helpful too:

    Owen, you said “Mass shootings are becoming a horrifically regular event.”
    Is this perception or reality?
    From what I read, this is just perception because we have 24/7 news cycle.

  • John

    Australia outlawed most guns after after a mass shooting in 1995, and the country has not seen a single incident since. John Lott is not the only resource for a serious investigation of this issue. William Bennett should know better.

    • ostrachan

      It’s an argument that we should take seriously, John. I don’t dismiss it out of hand.

      Here, by the way, is a counter-narrative with some pretty noteworthy data: It’s important to see that homicides in America have decreased in recent years. Horrific public shootings don’t help us to see that, of course. But that’s hard data that needs to be grappled with. I think at least one solution to this problem of mass shootings is, as Bennett said in the piece, to do away with gun-free zones. Note that English police have begun to carry guns for the first time in recent years.

      I hate mass shootings and want them to stop. Of course, I also don’t want to lose my rights. Banning cars would surely cause a decline in vehicular deaths. I’m not sure we want that, though. Some society might choose to do so, of course–but I don’t want to live in it.

  • James Petticrew

    Here in Scotland we had a mass shooting and outlawed hand guns, assault rifles were illegal any way, not had a mass shooting since, .I wasn’t even armed as a cop and never would have needed to be. The logic in this piece seems contradicted by our experience.

  • John

    Using Luke 22:35-38 (or more specifically verse 36) to support the necessity and morality of individuals (and Christians especially) owning weapons is to take this passage grossly out of context.

    Jesus’ statement about possessing swords here is clearly to bring about the fulfillment of scripture “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” (Luke 22:37) The whole point of the disciples having swords is to underline the fact that this prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ arrest. Jesus is counted as a bandit (or armed revolutionary) by his accusers and to be sure that no one misses this point he makes sure his disciples are armed at the time of his arrest. This is not a universal command, rather it is a deliberate prophetic action on Jesus’ part for the specific moment of his arrest.

    Furthermore when we get to Jesus’ arrest we see that Jesus condemns the disciple who uses the sword (identified as Peter in John’s Gospel) and commands that there be “no more of this.” (Luke 22:51) Rather than fulfill expectations of the Messiah being a military leader like David, Jesus restrains his followers from using violence to protect him and instead submits himself to violence. Now it is possible to take the command “no more of this” as being limited to the immediate context of Jesus’ death, but it’s worth noting that in Matthew’s account of the arrest Jesus makes this statement: “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) This is clearly a general teaching applicable beyond the context of Jesus’ arrest.

    Finally, if the command to own a sword for self-defense was a universal command to Christians of all times, you would expect Luke to show this in the book of Acts. Yet at no point in Acts to any of the disciples use a sword to defend themselves. In fact of the two times where the word “sword: appears at all in Acts, it is first to describe Herod Agrippa’s execution of James the brother of John (Acts 12:2) and second to describe the intention of Paul’s jailer to kill himself (Acts 16:27). In Acts Christians willingly suffer violence rather than give it. In fact nowhere in the New Testament is there anything else that remotely suggests that Christians should own a sword for self-defense.

    To suggest that this lone passage of scripture against the witness of the rest of the New Testament teaches Christians to own and use weapons is a deeply flawed interpretation. It goes against the meaning suggested by the immediate context, the larger context of Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion, the Gospel of Luke and the New Testament as a whole. To my mind such a reading uses the United States’ Constitution as the primary guide for interpretation of the Bible rather than the Word of God itself.

  • John

    Some serious academic resources for consideration of this issue. Again, William Bennett should be ashamed of himself for this piece.

    The Harvard Injury Control Research Center – Firearms Research
    The Harvard School of Public Health

    Gun Violence: a Public Health Crisis
    “HICRC researchers have been hard at work sharing what is known about the effects of firearm availability in the US since the terrible tragedy in Newtown on December 14. David Hemenway [director of HICRC] …. and ….. Matt Miller [associcate director] were interviewed …..

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