In Guns We Trust

In Guns We Trust April 26, 2013

English Catholic priest Fr. Michael Murphy, commenting in The Tablet following the US Senate’s rejection of bipartisan gun control legislation, has observed a disconnect between second-amendment maximalism and our national claim to trust in God.

While the people of the United States hold their Constitution and its Amendments as sacred, they do so also with their nation’s motto, ‘In God we trust.’ There appears, at this time, to be a conflict between the interpretation of the Second Amendment and the motto.

The motto dates from 1957, replacing the original motto, E pluribus unum, (‘Out of many, one’). No doubt the folks in 1791 America also trusted God, but the frequent use of the word, ‘wild’, as in ‘The Wild West’, in descriptions of the conditions in which they lived, when no police force existed in their country, gives us a clue as to why they also placed so much trust in possessing their own gun.

But gradually, over time, the gun became the supreme symbol of courage.

Stamping the phrase “In God we trust” beside the images of Caesar on our currency may already raise questions about who we’re really trusting.  Fr. Murphy raises the same question with regard to the popular American perception of “the use of a gun by a good guy against a bad guy as being the perfect act of courage.”  In what kind of God do we trust if that is our sacred symbol?  If we believe that only unrestricted access to assault weapons can keep us safe, do we really trust in a God who sent his son to demonstrate true courage by emptying himself, returning good for evil, suffering death rather than inflicting it?

Or is it in another god we trust?

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  • I always find the gun posts here interesting, because while I don’t have any commitment to “second amendment maximalism”, I always think the arguments against it often end up depending fatally on a caricature of the position criticized. And so here: You have only to talk at length with the people supporting a strong interpretation of the second amendment to realize that safety is not their primary concern — it comes up in argument because people opposed to the position are themselves usually opposed to it on safety grounds. That is, arguments arise about what keeps us safe because opponents of second amendment maximalism usually bring up arguments about what is safe and what is not, and the proponents of the strong interpretation are trying to answer the objections on their own terms. Arguments like Fr. Murphy’s essentially boil down to attacking second amendment maximalists for trying to take their opponents’ concerns seriously.

    When you actually talk in a nonaggressive manner to people who argue for this strong interpretation, one quickly finds that their primary concern is not safety but dignity. Thus Morning’s Minion’s recent post was much closer to the heart of the matter than Fr. Murphy’s argument, because it at least recognized that independence, autonomy, and freedom are the significant issues. To the extent that Fr. Murphy’s argument works, it is only to the extent that gun rights are associated with high-level values that are themselves associated in American culture with human dignity: the priority of the citizen over the state, the independence and traditions of hunting culture, and so forth.

    It’s worth pointing out (I don’t think this would be a problem for you, given your background, but it’s why arguments like this don’t have any practical effect) that the same argument would apply to the existence of armed police and armies. It’s an argument for universal disarmament, and only indirectly has anything to do with gun culture itself.

    • Julia Smucker

      According to the USCCB, this is a human dignity issue because it is a life issue. True concern for the dignity of all must value life over choice/autonomy where these come into conflict. Whether safety or dignity is the primary concern, my point stands. We have a perverted vision of human dignity if we believe autonomy in gun ownership is necessary to that dignity – even at the expense of the universal right to life.

      Furthermore, when we as Catholics get caught up in the kind of discussions that presume the US Constitution to be the measure of all things, we need to step back and remember where our foremost allegiance lies. As I’ve said before, sometimes we need clerics from other countries to simply remind us that the Church is bigger than us.

    • Jordan

      Brandon Watson [April 26, 2013 12:54 pm]: To the extent that Fr. Murphy’s argument works, it is only to the extent that gun rights are associated with high-level values that are themselves associated in American culture with human dignity: the priority of the citizen over the state, the independence and traditions of hunting culture, and so forth.

      When investigating the question of human dignity, it’s important to separate accident from substance. Julia has already stated the orthodox Catholic view on the priority of human life over the perception of autonomy as dignity. No person is dignified for any other reason than he or she is created in the image of God.

      I would greatly hesitate to name the “independence and traditions of hunting culture” as an intrinsic aspect of human dignity. I realize that in some American cultures hunting is a rite of passage. Nevertheless, hunting is a regulated activity — a herd of deer can only be culled in times of overpopulation. Personal autonomy does not overrule the common good of ecological preservation. According to Catholic teaching, even a complete ban on hunting would be irrelevant to human dignity. A means of sustinence or sport is never absolutely intrinsic to the Christian human condition.

      Gun rights’ advocates often appeal to a nebulous notion of “tradition” as a justification for permissive gun laws. The Constitution was never intended, and still cannot intend, to protect tradition, culture, or folkways. The Constitution only upholds a democratic and rule-of-law state.

      • But all of this is utterly irrelevant — what is at question is not whether they are correct in their assessment, but whether their assessments are actually being taken into account in the argument. They are not — they are being caricatured, and badly, and their real concerns are completely ignored. It is absolutely essential for any rational argument on this subject to treat people with the respect due to them at least so far as to address their real concerns, and not pretend that they can be handled with an argument based on blatantly obvious stereotypes that show that the arguer has made no serious attempt to understand their perspective.

        • Jordan

          Brandon Watson [April 27, 2013 11:22 am]: But all of this is utterly irrelevant — what is at question is not whether they are correct in their assessment, but whether their assessments are actually being taken into account in the argument.

          Brandon, the arguments of gun rights’ advocates and gun control advocates are often not well thought out at best or completely illogical at worst. Illogical arguments over laws are not certainly not confined to guns — witness public discourse on abortion.

          The counterargument about hunting I gave illustrates that sometimes people confuse cultural customs with laws. An countargument that custom is not law is not prejudice but merely a logical example.

          Here is an example of an emotive argument. My strong adversion to public and brazen gun ownership rests in my Catholic understanding of the commandment “thou shalt not kill”. Indeed, abortion, homicide, legalized execution, liberalized gun ownership as a “human dignity”, and euthanasia display a potential or actual rejection of the intrinsic Christian dignity of human beings. This dignity is exemplifed and wholly dwells in the glorious resurrection of Christ (“I AM [ἑγώ εἰμι] the life” — John 16:4). Any time one person falsely elevates himself or herself above this inalienable dignity, he or she and the devices used to violate the commandment are idols which attempt to replace the LORD. A curette, a semi-auto, a full syringe of barbiturates — the Caananite gods of the American people.

          All that I have said is my religious faith, which is inadmissable to the laws of the American secular republic. So, why then do gun rights’ and gun control advocates insist on conflating emotive arguments with legal arguments? If either set of advocates cannot disambiguate emotion from logic and faith from legal argument, then their movements are doomed to fail as sentimentality. Those who argue from sentimentality should not be mocked, but cannot withhold their arguments from scrutiny.

  • Jordan

    Julia: If we believe that only unrestricted access to assault weapons can keep us safe, do we really trust in a God who sent his son to demonstrate true courage by emptying himself, returning good for evil, suffering death rather than inflicting it?

    AMEN, Julia!

    We have become a society which has become estranged from the dignity of our baptism by materialism, which in turn foments personal inadequacy and alienation from self and other.

    A gun cannot satiate material inadequacy. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NRSV)

    The gun is the ultimate fetish of material desire because it grants the holder a grossly perverted mirage of ungodly power. True power is in submission to Christ, his paschal mystery, and divine providence. Freedom in Christ cannot be bought at a gun fair or in the aisles of Walmart.

  • Brian Martin

    “The gun is the ultimate fetish of material desire because it grants the holder a grossly perverted mirage of ungodly power. True power is in submission to Christ, his paschal mystery, and divine providence. Freedom in Christ cannot be bought at a gun fair or in the aisles of Walmart”
    Really? THE ULTIMATE FETISH OF MATERIAL DESIRE? grossly perverted mirage of ungodly power? What an absolute bunch of emotion driven illogical drivel.
    “True power is in submission to Christ, his paschal mystery, and divine providence. Freedom in Christ cannot be bought at a gun fair or in the aisles of Walmart.”….or at your local Ford dealer or the Mercedes dealer…or Brooks Brothers or Luis Vuitton…

    If anyone really believes that banning guns makes us safe, then they are forgetting that most of the largest mass killings in this country have involved explosives not firearms.
    They are also forgetting that people killed each other forever, even prior to the invention of firearms. I’m tired of the hysterical rhetoric from either side. One side paints gun owners as potential crazy killers, or ignorant neanderthals, and the other side blathers on about how universal background checks are “just a form of registration…which will inevitably lead to confiscation.” When the reality is, a gun is simply a tool, like a care, a knife, and airplane, a boxcutter or improvised explosives. Deranged people kill people. Suicidal people kill themselves. On the other side of the equation, confiscation is unlikely to happen in our country, there are too many la abiding citizens who never use their guns to harm anyone. Also, registries exist. Anyone who is a collector and has an Federal Firearms License, any one who has a permit to carry, or a concealed carry permit, or in some places a permit to buy…all are already on a list. So the argument against universal background checks is based on emotional manipulation.

    I’d love to have a reasonable discussion, but I can’t stand arguments that are not based in fact. The bottom line fact is, if people want to die, they will find a way to commit suicide. If they want to kill someone, they will find a way. Comparing percentages of suicides, 2000-2007, canada had a significantly lower number of gun related suicides, yet they had 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people, versus 11 per 100,000 people in the us. People bring up accidents. There are generally more accidental deaths by poisoning in a year in the US than all gun deaths combined, including accidents, homicide and suicides.
    Also, it should be noted that the emotional argument against looser concealed carry laws suggested that there would be a dramatic rise in firearms deaths in those states….which has not happened.

    • Julia Smucker

      The problem with the whole “people will find a way” argument is that it ends up in a kind of fatalistic apathy, with anarchic overtones: violence will happen, so we may as well not bother trying to set legal limits to prevent it – as though the practical impossibility of preventing all violence should keep us from preventing any violence. This is the same argument that is made against legal restrictions on abortion. And in either case, the argument keeps being made, as President Obama put it in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, “that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom.” (Although Obama himself fails to see the connection I am making here, he did get one side of it right.)

      If guns are not being fetishized, why are they passionately defended as symbols of freedom? Christians, at least, should know better. What is the true source of our freedom? In what kind of God do we trust?

  • Ronald King

    If a person’s identity is tied to his/her freedom to own a gun, then good luck convincing that person otherwise. It would take divine intervention.

  • Jake

    I’m perplexed by this conversation. I come from a country in which guns are more or less banned, a ban with which I’m in broad agreement. Yet I now live in the Rocky Mountain west and unlike my homeland which is a largely urban or farmed environment, here vast wilderness offers opportunities for hunting which are very widely appreciated. Folks here don’t seem to think they need guns to stay safe (houses are regularly left unlocked – I do it myself frequently), nor do I hear much about any power that guns give. They don’t seem to be fetishised any more than the tools that many families own. To my surprise folks seem to treat guns in the same sort of way that one would a wrench or a hammer – tools for a particular purpose. When people speak about guns (or bows for that matter) they talk about target shooting and hunting. Hunting is described in terms of food, or friendship, or courage, patience, endurance and so forth. It’s an occasion for the development of particular skills – such as tracking or butchery. Folks much aren’t using weapons that would be touched by any of the proposed regulations but the conversation around guns makes many people concerned that the ultimate aim is to outlaw guns (and so prohibit the goods that hunting offers). This conversation would, I guess, offer some support for that concern. It’s not unreasonable to want to prohibit weapons that may be so destructive but one ought surely to be thinking how best to persuade one’s fellow citizens who think of hunting with their father or mother, or for whom hunting is a significant source of meat, or who find in hunting occasions of courage or delight etc. My own sense FWLIW is that arguments that don’t even seem capable of seeing what folks find in hunting are likely to meet a response one sees at the moment – that is, panic buying of weapons and resistance to any and all proposals.

    • Julia Smucker

      Welcome, Jake, and thanks for your input. I don’t have any problem with hunting as a source of meat; in fact, I admire those who have such a close connection to a source of their food. So I do see a valid place for the kind of scenario you’re describing in which guns (of the type designed for this purpose) are simply treated as hunting tools, which is very different from the kind of idolatrous trust in guns as a source of freedom, or security, or dignity, that has been rearing its head in public policy debates, to the extent that even modest public safety measures such as background checks and bans on the sale of military-style assault weapons that nobody needs are met with panicked resistance.

      • Brian Martin

        “even modest public safety measures such as background checks and bans on the sale of military-style assault weapons that nobody needs are met with panicked resistance.”
        There is a danger putting forth opinion as though it is fact. What exactly is a military style assault weapon? The .303 British I had for the purpose of hunting was originally a military weapon…not just something made to look like a military weapon, as was the 8mm Mauser my father used, and the M1 Garand favored by my grandfather and uncles. The weapons you likely reference are functionally the same as a semi-automatic hunting rifle…they do not fire more rapidly. The only functional difference is magazine capacity. The fact remains that these much feared evil contraptions are responsible for only a miniscule number of deaths compared with handguns. The problem is people with very little knowledge of firearms, make arbitrary judgements about the utility of a particular firearm. It looks a certain way, so the only use must be to kill people.
        When decisions are based on emotion rather than fact…we don’t accomplish much that is helpful.
        During the years the handgun ban and trigger lock law was in effect in Washington DC, The murder rate was an average of 73% higher than before the law went into effect. Since Texas’ right to carry law went into effect, the murder rate has averaged 30% lower than before. So yes, let’s react with emotion, rather than looking at facts.

        • Julia Smucker

          Brian, I agree that we should take care to get our facts straight (I find the nonpartisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact a trustworthy source in this regard). But this doesn’t mean we should factor out emotions completely. Many emotional responses, such as compassion, moral repugnancy, and even fear, can tell us something valuable if we pay attention. Discussions of life issues such as this are often emotionally charged, and not without reason (dare I mention the Sandy Hook parents turned gun control activists?). The thing to do is not to discredit our emotions, but to examine them rationally and ask ourselves why we are experiencing certain emotions and what they might be telling us.

          Which leads me to wonder, Brian, what precisely are you trying to defend?

  • brian martin

    Julie, Emotions have a role to play, but when one turns to attempting to solve problems, it seems that one must move beyond emotions and try to address root problems. There is a term called “Wise Mind” and it involves harnessing both the logical and emotional mind. If one does not look at root problems, and only focuses on emotion, nothing is solved. The sad fact is that instead of looking for actual solutions, which would lie much more in the realm of dealing with troubled human beings, these tragedies become fodder for whatever political group that can seize on the emotional responses to further their particular agenda…often lying and manipulating facts as well as the emotions of victims etc. In this instance, guns and gun ownership become handy scapegoats for the anti-gun crowd, and the anti-gun crowd’s rhetoric is then used by the NRA etc. to hype fear of “Gun Confiscation” etc. And in the end, no one is trying to find solutions, they are too busy blaming the other side.
    I realize, however, that in my somewhat linear thinking, I bypassed your intended point, you clearly are not writing from a strictly emotional response, sorry for kind of hijacking your post.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you for the explanation, Brian; this is helpful. I am an unequivocal advocate of nonviolence, which shapes my beliefs about just laws, but I also very much agree on the importance of addressing root problems. I addressed this tension in this December post, saying that legislation is needed against violence (in all forms), while not being enough by itself.

      As Martin Luther King once said, “The law cannot make you love me, but it can keep you from lynching me.”

      • Ronald King

        I wish that were true.

      • brian martin

        I wish I believed that laws could solve problems…they don’t. Murder is against the law. It doesn’t keep people from killing people, it simply lays out how we punish those who break the law. Martin Luther King’s quote is very tragically false. I agree with the majority of what you said in the December post. We all need to look at our lives, and what violence we do, or teach with our actions. I also consider myself an advocate of nonviolence, I work with victims of violence every day. I pray a situation never arises where I am faced with the choice of having to physically protect my family or not. Because I am quite sure that emotions would rule, and I would use whatever force necessary to protect my children and my wife. If that is a lack of faith and trust in God, then pray for me. I certainly am not above reproach.

        • Julia Smucker

          Laws alone can’t solve problems, in the long run, but aren’t they necessary in the meantime? Of course, we deceive ourselves if we think the right legislation would be a panacea for all our social ills, after which nothing more need be done. But if every proposed legislation aimed at reducing or regulating some form of violence can be rebutted by the claim that it is ineffective because it is not absolutely effective, then what alternative can there be to a police state on the one hand or anarchy on the other?

        • Jordan

          re: brian martin [April 29, 2013 4:01 pm]: I recognize your desire to protect your family with a firearm in self-defense. I don’t advocate a blanket ban on firearm possession, especially by law abiding citizens without impediments to ownership. However, I ardently object to the notion that a gun is a “human dignity”. Gun maximalism resolutely rejects commonsensical agreements to balance constitutional rights and personal protection. This absolute intransigence in no small part infuriates gun control advocates and perpetuates the recrimination cycle.

          Realistically, does a person need more than one semi-auto handgun with a 15 round capacity to protect himself or herself from a thief/thieves, sexual assailant(s), or other violent aggressors? I have read gun rightist arguments that a 15 round maximum magazine capacity is not enough, as persons with poor marksmanship should simply shoot without much regard to aim, 15 rounds are not enough to maim or kill multiple aggressors, etc. If more comprehensive gun range training and a practical test were compulsory for the legal use of a handgun, would a sharply limited round capacity be reasonable?

          As a Catholic who interprets CST as a fundamentally non-violent teaching, self-defense is always the last resort. On this we certainly agree Brian. And yet, many others consider a possible legal restriction to one handgun, for example, as a gross negation of civil rights. Why the disjunct between what is practically sufficient for self defense and the notion that guns should be amassed for their own good, even beyond self-protection needs?

  • brian martin

    Jordan, I would certainly not ever claim gun ownership as essential to “human dignity”.
    I would note that gun ownership is constitutionally protected “legal right” in this country, and any limitation of that right must pass constitutional muster. It is clear from a reading of the writings of the authors of the constitution that it is an individual right, and that it was meant to be a check against a tyrannical government…and that the firearms owned by citizens were the same as those used by the military…and often were better.
    I find it interesting, even in light of these recent tragedies, that although violent crime and gun crimes decrease as gun ownership increases, we are told we need these protections to prevent violent crime. Here is what I agree with. There is no reason for objection to requiring that sale of a firearm require a background check.
    As far as your question about what is practically sufficient for self defense…could not that logic be applied to automobiles…say, all should have governors allowing them to go no faster than a particular speed? Of houses over a certain size, because use of excess materials is wasteful?
    The reality is, the number of legally owned firearms (with or without large capacity magazines) that are used to kill people represent a tiny percentage of the totality of legally owned firearms.
    The fact is, it is much quicker, easier, and more politically expedient to target firearms than it is to enact comprehensive mental health reform….and Mental instability clearly has a more directly causal relationship to these tragedies than firearms.

  • brian martin

    Julia, is it the intent of legislation that matters, or its actual benefit at addressing a problem?
    Passing something because it feels good, even though there is no evidence that it will prevent what you are trying to prevent is not helpful.

    • Julia Smucker

      I think we may need to define what the problem actually is, and what our own concerns are, before we go any further. My concern, broadly speaking, is for the promotion of a culture of life by breaking the power of violence, in all forms, to the fullest extent possible, including but not limited to supporting life-affirming laws and opposing life-denying ones. Actually, my original concern in this post was more theological, having to do with the idolization of the gun as an object of faith, but these discussions tend to quickly revert to the pragmatic question of what does or doesn’t “work” – which is an important question to answer, but unless we first answer the question of what we wish to accomplish in the first place, or what we are seeking a solution to, we will only keep taking in circles.

      In light of my broad concern as I’ve described it here, Brian, I am honestly having a very hard time understanding your aversion to gun regulation. I don’t want to (or at least I know I shouldn’t) simply make my own assumptions about what is behind that, so I’m hoping you can tell me. You’ve repeated that “laws don’t work” often enough, but what is the underlying concern that leads you to keep defaulting to that line?

      • brian martin

        I would define the problem as a society that no longer holds life to be sacred. I agree with the idea that a promotion of a culture that affirms life is essential.
        My idea that laws and rules will not fix the problem probably comes in part from my upbringing in a very fundamentalist, rule driven faith.
        My whole point is that I see gun control laws as being a “feel-good measure”, designed to make people feel safer, but that does not address the real problem. In fact, I can, as I have shown, supply statistics that suggest the opposite. in 2012 there were about 16,000 homicides with guns. assuming each one used a different firearm (which is of course not true) With over 3 million guns owned in the United states, that means that around .5% of firearms are used in homicides.
        Based on survey data from a 2000 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, U.S. civilians use guns to defend themselves and others from crime at least 989,883 times per year.
        That’s where I am coming from

  • Ronald King

    Julia, You wrote above, ” My concern, broadly speaking, is for the promotion of a culture of life by breaking the power of violence, in all forms, to the fullest extent possible…” It seems that we address the symptoms and methods of violence without going into the source of violence. If we can address the symptoms and explore the source/sources of violence then it would seem more productive. It’s like the game of Risk and when army is dispersed all over the place attacking or defending multiple positions then it is weakened. Where and how do we begin to end violence as a community? What do we define as violence as a starting point?

  • Ronald King

    I hope this link works. Julia, The violence against women is the basic violence against life.

  • Julia Smucker

    Ronald, I fundamentally agree with you and Brian on the importance of addressing the root causes of violence. As I’ve said repeatedly, I do not believe legislation alone is the answer. But neither should it be a zero-sum game between systemic and legislative solutions, and that’s where I think your “Risk” analogy falls short. If we are truly aiming to eradicate gun violence or abortion or abuse or any other form of violence, why would we continue to favor laws that make such acts of violence easy or permissible to commit?

  • Ronald King

    Julia, If I had my way gun owners would be required to have a license for every gun they owned. They would be charged a fee every year for every gun owned and the fee would increase according to the type of gun. I have to pay a fee for my car license every year. Assault weapons would be banned. There would be background checks for everybody including a requirement to fill out a social history. I might even consider requiring a MMPI before allowing a purchase, paid for by the potential buyer.

  • Brian Martin

    quite simply..banning things does not work, It was tried with alcohol…which, by the way, accounts for about as many deaths as guns.
    Murder is illegal already…and people do it. A large number without firearms.
    Banning assault rifles will have little to no effect on homicide rates…but gosh, it makes us feel good to get those “scary” guns that no one has use for off of the streets.
    I’m going to let this go….I respect your opinion, and agree with your aim, just not the whole of your path to get there.