Editor’s note: It’s been five years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — one of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history, made even more tragic by the 20 young students among the victims.
The 2012 incident launched a national conversation on preventing gun violence, which has become more familiar with each deadly attack since. Last month’s church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., renewed the gun debate among American evangelicals, who are less likely than other faith groups to support stricter gun laws.
Christian authors Jen Hatmaker and Karen Swallow Prior recently collaborated to consider how believers on both sides of the debate might agree on “common-sense” measures to curb future gun violence.
Here are five points that emerged from their dialogue.
1. American evangelicals have a unique relationship with guns.
Hatmaker: Gun rights have become an entrenched talking point inside white evangelical politics. White evangelicals own more guns than any other religious group, are the least likely to support stricter laws, and over half believe the National Rifle Association has “the right amount of influence.” There is an obvious tension between the “me and mine” ideology of civic or religious freedom many evangelicals subscribe to and the necessary commitment to the common good required to see through meaningful gun reform. It appears to be an impasse that not even mass shootings in elementary schools can affect.
Prior: Exactly. In some ways, this tension we see in the gun debate between individualism and community is reflective of the same tension that exists on a larger scale within evangelicalism itself. Both America and evangelicalism from their very beginnings are rooted in modern individualism, which is both a strength and a weakness. But the conversation over guns has become so politicized and polarized that a lot of reasonable compromise and solid common ground is missed because we can’t get past the talking points. Our perspectives are also severely limited by our own experiences, media stereotypes and bumper sticker slogans. Many gun owners think of all attempts to regulate weapons as automatically stripping them of their Second Amendment rights, and on the other hand, for some people, it’s hard to imagine a lifestyle dependent upon guns that is wholesome and good.
2. NRA rhetoric that demonizes proponents of gun regulations hurts both sides.
Hatmaker: I am a living middle ground. As a daughter, wife and mother of hunters, I have lived for years with guns (securely locked) in my home, yet I am also unequivocally on the side of gun reform and could be considered left. Yet NRA leadership characterizes people like me, who favor reform, as their opponents. “The left’s message is absolutely clear. They want revenge. You have to be punished. They say you are what is wrong with America. And now, you have to be purged,” NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre warned at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “Make no mistake, if the violent left brings their terror to our communities, our neighborhoods or into our homes, they will be met with the resolve, and the strength, and the full force of American freedom in the hands of the American people and we will win because we are the majority in this country.” This level of propaganda drives a wedge between reasonable people and the possibility of effective legislation, and perhaps Christians across the spectrum will be the ones to fight for dialogue amidst this promulgation.
Prior: This kind of rhetoric creates far more problems, even, ironically, for gun owners. It’s important to note that while a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 2 out of 5 self-identified white evangelicals own a gun, which is higher than any other religious group, only a quarter of white evangelical gun owners are NRA members, and even more want U.S. gun laws to be stricter. There are many responsible gun owners who favor reasonable regulations, but their voices are often overshadowed by the more sensational ones.
3. The solutions are more complicated than we often assume.
Prior: Those who don’t like or understand guns need to be willing to listen and learn. I often hear people throw around the terms like “assault rifle,” “automatic” and “semiautomatic,” and it’s clear they don’t know a pistol from a hand grenade. To have effective conversations about gun regulation, we need to know what regulations already exist, when and why they are not effectively enforced, and whether empirical data offers direction on further regulations. Reporter Leah Libresco, who once advocated more gun control, found that most broad policies proposed by politicians would make little or no difference in the U.S. context, though smaller, specifically tailored measures could be very effective.
Hatmaker: Libresco’s research is interesting and worth noting. She reminds us that the majority of gun deaths are not mass-shooting-related but suicides and that over 1,700 women are killed every year by men with histories of violence. But it is like bringing a shovel to an avalanche. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out, America’s high rate of gun violence is directly linked to our high rate of gun ownership, at 88.8 guns per 100 people. And Vox noted that states with more guns have more gun deaths, while those with tighter gun laws have fewer. It is difficult to have a productive discussion about reducing gun deaths without talking about the sheer quantity of guns in circulation, a much more complicated conundrum. “Gun control” talking points can make things worse since they have the unintended effect of raising gun sales by inciting fear in gun owners. Kristof recommends framing the conversation as “gun safety,” including initiatives like protection orders for violent men, safe storage, ammunition checks, a ban on bump stocks and more robust gun-safety classes.
4. Legislation can make a difference.
Prior: There are now more guns than people in the United States, and we can’t just wish them away. These guns exist, and the worst thing that could happen is for them to be in the wrong hands. The phrase “gun control” is counterproductive, especially for those of us concerned about government overreach and constitutional liberties. It would be far more productive to talk in terms of gun safety and regulation. Common-sense measures are in everyone’s interest, especially gun owners and enthusiasts. (It’s the dealers and manufacturers who have the most to gain by fighting regulations, not the everyday owners.) Gun rights advocates usually support better enforcement of existing laws and tougher sentences for those convicted of gun-related crimes. These may be NRA talking points, but they still warrant a central place in any discussion about gun control. We also need to address the need for increased prevention, support and intervention in mental health crises.
Hatmaker: We are in a gun violence crisis, unprecedented in the developed world, so pitting enforcement and sentencing against reduction and regulations is a straw man. The NRA stranglehold on Republican members of the House and Senate appears to be a wholesale purchase of their votes and silence. This virtually carte blanche opposition to gun reform by the GOP stands in stark contrast to the will of the public: 93 percent of Americans favor universal background checks for gun purchases. Gun owners and non-owners share similar levels of support for measures such as banning the mentally ill from purchasing guns, background checks for private sales at gun shows, and barring gun purchases by people on no-fly or watch lists, restrictions being relaxed and repealed under President Trump. If partisan opposition to gun reform or even gun safety remains rigid with no deference to public will, then pointed change is just a talking point among citizens, not a genuine possibility.
5. America’s problem with gun violence goes far beyond mass shootings.
Prior: I recently learned that there were over 33,000 gun-related deaths in the United States in 2013. Honestly, that astonishes me. We really do have a gun-safety problem that goes far, far beyond the matter of these tragic mass shootings. As Kristof wrote, at one time cars caused more fatalities than guns, but federal regulations have drastically reduced the number of automobile accident deaths through education, enforcement and innovative safety features. America’s entrepreneurial spirit can help solve the gun problem without curtailing an important constitutional right.
Hatmaker: Agreed. Back to the common good, I am hard-pressed to think of a constitutional right I enjoy that I wouldn’t submit for examination if it was related to 33,000 deaths a year. As with virtually every partisan ideology, much of the debate in the public square is unreasonable, an imaginary defense of extreme overreach or underreach, when in fact, right down the middle are initiatives that could decrease violence and death without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens.
Jen Hatmaker is a best-selling author and speaker. Her books include “Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life,” “For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards” and “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.”
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Her books include “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me” and “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”