Gun Violence and Christian Witness

[1] On January 19, 2014, Amber Long was out for the evening in Philadelphia with her mother who was visiting from out of town. They were celebrating Amber’s 26th birthday and her mother had bought her a purse for $14 in a thrift shop earlier that day. Walking to their car, they were approached by two men who grabbed the purse, shot Amber and sped away. The young woman died in her mother’s arms. The murder headlined the local TV and print media to a violence-weary metropolitan audience that was saddened but not surprised. Last year, there were 201 gun murders in Philadelphia—a statistic that was actually celebrated because it marked a decrease in the grim figure from the previous year, 288. However, 2014 has proven to be a violent one so far. As the first quarter draws to a close, gun murders are up 20% from this time last year.[1] An alarming one third of shooting victims in the “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” are women and girls.[2]

[2] The statistics on gun violence in the U.S. are mind-numbing. Every year an average of 31,537 Americans are killed by guns, which includes murders (11,583), suicides (18,783), accidents (584), police action (334), and those whose cause is indeterminate (252). But there are many more (over 70,000) who are injured by guns and whose lives and families are forever changed[3]. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords is perhaps the most recent and visible of those thousands who are fortunate to have survived, but will struggle the rest of their lives.

[3] There is much that is stunning about these numbers–first of all being how constant they have remained over the decades. Despite our national horror at tragedies such as Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School, and our brief moments of national resolve after the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, the carnage has remained consistent. Although these potentially “mobilizing moments”[4] have failed to create a sustained movement for social change, the faith communities have not been silent. There have been many denominational statements over the years calling for a ban on assault weapons, regulating hand guns, expanding background checks, etc. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has issued nine such resolutions in the last thirty years; the Episcopal Church, 8; the United Methodist Church, 3; the United Church of Christ, 3 all during the same time period. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has consistently spoken out, as has the National Council of Churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a message to the church on Community Violence in 1994, reaffirmed in 2008, which called on the church to “stem the proliferation of guns in our streets, schools and homes,” and to “build strong anti-violence coalitions in our neighborhoods and communities.”[5] Despite church statements, particularly after assassinations and mass shootings, the number of gun deaths has continued like a drum beat: 30,000 Americans killed every year. Although there have been brief glimmers of hope for change after these mobilizing moments, (including the Million Mom March in 2000 after the Columbine shooting), a grassroots movement for significant change has never gotten real traction.

[4] Why has there not been a mass mobilization? A major reason is that Americans have, in many ways, become inured to the numbers. We can read that today 282 people in our country will be shot and 86 of them will die but it does not move us to action. Author Jim Atwood describes the nation as suffering from a “spiritual malaise,” in which we have come to passively accept the unacceptable.[6] Like the proverbial “frog in the kettle” we have acclimated to increasing levels of heat (in this case, gun violence). Eventually, the frog is cooked. High levels of gun deaths have taken on an aura of normalcy and perspective is lost. We have come to believe that gun violence is the cost of freedom in a democratic society. Yet such is not the case in other developed countries which also cherish and protect their democracy. Consider that in 2010 there were 194 people killed by guns in Germany, with a population of 82 million people. That same year, Philadelphia lost 244 to gun homicides[7]–with a population of only 1.5 million. In fact, the city had more gun deaths than in Australia, England/Wales, and Spain combined. In these democracies, there was a grand total of 134 gun homicides. Unfortunately, Philadelphia is not exceptional as a large American city—but the U.S. does stand in stark contrast to other democratic, developed countries who observe our high level of gun violence with incredulity.

[5] Recently, I attended a conference in the U.K. and congratulated a rising young scholar who was offered a teaching position at a prestigious university in the U.S. She informed me that she would not consider locating to the U.S. because she had children whom she would not endanger. The fact that you were probably surprised by her decision says a lot about our acceptance of gun violence and how we are perceived by others.

[6] What accounts for this dimension of American exceptionalism? Perhaps the first explanation the media and public go to is the prevalence of the “gun culture,” which is considered unique to the U.S. Often this is presented in gauzy terms of fathers teaching their children (sons, usually) how to hunt. This experience of male bonding is set in the context of respect for nature, passing on the role of provider and protector, and the sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Certainly in communities where hunting is a valued and practiced cultural pastime, this romantic rendering has resonance. In fact, in many parts of Pennsylvania, the opening day of hunting season is a day off for school children, many of whom go off to the woods with their parents. Hunting in fact does provide sustenance for many people as well as enjoyment. But the gun culture has deeper cultural roots, implications and supports that must be interrogated. It is about much more than hunting.

[7] As I have argued elsewhere[8] guns have always been integral to our national narrative of independence, expansion and dominance. Firearms have enabled us to win our independence, to expand the frontier, to develop economically (especially through slavery), and to resolve conflicts, domestic and international. The wars in our nation’s story, usually interpreted as “just,” have become distorted in our retelling as a glorification of violence to resolve conflict and effect the triumph of a righteous cause. Therefore, our foreign policy can lean first toward military solutions rather than negotiations or mediation. Within this way of thinking, reflected by both individual citizens as well as civic leaders, gun power is not a problem, but a solution. So within this cultural logic, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the attacks of 9/11/01 are justified and preferred responses. We believe that civil order can only be restored through armed force. On U.S. soil, the same reliance on force, enabled by and dependent on guns, permeates our civic life, especially where civil order is most frayed. In communities most economically and socially stressed, the logic of firepower informs both the enforcement of social stability as well as the ethic of retributive justice by individual citizens, whether in stand-your-ground vigilantism or gang culture.

[8] Gun violence becomes redemptive when framed through the complex, yet robust, civil religion in U.S. culture. Days after the 9/11 attacks President George W. Bush proclaimed in biblical language from the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to avenge the “evildoers…at a time of our choosing.” In announcing the death of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama also identified gun violence as redemptive, of righting a wrong: “Justice has been served,” he began. In the context of a prevalent and uncritical civil religion, guns become the sacramental object of administering that justice.

[9] The identification of guns with the good values of justice, the protection of freedom, the restoration of order is so prevalent that most Americans are unaware of how saturated our culture has become with guns. Our language itself reflects how thoroughly, and comfortably, we have accommodated gun violence. We have common and unconscious figures of speech such as “Stick to your guns!,” “Bite the bullet!,” and “pull the trigger.” Through media, video games and toys our children consume gun imagery so frequently that by young adulthood they are not shocked by violent images, but are sometimes numbed and sometimes stimulated by them. Even so, we have a self-perception as being a peace- loving people, while violence, and particularly gun violence, is woven deeply into our national identity. Guns have become the vehicle for effecting and protecting peace. In other words, “the gun culture” is much more expansive than just those who engage in hunting as sport.

[10] While those in our urban areas might not articulate the same romantic notions of gun ownership as a vehicle of family bonding, they do share meanings around gun ownership. American individualism, derived from Enlightenment and Reformation traditions, informed the construction of the new nation. Described with admiration and caution by Alexis de Tocqueville[9], the rugged individualism of “every man for himself” could provide the entrepreneurial energy for the young nation as well as the seeds of its destruction. On the streets of Philadelphia or in the plains of Nebraska, self-sufficiency is the ideal and guns become the method of protecting individual freedom. This is not an abstract cultural analysis: consider the many states who have a “stand your ground” law. In Pennsylvania’s “Expanded Castle” law, anyone may use deadly force to protect themselves from any perceived threat, not only in their home or “castle,” but anywhere they have “the legal right to be.” There is an equation of guns with safety, although this is not supported by research. Gun owners are six times more likely to be a victim of gun violence than to use their weapons in self-defense.[10] Yet the gun market is thriving and it is currently estimated that there are 310 million privately owned guns in the U.S.—almost enough to arm every citizen. Even though we only comprise 5% of the global population, we own between 35-50% of all civilian-owned guns in the world. If gun ownership makes us safer, then we should be the safest country on earth. As shown previously, we are not.

[11] The narrative of rugged individualism, the exaltation of self-sufficiency, and the myth that guns are the source of safety and protection align in a perfect storm to create the contextual soil in which a gun culture can thrive. In recent years, some conservative Christians, feeling threatened by increasing religious and racial/ethnic pluralism, liberalization of some social policies, and feeling vulnerable in the economic recession, have been promoting gun ownership as an expression of individual freedom and the need to protect one’s family—both considered fundamental to being an American Christian. The number of websites defending not only the possibility but the necessity of carrying a gun for Christians has proliferated. For example, on the website the following are three of the affirmations of faith under the “Statement of Faith about Weapons:”

We believe that the sword was the choice weapon in the days of Christ and is equal to a firearm today.

We believe Satan’s trap is to get people to believe “God will protect them” so that when He doesn’t they become mad at God and lose their faith. (Jeremiah 37:8-9)

We believe it’s a God given right to protect yourself and your loved ones.[11]

[12] Other websites reflect similar themes—providing biblical defenses for gun ownership and use. Some, like the year-old God and Guns Podcast, address specific issues related to acquisition of guns and the rationale for doing so. While the God and Guns Podcast has done shows in which they discuss gun safety and introducing children to hunting, they also discuss how to carry concealed weapons and the coming of the apocalypse in which believers will need to be armed. They even compare handguns for purchase.[12] Websites such as these provide communications for congregations; an increasing number are having “Open Carry” or 2A (Second Amendment) Sundays.

[13] These Christian expressions are related to the growing sense of alienation from governmental authority described by Josh Horwitz as an “insurrectionist idea.”[13] The most visible political expressions of this have been through the Tea Party movement. The rationale is that “crime is out of control” despite the fact that it has been declining in the last twenty years; that police cannot protect us, so we need to protect ourselves. Further, the federal government is seen as growing in size and in its intrusion into the lives of Americans. Finally, its goal is to disarm its citizens. In his book on the gun culture, journalist Dan Baum describes going to a gun show and looking at a table of AR-15 guns, the type used by Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. A sign read, “They’ll raise your taxes, take your guns, leave your border unprotected and surrender two wars.” Alongside the sign were baseball caps emblazoned with John 3:16.[14] Although he is a gun owner himself, and critically supportive of gun rights, Baum found the people he interviewed within the movement, including Christians, to feel disappointed and resentful of the direction of the country. To defend oneself and one’s family, therefore, becomes a practical and faithful response. Further, any attempt to change gun laws (such as expanding background checks, reinstating the assault weapons ban, limiting magazine capacity, etc.) is seen as a step on a slippery slope to disarm citizens.

[14] While those in Mainline Protestantism might dismiss this ideology and these people as part of a radical fringe, it must be stated that resistance to changing gun laws has been effective in preventing even the mildest of proposed legislation, such as the Manchin-Toomey bill, defeated last year. The well-funded gun lobby has been able to block the passage of what most people consider common-sense laws regulating gun sales and use. It is not simply because they can “buy off” legislators. They are able to intimidate politicians by getting their message out that individual freedom is being threatened. A vocal minority of NRA members and supporters then flood the switchboards of legislatures, state and federal. The gun lobby continues to press for legislation to allow guns in churches, bars and on campuses, under the specter of being under siege, and the rationale that more guns will make us safer. The gun lobby is essentially a trade organization, largely funded by gun manufacturers, not the grassroots coalition of freedom-loving citizens it presents as its public face.

[15] How have we, as a country, continued to accept the unacceptable level of gun deaths, thereby working against our own self-interest? Consider the tremendous change we have seen around the issues of tobacco and drunk driving. In both cases, Americans have mobilized against well-funded corporate lobbies (tobacco and restaurant industries). Both efforts have utilized legislative and legal strategies. Both smoking and drunk driving have been framed as public health issues and have effected widespread cultural change. The result of this multifaceted strategy is that the political and public will have changed, and thousands of lives have been saved each year. Why have we not seen similar responses to gun violence?

[16] The first response is generally “the Second Amendment.” Those protesting their rights to monitor their own behaviors (of smoking and drinking) also made appeals to the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” put forth in the Declaration of Independence. However, social and legal norms have gradually been changing toward protection of public safety; that is, the rights of the many to clean air and safer highways transcend the rights of the individual to behaviors that are even self-destructive. To clarify the distinction, in many states motorcyclists are not required to wear helmets—the risk they assume is seen to be to their person alone and not to others. Why then, does gun accessibility take precedence over public cost? Why is the individual’s right to own weapons—especially weapons designed for military use—privileged over the public protection of, and indeed, right to life?

[17] The Second Amendment states, “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.” Many would interpret the Framers’ intentions as linking gun ownership to a ‘well-regulated militia’ such as the National Guard. Some critics are calling for the revision or even elimination of the Second Amendment, as amendment change has reflected changes in public will around prohibition, slavery and suffrage. However, several recent Supreme Court decisions have upheld the Second Amendment as protecting the individual’s right to possess and carry arms. In the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision, (2008), the Court declared that D.C.’s ban on handguns was unconstitutional. Still, writing for the majority, Justice Alito cautioned,

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.[15]

The court does not preclude regulations of guns. No individual right is unlimited and public safety takes precedence over individual freedoms. Not everyone is entitled to gun ownership, guns should not be allowed in every context, and sales need to be regulated. Currently those who canot pass federal background checks (because of histories of institutionalization for cirime or mental illness) can easily purchase guns through the internet, gun shows in many states, and straw purchasing. There is much that cna be done to address these loopholes.

[18] Amber Long’s mother tearfully reflected on the pastoral response to her tragedy. “I talked to some ministers who said that God was there that night, and is in our suffering. But I have problems with that. I was there. God was not.”[16] Indeed—where is God? For too long the Church has offered pastoral prayers, conducted funerals, and responded to survivors with assurances of God’s presence that sound hollow. At some point, argued Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we need to stop caring for those crushed under the wheel and put a spoke in the wheel itself.[17]

The Body of Christ must seek to stop the suffering of so many Americans who are killed by guns through murder, suicide, mass shootings, and accidents.

[19] For public theologians, we understand that the Sixth Commandment is not just about individual behavior. God values each individual life and wills us to be woven into an interdependent society reflecting God’s image as the triune, interdependent Godhead. We are called to participate in the creation and recreation of civil society, supporting and enabling government to fulfill its vocation to defend and protect public safety. We have to critique a society based on fear of neighbor, arming itself against a government it sees as tyrannical. Here, the unregulated freedom of the individual ironically becomes the tyranny that threatens human community. The Church has the capacity, and the call, to awaken society from the spiritual malaise that is enabling gun violence, to challenge the individualism and the fear being promulgated, and to work for changes in policies that will protect human life.





[4] Kristin Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America,” (Princeton University Press, 2006)

[5] See “Gun Violence, Gospel Values,” pp. 7-8

[6] James E. Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose (Cascade Books, 2012)


[8] Contextuality and Intercontextuality in Public Theology (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2013)

[9] Alexis deTocqueville, Democracy in America (Penguin Books, 2003; first published 1835 and 1840)

[10] Hemenway, David and Deborah Azrael., “The Relative Frequency of Offensive and Defensive Gun Uses: Results From a National Survey,” Violence and Victims, 15(3) (2000): 257-272

[11] (accessed 3/20/14)

[12] (last accessed 3/28/14)

[13] Joshua Horwitz and Casey Anderson, Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2009)

[14] Dan Baum, Gun Guys: A Road Trip (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), p. 129.


[16] Conversation with author, 3/17/14

[17]Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

Katie Day

Katie Day is the Chales A. Schieren Professor of Church in Society and Director of the Metropolitan/Urban Concentration at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia