Review: Common Ground: Talking About Gun Violence in America, by Donald V. Gaffney

[1] In the United States, public discussion about gun violence and gun control is over-politicized and under-ethicized.   Since our postmodern and polarized society does not share a common religious and moral vocabulary, it has instead reduced dilemmas like gun violence and gun control to the language of secular “rights” and the proper size of regulatory government.  There is, nonetheless, a widespread hunger in our society to hear people converse about gun violence and gun control with Christian terms that provide traction on our enduring dilemmas of sin, evil, and redemption.

[2] Donald Gaffney, a Disciples of Christ minister, steps into this breach with a book that can be used by anyone, but is principally designed for reflection and discussion by individual Christians and congregational groups.  Moreover, he brings the perspective of a gun owner. (Though not a hunter, Gaffney is not opposed to it, p. 5).   As a matter of full disclosure, this reviewer is an avid hunter of big game and birds as well as an occasional plinker, and he finds Gaffney’s perspective especially relevant to our current gun control stalemate.   The ranks of shooters and hunters are not numerous among clergy and theologians, and perhaps less among those of the progressive variety, yet it is probable that clergy and theologians who hunt may be most aware of the ethical ambiguities of creaturely life ended violently.  The cross of Christ allows and even insists that there can be ethical affirmation of goodness and love amid the inevitable losses of life this side of resurrection, or we simply fail to apprehend the depth of goodness, evil, and grace.

[3] By way of his own biography, Gaffney tells how he was shaped by growing up on a small farm near Newtown, Connecticut in the late ’40s and ‘50s where use of guns was as natural as using tools to hoe corn or cut wood.  He and his brothers had a variety of toy guns, and much of their play mimicked TV Westerns.  As is telling for this book, he attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, the scene of a horrific mass killing in 2012.  After becoming a geologist (and an ordained Disciples of Christ minister ten years later), he and his wife moved to western Pennsylvania, an area steeped in hunting culture, where for young persons, “shooting their first deer is a true rite of passage” (p. 5).

[4] Moved by the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in 1961, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and a close friend’s murder of his wife followed by his own suicide, Gaffney says of gun violence: “For some people, witnessing gun violence . . . makes them want to limit the availability of guns.  For others, seeing such violence in the world makes them see guns as a necessary means of protection” (p. 8).  This set the stage for discussing the stories of Suzanna Gratia and Gabrielle Giffords, who responded in different ways to personal and tragic gun violence.  Gratia lobbied successfully for concealed-carry laws in Texas, and Giffords lobbied in Arizona and nationally for common sense gun control; e.g., no possession for the mentally ill and those with a criminal record (Gifford’s assailant had a history of mental illness and anti-government behavior).  As disclosed later in his book, Gaffney holds a Pennsylvania license for open-carry and concealed-carry firearms (p. 58), yet he also supports the Gifford PAC (p. 49, p. 112)—facts which credibly reinforce Gaffney’s ability to avoid ideological and ethical rigidity.  He makes no mention of supporting the National Rifle Association (NRA), though he describes its purpose and some of its activities (pp. 46-49).

[5] The second chapter on “America’s Culture of Guns,” could have been a book in itself, as, indeed, others have penned.  Noting among other statistics that the United States has roughly 270 million guns (90 for every 100 residents), and that guns are involved in 64% of all homicides, he states: “Guns are our foundation and identity, a symbol of our freedom, in ways they are not for most other nations” (p. 19).  Gaffney is not saying that guns have more of a role in America than the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the United States Constitution, or the principles of the Christian faith, but he does candidly acknowledge the literal and storied role of guns in the formation, expansion, and identity of this nation.

[6] Here it is significant that later in the book where Gaffney addresses specific actions, he says: “I don’t want to abolish a legitimate freedom within the Second Amendment but to place it within the context of the other amendments” (p. 112). Clearly he represents a moderating attitude toward gun control that veers away from talk of abolishing the Second Amendment, while frankly recognizing that this nation long ago developed and cultivated a culture dependent upon and open to the use of guns for self-defense, hunting, sport shooting, law enforcement, and military preparedness.  At the same time, Gaffney points-out that “good guys with guns” feeding the notion of “redemptive violence” (e.g., movies like Sergeant York, Shane, Superman) have the problem of glorifying violence and confusing fact with fiction. Moreover, his section on “Guns and Race” is sympathetic to how Blacks have long been victims of a double standard concerning gun ownership and gun violence stereotyping.

[7] “Guns and Gun Violence in America,” the third chapter, discusses mass shootings, gun violence statistics, gun rights groups, gun control groups, and national and state gun laws.  He briefly discusses the 2nd and 14th Amendments and recent court decisions upholding the right of individuals to keep and bear arms.  To his credit, Gaffney does not want to sensationalize statistics or laws, but is rather concerned about human lives and social harmony behind the numbers.  It is the violence and carnage that gun violence creates that he wants to limit by responsible gun control.  To this end, he instructively compares laws requiring car safety and driver licensing to gun safety and shooter licensing as a model that could balance private gun rights with the public responsibilities that entails.

[8] I found less instructive his next section on “Mental Health and Gun Violence.” While conceding that “in most mass shootings there is a mental health component”(p. 65), he does not suggest legal and enforceable initiatives that would help to minimize use of guns by those with mental health issues.  I say “minimize,” since the disordering of sin and evil in individuals will never yield entirely to social contracts, legal formulas, and preventive screenings.  At the same time, hindsight shows that more mental health interventions could reduce gun mortalities.

[9] In his fourth chapter on “Violence and the Bible,” Gaffney addresses images of God dispensing not only grace and salvation but also violence and judgment. He discusses the much-neglected notion of “wrath,” suggesting that it describes the passionate love of God judging human sin and unfaithfulness. In discussing the violence of the cross, Gaffney uses a substitutionary sacrifice lens and concludes that “while Paul can explain his understanding of how God works to resolve my dilemma, I still feel stuck in the middle of it.” (p.80) To this reviewer, this is, indeed, an existential “dilemma” posed by the cross, in which case it is helpful to accent Paul’s notion of wrath as the judgment sinful people bring on themselves as the abuse of their God-given freedom. Connecting this to the unavoidability of sin we can recognize that Christian freedom is neither freedom from the possibility of gun violence nor freedom for the perfectibility of gun and human safety.  This insight also qualifies those who insist on the absoluteness of individual gun rights over the rights of the larger community which are inordinately imperiled by acts of gross criminality.

[10] In Chapter 5, “Talking About Guns as Christians,” Gaffney challenges: “As Christians in America, we need to ask ourselves this question: am I a Christian first, or an American first?  I claim to be a Christian first and an American second, and I don’t think that makes me unpatriotic” (p. 90).  For him, this takes ethical shape in following the cross of Christ (p. 95), refusing to idolize guns, and refusing to fear reasonable gun control measures.  His chief concern is reducing gun violence (p. 97, p. 104), and to this end he has proposed this book as a tool for participants to share their first-hand stories, and then “see and hear Christ in the midst of these stories.” (98) This is the worthy objective that truly distinguishes this book!  The questions after each chapter are personal and penetrating, he suggests rules for cultivating respect and trust in small groups, and at numerous places he suggests using prayer to guide deliberations.

[11] Gaffney recognizes that “The intensity of political involvement is a matter for individual discernment” (p. 112).   While it is clear that he favors reasonable and common-sense gun control, the book would profit from more information on the arguments and strategies of gun rights groups.  More could also be said to distinguish mortality statistics between guns used for criminality and guns used for hunting, target competition, and collecting.  Given the great numbers of guns used for the latter purposes, it is always surprising to me that there are not more accidents and human casualties than there are, which is a tribute to adequate gun training. Finally, discussion of gun control would also benefit from attention to the myriad societal conditions and social factors intersecting with gun violence.

[12] Gaffney suggests a number of legislative priorities (pp. 112-114) such as electronic record-keeping of gun sales and transfers, repeal of open-carry laws, and minimum weapons training and examination for concealed-carry permits, which would almost certainly be resisted by gun rights groups.  Yet Donald Gaffney’s stated aim is promoting conversation among people of varying backgrounds and viewpoints, and though this may seem a modest objective, its fruitfulness can be more than we realize.  As a gun-owning Christian, Gaffney makes a valuable contribution to those seeking more “common ground” on issues of gun violence and gun control in America.


Paul Seastrand

Rev. Paul J. Seastrand, PhD, is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—Montana Synod and has served the ELCA in numerous congregational, synodical, and churchwide capacities.