Should we own guns?

Posted on September 19, 2011 at 11:27 am,

This is the next in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at the final part of chapter 6 (which is about the protection of life), the question of gun laws.

What is your reaction when a madman walks into a school with a gun and starts shooting? When it happened in Dunblaine, Scotland, the nation universally demanded tougher gun laws so that it couldn’t happen again. When it happened in Colombine, Colorado there were some voices calling for weaker gun laws so that it couldn’t happen again. For those on either side of the debate, the reaction of the other side seems silly. For some, it’s blindingly obvious that tougher gun laws will reduce gun crime because criminals won’t be able to get guns. For others, it’s blindingly obvious that criminals will always be able to get access to guns, that weaker gun laws mean more armed civilians who can shoot back, and that this is a deterrent to crime.

The question of self-defence

Grudem starts by asking whether the Bible teaches the principle of self defence. He argues that Matthew 5:38-39 (turn the other cheek) is about not taking vengeance to “get even”, and does not apply when somebody is trying to do you bodily harm or even to kill you. He cites a number of passages (1 Samuel 19:10, 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, Luke 4:29-30, John 8:59; 10:39) where people escaped from attacks, and Grudem says that none of them turned the other cheek. One thing Grudem doesn’t point out is that in none of these examples does the person hit back. He also justifies his interpretation by saying that other commands of Jesus were not to be applied universally. He points to Matthew 5:42 – which says that we should give to anybody who begs from you or asks to borrow from you, and says that following it in all circumstances would quickly leave a church or a Christian bankrupt.

He also says that it is OK to use a weapon in self defence by citing Luke 22:36-38, where Jesus apparently tells his disciples to buy swords, although I understand that there is considerable dispute about what is going on in this passage. He brings in an argument that it self-defence is a necessary application of the command to care for the health of our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and claims that not acting in self-defence will often result in greater harm and wrongdoing in the future, so that defending yourself is acting out of love for both yourself and your attacker. Grudem doesn’t address the question of whether there are circumstances where the opposite is the case (the civil rights movement’s non-violent protests in the 1960s would be a prime example). Finally, Grudem argues that several anti-sword comments Jesus made were either to stop the disciples from preventing the crucifixion (Luke 22:50-51) or to discourage a military rebellion against Rome (Matthew 26:52).

In summary, this argument falls far short of proving that the Bible actively teaches the principle of self defence, though he probably does prove that the Bible doesn’t rule self defence out.

When it comes to the specific question of guns, he says that the principle of using swords must surely allow for other kinds of weapons, and that guns allow even a frail person to defend themselves against an attacker. He then says that, in countries where there are already lots of guns, the laws should allow private citizens to own guns for self-defence.

Do gun laws actually reduce crime?

Grudem claims that there is substantial statistical evidence that widespread gun ownership decreases the crime rate. In support of this, he claims that violent crime is twice as high in the UK as in the US, ignoring the difficulties of comparing generic crime rates between countries (only the most specific statistics are directly comparable). His credibility on UK crime statistics is undermined by the claim that increased terrorism is causing a strain on the UK police, which suggests that he’s unaware of how low the incidence of terrorism is in the UK compared to the 70s and 80s, when the IRA were at their height.

He also claims that criminals substituting knives or “shoulder weapons” (and no, I don’t know what that means) for guns could prove more dangerous. He then lines up statistics that he says are evidence that widespread gun ownership deters crime. He notes some cases where murder rates went up following gun control laws, though he doesn’t compare murder rates between places with gun control laws and those without (which, I’m told, show the opposite). He extensively cites a book by John Lott called More Guns, Less Crime, which claims to have found extensive evidence that guns reduce the incidence of murder, rape, and severe assault. He says that gun ownership makes no difference to suicide rates or domestic violence. He dismisses statistics about the number of children killed by guns, because many of these are cases of gang violence.

Because this is an area of policy I’ve not really thought about before (as gun laws are on nobody’s agenda in the UK), Grudem’s statistics are new to me, and I’ve not really looked into the practical and statistical evidence for the other side. It does seem counter-intuitive that a weapon that makes murder far easier could reduce the murder rate, but if his stats are right, then there’s certainly a practical case to be made for giving people the chance to own guns.

What’s up with the second amendment?

Because he’s writing for an American audience, Grudem also makes use of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says:

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.

He argues that this refers not to military forces organised by the government, but to “armed male citizens”, and that the point of this amendment was to protect the people from the tyranny of a powerful federal government. However, he also claims that the amendment was originally intended to be about the right to self-defence, although his argument here is about the nebulous question of original intent, rather than being based on the actual words.

What gun laws does Grudem endorse?

Grudem believes that self-defence is a basic human right, and so argues that the law should guarantee citizens a right to some effective means of self-defence. He reiterates his belief that this will lead to a reduction in crime. He believes that guns are the most effective means of self-defence, especially in areas of high crime or frequent violence, saying that there is a lot of truth in the slogan “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”.

On the other side of the coin, he is fine with governments placing “reasonable restrictions” on gun ownership. He thinks that it is appropriate to prevent convicted criminals and mentally ill people from having guns, or to prohibit guns in certain “sensitive places” like courtrooms or aeroplanes – an exception that he justifies by saying that these are highly controlled areas, with a low probability of violent attacks. He is also in favour of background checks, as long as they did not become an actual barrier to gun ownership. He is also in favour of restricting weapons that would not be needed for personal defence (e.g. machine guns, anti-tank guns, or anti-aircraft missile launchers). He does not, however, comment on how this squares with the second amendment being a protection against government tyranny. If there were a case of genuine government oppression of its people, then such weapons may well be necessary to protect against military attack.

For countries other than his own, Grudem recommends that private citizens should be able to own and carry firearms in all countries where there is a danger of violent attack, and claims that restrictions on gun ownership are a factor in high levels of violence in countries like Brazil and Jamaica. However, in countries where there are almost no guns in the hands of the general public or criminals, and where police control and “societal customs” mean that there is little risk of physical attack, then such laws may not be necessary.

Grudem finishes up this section by saying that the question of whether it is wise for a Christian to own a gun is an individual decision – that we should weigh up the benefits in terms of self-defence against the cost and the risk of accidents.

So is he right?

This is an issue about which I have very little knowledge, so I can’t comment on Grudem’s statistical/practical evidence. His assertions that self-defence is taught in the Bible and that it is a basic human right seem to me to be vastly overstating the case, but if his practical evidence holds up, then he may well be right on the issue. Of course, if it doesn’t hold up, then we probably should act to restrict guns. If you live somewhere where this issue is a real concern, then I’d urge you to read up on both sides of the issue in order to have an informed opinion.

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