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A suicide by shotgun in the City of Fairfax, following closely on the heels of the Navy Yard killings, has rocked many members of my congregation. As I counsel them, I struggle to find words to bring comfort and guidance in a time of trauma. I also realize that my church, and the larger religious community, has offered a terribly muddled message on gun violence.
Perhaps this is no surprise, since most congregations include both gun control advocates and gun owners. The clarity of the message “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is not lost on me, nor is the fact that the headquarters of the National Rifle Association is located just a short distance from my church.
But the religious community needs to unite around a message that will keep guns out of the hands of people who will use them to do violence to themselves and others, whether they are depressed young people, delusional shooters, or children who stumble across guns in the home. I’m not talking about new gun control laws, but instead a new consensus on the proper place of firearms in our society.
At a recent Faith and Media Conference sponsored by Odyssey Networks in New York, religious journalist Lisa Miller suggested that guns are a “stumbling block” for both the mentally ill and children, and our moral obligation is to remove them from the hands of such people. She cited the work of Rabbi Marc Katz of Brooklyn, who points to the command in Leviticus 19:14 to avoid putting “a stumbling block in front of the blind.”
What does this have to do with guns? Rabbi Katz says that the rule speaks not only of a physical barrier, but anything that creates undue danger or harm. Guns are a “stumbling block” for children who don’t comprehend their deadly power, or for mentally ill people who don’t have the ability to keep their emotions under control. It is the responsibility of the community to avoid putting stumbling blocks in front of people who can easily fall.
The Christian faith has a similar concern, expressed by the apostle Paul in a discussion of whether it is ever appropriate to eat meat that has been offered to idols. Paul has no particular objection to this practice and says, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:8-9).
To defenders of the Second Amendment, I would follow Paul’s lead by saying, “Yes, you have the right to keep and bear arms. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” With every right comes a responsibility, and I do not believe that we, as a society, have lived up to our responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of people who will hurt themselves and others.
From biblical times to the present day, people have had to strike a balance between individual rights and societal good. Gun control legislation tends to curb individual rights, while unfettered freedom to bear arms has a terrible social cost. But we can work together to expand mental health services, support legislation that improves gun purchase background checks, and encourage a focus on safety among gun owners. We can also summon the courage to intervene when a gun owner
is spiraling into depression, and take steps to make sure that he or she does not use the firearm for suicide. No law can force to make such an intervention, but our faith demands it.
I hope that the religious community can formulate a clear statement on guns as potential “stumbling blocks,” one that is grounded not in politics but in our deepest religious convictions. If we don’t, there will be blood on our hands the next time a weak person stumbles across a firearm and uses it to take a life.
Henry G. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia