Published by Eerdmans on May 12, 2020
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Christian Life
Buy on Amazon
What would it look like for Christians to go beyond thoughts and prayers in their response to gun violence?
The gun debate is raging in America. Mass shootings in El Paso, the Tree of Life Synagogue, Stoneman Douglas High School, Las Vegas, Pulse Nightclub, and Sandy Hook Elementary demand action. Senseless acts of gun violence—some involving police (e.g., Michael Brown) and some not (e.g., Trayvon Martin)—spark controversy about the right to own a gun. Yet many still regard gun ownership and use as an essential part of what it means to be an American.
How should Christians think and act with respect to guns and gun ownership? God and Guns in America provides a thoughtful, measured, robust, and articulate biblical treatment of an issue that is too often treated with more heat than light. Ethicist Michael Austin ultimately defends the view—from a Christian but non-pacifist perspective—that (1) the right to own and use a gun is a conditional right, (2) using a gun to harm another person is only morally permissible as a last resort, and (3) more legal restrictions are needed in the United States.
Austin’s book is for anyone who wants to consider the issue of guns in America from a Christian perspective—whether they are gun owners themselves or not.
It tends to happen every time there’s a mass shooting.
(the list could go on)
Reaction to these senseless deaths is swift (thoughts and prayers) and severe (in the form of rants on various media). Nothing actionable is accomplished. The furor subsides. We move on. Until next time. We become more desensitized and gun violence continues to rise.
We all agree that gun violence is a problem. Nobody is pro-murder or mass shootings. But how we deal with the problem ranges from beating guns into garden tools to fighting fire with bigger fire. These irreconcilable differences have led to an impasse on how we talk about guns in America.
Meanwhile, there’s been an increasing connection between Christians and gun-ownership and gun-defense (and I would argue gun-idolization). Churches proudly put up signs noting that their congregation is armed and that they will shoot intruders. Christian men fill their social media accounts with pictures of their latest gun alongside their Bible. Famously, Jerry Falwell, Jr. announced that students of Liberty University would be allowed to conceal carry so that we could “end those Muslims” if they ever attacked there.
God and Guns in America bravely wades into the quagmire in an attempt to pull out fair, rational, actionable policies on guns that will keep Americans safe. Taking a biblical but non-pacifist perspective, ethicist Michael W. Austin provides a fair, thorough, and reasonable discussions to one of America’s biggest problems.
I should start by acknowledging that I am a pacifist. That is my personal conviction from Scripture. However, I recognize it as a personal conviction and one that cannot be forced upon the Christian or American culture. Austin begins his book by saying that taking a middle-ground approach—advocating for strong and sensible firearms restrictions—will likely cause both sides to disagree with him. I didn’t find that to be the case, with the exception of one instance. (More on that later.) Michael W. Austin’s ethical framework for responsible ownership and use of firearms is a good fit that upholds 2A rights while strongly making the case that those rights can, and should, be regulated.
The first section of the book is details America’s historical relationship with guns and sets the background for the current cultural milieu. He specifically dives into the historical connection of guns with Christianity, a section which I found informative and insightful. Austin rightfully acknowledges that the strongest proponents of gun rights within Christianity tends to be Christian nationalists, which he denounces.
From here, he moves into the legal and moral right to gun ownership. The legal right is not really in question and serves as only a precursor to his argument that humans have a moral right (note, not obligation) to own a gun. This moral right, Austin says, comes from the right to life and liberty and the right to recreation, or happiness. I didn’t find the latter argument very effective. Just because something makes us happy, does not give us the moral right to pursue it. We find this to be true in a fair many sinful endeavors, some to which there is also no legal right.
The right to life, however, should be considered. Human beings have a right to their life and guns, as a protection of that life, should be allowed. Austin writes that this is the strongest argument for gun ownership, and I agree. However, given that research suggests that access to firearms increases the risk of violent death (and a second link for good measure), one has to wonder how strong that strongest argument really is.
“Bad Arguments” and How Two of Them Aren’t
Having developed his strong arguments, Austin then turns to several arguments he feels is insufficient, three from pacifist positions, seven from gun rights activists:
- Violence is on the rise.
- Violence never solves anything.
- The NRA is to blame.
- They want to take our guns away.
- No law will stop all gun violence.
- If guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have guns.
- It’s not a gun problem, it’s a heart problem.
- The only thing that stops a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun.
- Guns make us free.
- Guns protect us from tyranny and genocide.
Of his takedowns of these ten “bad” arguments, I really only take umbrage with the first two. First, his comeback to “violence is on the rise” is a firm “nuh-uh!” He does not source his claims on this and seems to play fast and loose with the data. One claim is that the homicide rate is currently on level with the 1950s. He’s close. The murder rate in 1950 was 5.1 per 100,000. In 2017, it was 6.2. (This is down from the high point of 10.4 in 1980.) This doesn’t really tell us much, as it is limited to homicides and not limited to only firearm deaths. In truth, the rate of firearm deaths has been creeping upward. From 1999 to 2014, the number was around 10.4 per 100,000. In 2015, it jumped to 11.8, a 13.8% increase. 2015 to 2017 accounts for 25% of all gun deaths between 1999-2017. Gun violence is on the rise. In 2020, amidst a pandemic, most crime has gone down, but gun violence has increased. Austin’s dismissal of this argument is a severe oversight in his overall goal.
Second, I don’t necessarily agree with this argument against “Violence never solves anything,” which is a firm and unqualified “yuh-huh!” Here, at least, Austin’s argument is a little more strongly backed. There are examples in which violence ends a problem that would otherwise cause more damage if left unchecked. One example used is the passengers of United Flight 93 overwhelming the terrorists in their plane and preventing them in their goal of their alleged intended target of The White House.
While there is something to be said about the response of violence to a violence incident, I am not so sure it bears out the same when taken against systemic violence. On a large scale, nonviolent revolutions have more success than violent revolutions. A nonviolent revolution succeeds about 53% of the time; violent revolutions only 23% of the time. The question shouldn’t be “Does violence solve this?” but “Is violence the best or only way of solving this?”
God and Guns in America then moves on toward the larger issue of violence, guns, and the Gospel. Austin outlines three approaches: pacifism, justified violence, and peace building. Peace building is Austin’s qualified middle-ground approach where violence is rarely justified but is justifiable. While Austin tries very hard to differentiate his view from just war theory, he really holds the same principles, but believes the regulations regarding what justifies violence to be set at a much higher standard.
Austin also takes readers through the gamut of commonly-used passages to both defend pacifism and gun rights. His analysis is standard, but fair. In particular, his discussion of Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple in John 2 as a poor example of justified violence stands out. In fact, all of the passages he discusses comes down more on the side of pacifism than violence, which is interesting, as he still believes violence can be justified.
The final section of God and Guns in America outlines the exact policy procedures that Austin would implement, if such a thing was under his purview. Despite my reservations about some of his moral argumentations above, his policy positions are exactly what I believe we need:
- Universal background checks
- Expand the conditions for who can purchase a firearm
- A federal red-flag law
- Repeal Stand Your Ground laws
- Mandatory gun safety course
- Technological solutions that will decrease gun accidents
- Banning high-capacity magazines and assault weapons (after clearly defining those terms)
- Mandatory liability insurance for gun owners and users
- Funding for research on gun violence
Conclusion | God and Guns in America
In the end, I find myself conflicted about God and Guns in America. I wholeheartedly agree with Austin’s policy suggestions and his firm stance against Christian nationalism and the increasingly violent rhetoric coming from many evangelical figureheads. His biblical exegesis is fair and nuanced, a healthy change from the norm when discussing such a polarizing issue. My main problem with the book is in the sociological sphere, where I believe Austin too easily dismisses the severity of gun violence and fails to adequately address the efficacy of nonviolence.
As a pacifist, I fully recognize that, in the public sphere, we need individuals like Dr. Austin who both advocate for gun rights and see the need for common-sense restriction and regulation. Given the cultural milieu, I’m pessimistic that God and Guns in America will have much of an impact. For me personally, I found it reassuring that I finally found someone who likes guns but also believes in the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment.