Recently I had the chance to meet Mike Austin, author of the recent book God and Guns in America, as he was our guest for an episode of the Think Biblically podcast. As my co-host Scott Rae said, “God and Guns in America is required reading for any follower of Jesus interested in the gun debate.” I could not agree more. Check out this interview, and then think about getting a copy of his excellent book.
SEAN MCDOWELL: What motivated you to write a book about how Christians can think faithfully about guns?
DR. MIKE AUSTIN: I sort of fell into thinking and writing about this issue, at least from my perspective. Perhaps it was Providence—I hope so! I saw Christians who were so confident about their views, but many of the arguments they offered seemed shallow to me, or at least not strong enough to justify the confidence they had. This is true for people on both ends of the spectrum.
I wrote a few blog posts at my blog at Psychology Today, Ethics for Everyone. I was then invited to take part in a debate in the Christian Research Journal. From there, my interest and involvement in the issue grew. Eerdmans was interested in publishing a book for the general reader, not just other scholars, and I jumped at the chance.
I was motivated to do this because I wanted to work through the relevant biblical material for myself, consider the strongest arguments offered by people for the different perspectives on this issue, and because, as I mentioned above, there was a lot of bad material out there that needed challenging. Finally, in general most books on Christian ethics have little or nothing to say about this. I thought it could serve a good purpose in the church and our broader culture.
MCDOWELL: Is there freedom for Christians to differ on this issue, or do you think there is a "correct" biblical position?
AUSTIN: Well, to be honest, that is a difficult question for me. In one sense, I believe that there is a correct answer, that God really does have a view on these issues. And I’ve tried my best to represent what that might be, what I think it probably is. But as you might guess from what I just said, the correct view is not crystal clear. There are important theological, biblical, and philosophical arguments in support of different perspectives on this issue. There is freedom to differ here, compared to things that are more clearly right or wrong as delineated in the Bible, such as the immorality of murder, adultery, and greed, and the importance of faith, hope, and love.
What is vital for us to understand is that using a proof-text like Luke 22:35-38 to support pro-gun arguments or Matthew 5:38-39 to support pacifist arguments for reducing access to guns is insufficient. Too many Christians quote a verse and then make the jump to their favored position on the issue, and it’s just not that simple. I’ve done my best to look at the different passages of Scripture people employ in support of their view, and analyze the arguments and interpretations people have offered. In fact, I devote a chapter to this in the book. While I’m not a pacifist, the time I spent researching for the book moved me in that direction.
I am confident enough in the views I defend in the book, that I’ve become involved in the political process. With others, including NRA members, members of Moms Demand Action, and The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, I’ve met with the staff of several United States Senators to offer solutions that can reduce gun violence, while protecting the right to bear arms. In part, this is because whatever your view, we can all agree that with rights come responsibilities. That can sometimes get lost in the gun debates, but it is something I believe all followers of Christ can and should agree upon.
MCDOWELL: People often say, "Guns don't kill people. People do." What's your thoughts about this popular saying?
AUSTIN: There is something at least intuitively plausible about this, and I discuss it at length in the book. There is something to this, but it certainly misses some important things. In fact, people with sinful hearts will use guns to kill, but those who don’t have such sin in their hearts will not. We cannot simply legislate morality into the human heart. More restrictive gun laws will not change the heart. As some say, even if we could effectively restrict access to guns on a wide scale, people would still murder other people. They’d use knives or follow Cain’s lead and use a rock.
However, there are several problems with this popular saying. Let’s look at two.
First, it poses a false dilemma. Why think that the problem is either a heart problem or a gun problem? It is pretty clear that guns and people are the problem. Guns don’t kill people, but people do kill people with guns. And guns make it easy to do so, much easier than any other tool that is widely available to the general public in the United States. One reason that ownership of fully automatic firearms is mostly illegal is because we are flawed. Creatures like us, with the nature we possess, should not have the power to kill or maim large numbers of people with relative ease. Many guns are specifically designed to kill large numbers of human beings in a short period of time, with ease. This is not the case for knives, baseball bats, or rocks.
On the same day as the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a man attacked and stabbed twenty-two children and one adult at a primary school in China. While this shows that laws will not prevent all violent crime, it does highlight an important difference between guns and knives. All the victims of the knife attack in China survived. Twenty-six people died at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Second, the fact that humans have a sin problem actually supports the argument for more rational and restrictive gun laws, and reveals a flaw in the idea that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Given our fallen nature, surely we should not allow easy access to weapons that make it easy to kill lots of people quickly. If laws are not at all relevant to changing human hearts, or at least to restricting the human ability to do evil, then why do some support laws restricting abortion? Why do others support laws concerning prejudice based on race or gender? After all, even with such laws in place, abortions will still occur, and prejudice remains alive and well.
Laws can contribute to our moral education. The law can also function to deter us from making some choices, even if our hearts remain unchanged. Laws can protect others from the harm we might do apart from their restraining power. The same justifications exist for guns. Of course, gun laws cannot unilaterally change the human heart. But they can make it more difficult for that fallen heart to express its evil intentions through the barrel of a gun. Laws can make it more difficult for people to kill people. And that’s a goal all Christians ought to share.
MCDOWELL: What is the intersection of guns and the gospel?
AUSTIN: That’s a very good question, and one that would take more space than we have here to give a full response. To begin with, Christians need to look at the teachings of Scripture, including those of Jesus during his time on our planet, and ask ourselves some very pointed questions about the relationship between our faith and guns. Too often, Christians simply parrot the sound bites of the NRA, or the sound bites of the opponents of the NRA, rather than offering a uniquely Christian perspective on these issues. Moreover, too many of us point to the Second Amendment as if that settles the issue. While it does settle the issue in terms of the law in America, it does not settle the issue for Christians. We look to God and the Bible to settle such issues, as far as possible.
In the book, I argue that we should opt for peacebuilding, a view that lies in between the just war view that gives several conditions for when violence is justified, and the extreme pacifist view, which states that violence is never justified. In short, peacebuilding recognizes that violence may be necessary in our fallen world, but we too often put our trust in it, rather than in more creative ways to resolve conflict. One aspect of the foundation of this view is found in Romans 12:18, which says “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Too often, we don’t fulfill the command here. We too quickly turn to violence, including violence with a gun. Peacebuilders don’t ask, “Is violence justified in this situation?” Rather, they ask better and more Christian questions:
- “How can we avoid violence, even if it is justified?”
- “Is this a case where it is God’s will that I sacrifice my life, or refuse to use violence in defense of others?”
- “What can be done to reduce violence?”
Finally, one of the beautiful fruits of the gospel is the moral and spiritual transformation we can experience in our union with Christ. Our character can be transformed, and it should be, as we follow Jesus in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. The gospel, then, would pose the following question related to guns: What is the impact on our character as followers of Christ of owning a gun? Training to kill people with a gun? Carrying a gun? The question of character is often ignored in the gun debates, and it shouldn’t be.
MCDOWELL: Should people bring guns to church? Why or why not?
AUSTIN: Generally, I don’t think so. There is plenty of psychological evidence that we tend to overestimate our abilities to respond well in a crisis. There are many stories of people making mistakes and killing innocent people they mistook for intruders or some other kind of threat. If you carry a gun anywhere, including church, you are saying that you are ready and willing to take the life of another person, and to risk killing innocent bystanders. That is reality, and such a decision must be entered into carefully, prayerfully, and by employing the wise counsel of others. You certainly shouldn’t bring a gun to church without consulting your church leadership on this issue, and ought to submit to their decision.
But it must be said that there are cases where people who have brought guns to church have used them to protect their fellow church members. The deacon in Texas who shot and killed a shooter in his church was also a former reserve sheriff’s deputy and firearms instructor. To me, that’s key. He was trained. My own preference, if a church is going to have one or more armed individuals present, is that it be a police officer or similarly trained individual. My church pays an off-duty officer to do this. I recognize that some churches don’t have this option. If they decide as a body of believers to have guns in church, it should only be a few, and those who carry should be highly trained.
Given all of this, my preference is that when we meet to worship the Prince of Peace, we do so without firearms. But I understand why others disagree with this view.
MCDOWELL: Practically speaking, what kinds of changes do you think Christians should support in terms of gun control?
AUSTIN: There are many possibilities here, and we need to do more research and think more deeply about the causes of gun violence if we are to reduce it. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all fix to gun violence in America. With that in mind, there are some things I believe Christians ought to support.
First, we should focus on building good communities. Often people turn to violence out of desperation, or poverty, or psychological issues, or family issues. If the church could provide a place for people’s physical, spiritual, and psychological needs to be addressed, this would go a long way to reducing gun violence.
Second, we should implement a federal extreme risk protection order law (commonly called a “red flag law”). Several states have done so, and these have been successful. The state of Maryland has done so, and it initially appears to be very effective. This law allows police officers, family members, or health care professionals, to make a legal request that firearms be temporarily removed from potentially dangerous individuals by the courts. In roughly half of the cases, a final order was issued. This means that the guns are not immediately returned to their owners, who may be banned from purchasing or owning a gun for one year. In cases where a mental health problem is involved, and the individual receives treatment or medication, the guns are returned. According to Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, “These orders are not only being issued appropriately; they are saving lives.” Five of the first 302 requests under the new law involved possible school shootings. A federal firearm restraining order system similar to Maryland’s can and should be created.
Finally, there are several technological solutions that should be developed and use. One easy solution, aimed at preventing easy access to guns in the home, is the gun safe. But if one wants quick access to a gun in a self-defense scenario in the home, opening the safe may take too long. There are emerging technologies for smart guns, which employ biometric technology or an RFID (radio-frequency identification)
“key” that unlocks the gun, enabling it to fire. This has an added advantage. Stolen guns with this type of technology could not be fired. In addition, gun accidents would decrease, and suicidal teens wouldn’t be able to use their parents’ guns to kill themselves. The Bison Fingerprint Trigger Lock also looks promising. This trigger lock falls immediately after the owner places his finger on the lock. The ease and speed at which this lock works mean that it can be used quickly in self-defense, and the lock also prevents people other than the owner from firing the gun. And perhaps most importantly, given the fact that the reason most Americans say they own a gun is for self-defense, effective but nonlethal weapons should be developed for that purpose.
Ultimately, we must pray, love God and our neighbors, and do all that we can to create a culture where every single life is valued because of our inherent dignity as human beings made in the image of God. This should motivate us to do whatever we can to reduce all violence, including gun violence, in our nation and around the world.
Please think about joining me and Mike for a live discussion as we discuss this topic further on Sunday night, June 7, at 7pm PST on my YouTube channel: (https://www.youtube.com/user/Seanmcdowell76)