“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?”
This was the question asked by a distraught President Joe Biden in the wake of the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two adults.
Despite more than 200 mass shootings in 2022, gun reform remains a divisive issue in the United States — and an apparent impossibility in the current political climate.
The debate has a religious dimension, too, though it is more complex than it may first appear.
While white evangelical Protestants are some of the strongest supporters of gun rights, not all religious Americans feel the same way.
In fact, faith groups are at the forefront of both sides of the gun control debate – playing roles that observers describe as “both helpful and harmful”.
A God-given right to bear arms
For some, gun ownership is bound up with ideas of identity and personal liberty.
“White Protestants have relatively high rates of gun ownership and also tend to be much more opposed to gun control than people from other religious groups,” says David Smith, an associate professor at the United States Studies Centre.
Gun ownership is particularly important to Christian nationalists, a group that fuses Christian faith with civic and national identity.
Accounting for around 16 per cent of the population, the most extreme adherents of this conservative movement are comfortable with using authoritarianism and violence to enforce social order, says Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Republican senator Ted Cruz’s comment in the wake of the Uvalde shooting that “what stops armed bad guys is armed good guys” sums up a popular Christian nationalist position.
In a worldview where “violence is a given”, says Whitehead, guns are essential to protect society.
This belief forms the basis for the argument proposed by some, such as Texas Attorney-General Ken Paxton, to arm school teachers and administrators to prevent school shootings.
Christian nationalists see sin as the problem, not guns, says Smith.
The sacred Second Amendment
Many Christian nationalists also believe the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution — including the Second Amendment, a document ratified in 1791 which protects the right to keep and bear arms — are divinely inspired documents.
“They believe that it was God’s will to ensure that each American has the right to bear arms and defend themselves if necessary or to hold a government, a federal government, in check,” says Whitehead.
He says that when asked which rights they most want to protect, Americans who embrace Christian nationalism nominate the right to bear arms over other foundational freedoms such as religious or press freedom.
Among Americans for whom faith, identity and gun ownership are so closely entwined, opposition to any form of gun control is a deeply held value.
Many attribute the Republican Party’s unwillingness to back even popular “common sense” reforms such as mental health checks to the sway of the gun lobby, notably the National Rifle Association (NRA), a group with close ties to Christian nationalism.
As a result, he says, the NRA is “able to ensure that these elected officials will do their bidding rather than the bidding of the American public”.
The role of faith groups in the gun debate
Not all faith groups in America identify with gun culture.
Reflecting the fact that Black Americans are the most common victims of gun violence, “Black Protestant churches have been at the forefront of gun control movements in the United States,” notes Smith.
Gun violence directly affects many faith communities, which serve as places of mourning and support networks for victims.
Houses of worship, including churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, have also been the targets of numerous mass shootings.
Many faith-based organisations — including the Brooklyn-based 67th Precinct Clergy Council, the LIVE FREE Campaign, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Episcopal coalition Bishops United Against Gun Violence — are actively involved in reducing gun violence in the US.
In 2020, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund launched an Interfaith Advisory Council comprised of 18 religious leaders to support “gun sense candidates” in elections.
Many faith-based groups lobby state and federal governments to enact gun reforms. Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, an alliance of more than 50 faith groups, has called on the US Congress to pass legislation banning military-style weapons and gun trafficking.
Some groups target retailers. In 2017, Mercy Investment Services — the investment arm of the Sisters of Mercy — successfully lobbied Dick’s Sporting Goods to raise the minimum age of gun purchase to 21 and cease selling assault rifles.
Others sidestep the political debate to directly engage with communities to reduce gun violence. Together Chicago deploys faith-based volunteers to work with law enforcement, pastors and community leaders to connect with at-risk people in the community through street outreach and targeted family interventions.
‘People are far more vigilant’
The Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC) is a Chicago-based coalition established in 2020 in response to the rise of anti-Asian violence that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In one incident in 2021, a gunman targeted Asian women in a shooting spree in Georgia, Atlanta, killing eight people and injuring one.
AACC president and co-founder Pastor Raymond Chang believes the gun violence epidemic is having a profound effect on communities.
“Kids are asking questions about whether they’re safe to go to school,” he says.
People are questioning “whether they should go to church on Sunday or to the mall … [they’re] far more vigilant as they navigate life in society.”
Chang says faith groups “play both harmful and helpful roles in the gun debate”.
Basic gun reforms such as mandatory background checks have majority support among Americans, including white evangelicals. Bans on assault rifles, however, are more divisive.
“In a lot of states in the US, it’s easier to buy guns than it is to buy beer … and you have to ask why that’s the case.
Some groups, he says, particularly conservative white evangelicals, “view individual freedom and rights as the ultimate aim in life … to the point where they’re willing to overlook a lot of the harm done through gun violence in order to preserve it.”
Editor’s note (June 7, 2022): This story has been edited to remove a reference to a shooting in Laguna Woods, California, as a being perpetrated by a white supremacist. This was inaccurate. Authorities have stated it was a politically motivated attack.
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