Our Numbness to Gun Violence Is a Spiritual Failure | Sojourners

Our Numbness to Gun Violence Is a Spiritual Failure

Plush toys on red chairs covered with flowers and candles.
Plush toys on chairs placed in remembrance of the victims of the deadliest U.S. school shooting in nearly a decade at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 29, 2022. REUTERS/Veronica G. Cardenas

Four days. That’s how long researchers have found that people’s sadness and outrage last after each major gun massacre in America. Perhaps this is our own defense mechanism kicking in or maybe we have become far too desensitized to this time loop of horrific gun violence. But anger that dissipates after four days dishonors the lives that are stolen. Four days isn’t enough time to sufficiently process and grieve. And it’s not nearly enough time to galvanize the political will necessary to overcome political fecklessness, particularly the degree to which the GOP remains captive to fierce advocates for gun rights.

In the case of the 22 deaths in Uvalde, public outrage has focused on the significant failure of law enforcement to stop the shooter for over an hour after the first barrage of shots were fired. Media and politicians seem to be in rare agreement that police should have acted sooner, yet this rare consensus overshadows that a young man was able to purchase two AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles just days after his 18th birthday and use these weapons to take the lives of 19 children and 2 teachers. As Christians, we need to wrestle with this as a political and spiritual failure; we claim to love God and yet far too many of us can’t be bothered to care for more than four days, much less disrupt our lives enough to demand real change.

And as the days have passed since the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, the killing hasn’t stopped: According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were at least 15 mass shootings — defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter — over the three-day Memorial Day weekend. The overall national toll of gun violence for those three days is even harder to wrap one’s head around: From 5 p.m. on Friday to 5 a.m. Tuesday, the Gun Violence Archive recorded 209 deaths and 515 injuries from guns. But sadly, the daily toll of gun violence fails to dominate our headlines and captivate our attention, let alone our political priorities.

I confess that I found myself falling prey to the “four days” pattern, slipping into a sense of powerlessness that even two massacres in quick succession might not change the senseless status quo. I feared that talk of sensible gun reform would quickly hit a brick wall of obfuscation by Republicans in Congress. But I kept listening to the heart-wrenching stories of the grieving families. As a father of 9- and 11-year-old sons, I tried to fathom what it must be like to learn that your child’s life was taken so viciously. I listened to the pain and trauma of many parents who had to wait outside the school for nearly an hour, not knowing whether their child was dead or alive. Now many of these parents are attending their own child's funeral. Like many, I felt a sense of dreadful déjà vu as I watched the political debate shift from bipartisan concern to recriminations and stalemate.

But as I felt the sense of resignation start to take hold, I thought of the passage in Hebrews that recounts what has already been done “by faith.” The list is so long, the author runs out of space saying, “… I don’t have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Hebrews 11: 32-34). This passage reminded me we have both the power and responsibility to make this moment different — to break political stalemates, to persevere by faith. To adapt the passage in Hebrews: By faith the people of the United States conquered their despair, legislated sensible gun reform, and gained safer schools and communities; by faith they overcame the stranglehold of powerful gun rights advocates, and turned outrage into ongoing action; by faith they became a powerful force for saving countless lives and routed the forces that prioritize profit over human lives.

To make this vision a reality, we must expose and debunk the lies that so often extinguish efforts around sensible gun control:

  • When pundits argue that gun rights are a sacred and unrestrained constitutional right, we must remind them that even conservatives like former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recognized that the government had the right to restrict individual gun ownership in some cases, famously writing in a 2008 decision that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
  • When politicians lie about the ability of background checks and stricter age requirements to prevent many mass shooting, we must flood their phone lines with evidence that these policies could save lives.
  • When someone in our church says that access to guns makes us safer, we must point to the truth that having a gun provides no defensive advantage in a criminal interaction.
  • When someone says, “Well, the real crisis is mental health,” we can remind them that there are many factors to lead to gun violence, including young men who have been radicalized to extremist ideology like white supremacy. We can also remind them that people with mental illness only contribute to a very small percentage of gun violence incidents in the United States.
  • When conservative radio hosts spread fear that gun control advocates want to eliminate the Second Amendment and take away all people’s guns, we can inform them that sensible gun control laws would still enable responsible adults to own guns for hunting or personal safety.
  • And when anyone dares say there isn’t popular support for sensible gun control, we need to say — loudly — that that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor: 88 percent of Americans support universal background checks, 80 percent support age requirement of 21 to purchase a gun, 80 percent support a three-day waiting period, and 67 percent support banning assault-style weapons.

We must also unmask the spiritual lies that so often undergird our addiction to and obsession with guns, fueling apathy and inaction.

  • We must replace the spiritual lie that some lives are worth more than others and that a right to bear arms somehow supersedes the right to life itself with the biblical truth that every child and person is made in the very image of God and has equal and sacred value.
  • We must debunk the spiritual lie that the best way to restrain evil is for more people to be armed to kill. Instead, we should Jesus’ presumption for nonviolence: “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Second, we must preach, teach, and engage in courageous dialogue about gun violence — even if it is uncomfortable or “divisive” in our congregations; clergy and lay leaders need to be unambiguously in support of sensible gun control and holistic, evidence-based solutions that include greater investments in mental health. I’m grateful for the coalition of interfaith organizations and leaders that came together in the wake of the Uvalde massacre to protest outside of the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston. I’m also looking forward to an upcoming interfaith press conference this Friday here in Washington, D.C., where I will be joining a diverse group of Christian leaders. We will call for an immediate assault weapons ban and pray over a forge at which guns will later be melted down and turned into garden implements.

Third, we must sustain political pressure and elevate gun control to the top of our political priorities. Several states are already moving to strengthen their gun laws in the wake of the recent mass shootings, with New York and New Jersey considering raising the age from 18 to 21 for purchasing long guns like those used in recent massacres. There also seems to be a glimmer of hope within the Senate: Though last week the Senate failed to pass a domestic terrorism bill that sought to respond to the Buffalo massacre, a new round of bipartisan talks on federal gun safety laws is underway as a result of the horror of both Buffalo and Uvalde; though the incremental policies the senate is considering — including background checks and “red flag” laws — are not nearly enough, it would be a long overdue first step.

As we do these things, we should also pray. I believe in the power of prayer to both change hearts and minds and to move mountains. But simply offering “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of gun violence has become empty when those offering these words repeatedly fail to take action. I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah who criticizes those who practice shallow forms of worship that don’t lead to a commitment to address the root cause of injustice: “Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58: 5-6).

Let us only share our thoughts and prayers if they lead to bold and sustained action so that we can see a day when it will be proclaimed that “by faith” we protected our children and communities from the ravages of gun violence.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article used the word “deranged” to refer to the Uvalde shooter; this is a derogatory term that both the Associated Press and the National Center on Disability and Journalism say should be avoided. We have also updated the article to further clarify that mental illness is only responsible for a very small percentage of gun violence incidents in the United States. We want all our work to uphold the highest standards of excellence for journalism, social analysis, and spiritual writing; we apologize for these errors and are grateful for those who brought them to our attention. — Betsy Shirley on June 3, 2022

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