By Karen E. Park 7-21-2016

Gun violence has become so ubiquitous in the U.S. that it is changing the very way we talk about our country. The names of our cities and towns have become shorthand terms for gun death: Orlando, Newtown, Dallas, Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Columbine, Aurora.

None of us wants this, yet our positions regarding guns as objects and what to do about them are sharply divided. One side says simply that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In other words, guns are inert objects that can only be harmful when used by human beings with the intent to harm. In this worldview, guns themselves are not the problem. The problem is human behavior, to be specific — human morality.

On the other side, the position taken by many Democrats and most progressives is that there are too many guns in American society, they are too easy to obtain, and that curbing gun violence depends on reducing access to guns.

Both sides are convinced that their position is both rational and correct, and it is easy to see why. It is indeed objectively true that guns cannot fire themselves, and that left unloaded on the top shelf of the closet, they will stay there harming no one. But it is also demonstrably true that many, many incidents involving human commonplaces such as anger, intoxication, mental illness, and overall impulsivity and poor judgment would NOT have lead to death without the ready availability of guns.

Because both sides are correct, we can’t convince each other — yet something must be done. Clearly we need to advance the discussion somehow.

The questions of “How might we better understand those who adhere to each view?” and “How can better we talk to someone, either online or in person, who doesn’t share the same position we do?” are paramount if we want to stop the carnage. But the debate has become calcified. There seems to be no opening, no way to let new light in.

What if, instead of remaining stuck repeating the same points (both objectively true) we moved the discussion away from guns themselves, and focus instead on assumptions regarding human nature, assumptions that dwell in the realm of mythical discourse. One side can argue convincingly that guns themselves are not moral agents and should therefore not be regulated, because they believe that there are good people and bad people in the world who are categorically different from one another. One recent piece explores the historical development of the American myth of the “Good Guy with a Gun.” Those of us who study religion know that the term myth isn’t a synonym for “lie.” On the contrary, myths are true. They arise from our deepest beliefs about the world, about who we are, who God is, and how God relates to us. They explain our deepest fears, answer our most profound questions.

Let’s think about why one side remains so stubbornly keen to distinguish between “law-abiding gun owners” and “criminals” when examples abound of murders committed by “law-abiding citizens” who buy guns legally and then use them to kill. The distinction between “law-abiding” and “criminal” people relies on the underlying belief, based in a powerful myth, that there is a fundamental difference between “good people” and “bad people.” Good people can be trusted with guns because they will only use them for righteous purposes (because of their ineffable yet unchangeable goodness). Bad people are the only ones who do bad things with guns. Bad people are fundamentally and ontologically different from good people.

It matters little to point out that there is actually no such thing as a “good guy” with a gun or a “law-abiding gun owner.” After all, every criminal is “law abiding” right up until he commits his first crime. I am law abiding today, but why does that mean I will remain so in perpetuity? I have agency; I can choose right and wrong each minute of each day. But my neighbors who insist that “good people” and “bad people” are fundamentally different and therefore want to arm good people and disarm bad people do not share the same ideas about agency with those who see human nature as less starkly divided. Implicit understandings of both God and humanity are behind this, which is to say the two sides have different myths. If my myth reveals an all-powerful God and a world where “everything happens for a reason” then of course human agency is limited. People are either good or bad and God is mostly in control. But if God doesn’t exist or exists but is instead imagined as a mystery, a being who works through creative processes and loving engagement rather than overt control, then human agency is maximized and the hard divisions between the “good people” and the “bad people” will be blurred. A mostly good person in a state of rage or despair might choose to a terrible thing on a particular afternoon, and limiting his access to guns will limit the damage he can do.

The point is that instead of asking ourselves and our politicians “Where do you stand on gun control?” we should be asking each other “What do you think about human nature?” or “Who do you think God is and how does God interact with the world?” We may still not agree, but these would at least be more interesting discussions. They may even be more fruitful. Knowing and acknowledging each other's deepest truths, even if we don’t change them, could be a place to let some light into a discussion that has dwelled in utter darkness as of late.

Karen E. Park is a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. Her interests include American religious history and sacred space.

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