As an Oregonian who grew up deer hunting in Oregon’s forests and fishing in Oregon’s rivers (including the beautiful Umpqua River), I have a deep respect for traditional hunting culture and responsible gun ownership. Like everyone else, I was overwhelmed with sadness at seeing the news of the recent shooting in the beautiful town of Roseburg, Ore. Like so many others who are praying for these families and for this town, I cannot imagine the sense of loss that the Roseburg families are going through right now. I add my prayers to the chorus of prayers; may God help these families and this community through this unspeakable catastrophe.
The Center for American Progress now claims that in 2015 fatalities caused by guns will surpass those caused by cars. For these reasons – and adding in the massive psychological damage caused by gun violence in families and communities — it is not an exaggeration to claim that gun violence is the single greatest domestic problem in the United States today. Gun violence is also, of course, a huge economic burden. Americans spend around $230 billion a year paying for it.
How is it that this young man could have gotten his hands on these deadly weapons? What are the failures in the broader political and regulatory system that enabled this? How can we improve these systems in order to prevent this from happening again? Even though the majority of Americans want to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous or potentially dangerous people, it must be acknowledged that this huge problem — even after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — has not been sufficiently addressed by many of the U.S. leaders who are responsible for precisely these kinds of issues.
In face of this incompetence, it is the responsibility of the citizens, including members of Christian churches and other religious communities, to exercise their prophetic office over against the political order and call for reforms.
There are many foundations upon which such an argument can be made. Such a call for reform can find orientation, for example, in the ancient theological tradition of the common good. The Judeo-Christian tradition calls for a just social and political order in which the innocent, weak, and vulnerable are protected. This is found throughout the prophets (for example, Isaiah 1:17). The sense of concern for the well-being of everyone is also found in Jeremiah 29:7, which calls us to seek the welfare not only for ourselves but for the entire social and political order in which we live.
One of the powerful examples in this tradition is the Book of Lamentations. It was written in the Near Eastern poetic style of city laments. There we read: “For these things I weep...my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16 ESV); “My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city” (2:11); “In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword” (2:21). Echoing through the lament of injustice, through the sorrow of the death of children and the innocent, is a call for justice and the restoration of peace.
Augustine thought of the state as a political body of common values, “the assembly of a rational multitude joined in fellowship by their agreement on the things they love” (City of God). From this language, among other sources, the concept of a common good (bonum commune) was developed. This is a view of the broad social and political order that goes beyond the individual, the specific family, or the special group. It is a way of viewing all of these different elements together as an interconnected social order.
The common good has been understood in tremendously different ways over the centuries. It is articulated in the rabbinic tradition in many places, such as in the “Chapters (or Ethics) of the Fathers” (Pirkei Avot). Here we find an emphasis on the importance of the basic fabric of human life in justice (or judgment), truth and peace – these are the foundations upon which everything stands (1:18). Here we are called to be concerned for the harmony of all of humanity (2:1) and for the community (5:18). The same theme is also found with Thomas Aquinas in the Christian tradition. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas held that “legal justice” was a supreme virtue that “directs all the virtues to the common good.” In the Islamic tradition, the same theme is found. The Quran (4:8-10) calls for the protection of the weak, such as the orphans. The common good is something of central religious importance in all of the traditions.
The same theme of ethical concern for the whole community, or the common good, was also taken into the American political tradition (for example, in the Federalist Papers). Indeed, the common good is at the very heart of the U.S. Constitution, as expressed in the preamble: “in order to...establish justice, insure domestic tranquility...promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity [we]...establish this Constitution...” Surely, if they were alive today, the founding fathers would be calling for the protection of our “domestic tranquility” in an attempt to promote “the general welfare.”
Protecting America’s children is not rocket science, and it is not impossible. Many Western nations have already carried out these reforms. The political bodies of the United States should follow the founding fathers in establishing justice and liberty, in seeking to protect the domestic tranquility, and in walking the fine line between individual freedoms and necessary restrictions for the common good.
They should introduce policy changes to help end the weeping of a nation and the destruction of its children. They should institute and improve background checks that require some kind of psychiatric evaluation, aptitude tests, and safety instructions (especially regarding gun storage and the use of gun locks). They should introduce sliding-scale restrictions that regulate more-dangerous weapons stricter than less-dangerous ones. They should introduce various levels of licenses for gun owners that distinguish between the situations of rural and urban gun owners. They should introduce a buyback program in order to reduce the number of guns in circulation in urban areas. They should delegate some of the important responsibilities in the management of guns to the gun clubs and hunting clubs so that the responsibility for safe gun usage and storage is shared by a broad base of citizens following the principle of the separation of powers.
With measures like these, the United States could quickly close the massive gap between it and the rest of the Western world on the scale of gun violence. Most important, they should make it clear that this is not about “taking away the guns” but about responsibly managing them for the common good, such as for the protection of the children.
How much more innocent blood must be shed before we address the underlying problems? Following the shooting in Roseburg, President Obama was right to draw our attention to the common good, calling it our “common life together.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower also emphasized this theme: “As a leader toward peace in a free world our influence is measured in the demonstrated health of our country – its moral, industrial, social health. Whoever, out of immediate self-interest, damages that health is failing his country – he is hurting himself. The time has come when every significant action that any individual or group of individuals proposes should be gauged and measured in the light of their earnest consideration of national welfare. The opportunist thinks of ‘me and today’ – the statesman thinks of ‘us and tomorrow.’” What would President Eisenhower say today about all of the damage that has been done to the country’s moral and social health through the poor management of guns that enables the death of innocent children?
It would be a disservice to the memory of those lost to gun violence to give up hope in face of a politics of hopelessness. Actions can be taken that honor their memory. Following the prophets, religious leaders could more forcefully address the urgency of this great social problem. Together we can stop gun violence for the common good.