BACK IN 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued this warning: "The religious community must ... take seriously the risk of idolatry that could result from an unwarranted fascination with guns, which overlooks or ignores the social consequences of their misuse." Two decades later, about 660,000 more Americans have been killed by guns, with a million more injured.
These figures convince me that what was a risk in 1990 has become our reality today: For too many, guns have become idols. They claim divine status; make promises of safety and security they cannot keep; transform people and neighborhoods; create enemies; and require human sacrifice.
Not all gun owners have permitted their guns to become idols or absolutes. In fact, a recent poll shows most gun owners and NRA members, in contrast to public perception, believe personal freedom and public safety are complementary, not contradictory. But those few who hold the microphone at the NRA (the wealthy manufacturers and the gun zealots who do their bidding) have permitted their fascination for guns to supplant God and God's requirements for human community.
An idol's followers boldly claim divine status for it. Former NRA executive Warren Cassidy was clear when he boasted, "You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world." Not to be outdone, Charlton Heston, during a speech as NRA president, intoned, "Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel—something that gives the most common man [sic] the most uncommon of freedoms, when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty."
To turn away from the idolatry of guns will require community dialogue, self-examination, and prayer. One part of our response should also be to enact common-sense gun laws—which, when they have teeth, are very effective. We in the U.S. need two new federal laws, which would almost guarantee an immediate, dramatic decline in gun violence. The first needed law is a renewed ban on the sale of assault weapons. Good citizens have no need for guns that can rapidly fire up to 150 rounds without reloading and are designed to kill great numbers of people in close-quarter military combat. These are the weapons of choice for deranged individuals who are determined to kill. They must be banned in America forever.
A second common-sense law would require all gun purchasers to undergo an instant background check. This is technically feasible today, but it has not been implemented because the Gun Empire considers any law, however wise or minimal, to be a coordinated attempt to confiscate their weapons. Such a law would eliminate the many sales by unlicensed dealers at America's 5,000 gun shows—dealers who can, in most states, legally sell any weapon to any person with no questions asked. It's simply cash and carry.
I make no claims of certainty in determining whether or not a particular individual's spirit has been converted by an idol, but for 37 years I have observed individuals who grow threatened and angry when gun values are questioned; who show little grief for society's gun victims; who oppose any preventive measures to stop gun violence; and who believe the solution to gun violence is to arm more people. I am confident that such traits indicate that people are, at least, struggling with idolatry as they turn a human-made thing into an absolute that challenges the requirements of the living God. As Jesus taught us, we cannot serve two masters.
James E. Atwood, a retired Presbyterian pastor, is a gun owner, author of America and its Guns: A Theological Exposé, and chair of the Greater Washington chapter of the anti-gun- violence group Heeding God's Call.
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