The 6-2 ruling in Voisine v. U.S. upholds a federal law that prohibits any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from owning a firearm.
The case was brought by two men convicted of misdemeanor assault under state law and later charged with federal crimes for possessing firearms. The plaintiffs, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, argued that their crimes did not count under federal statute because their crimes were reckless, not intentional or knowing.
SITTING AT A DINING-ROOM TABLE full of fellow evangelical pastors, I asked how many were “carrying” (a euphemism for being armed with a concealed handgun). They all raised their hands. Then I asked, “What determines when you draw your gun and prepare to shoot another human being?” There was awkward body language and mumbling. After a few seconds passed, one older man said, “I’ll tell you what determines whether I draw the gun or not. It’s the man’s skin color.”
I was left speechless by the pastor’s jarring, blatant racism. Still, as respectfully as possible, I asked him to please clarify what he meant.
“Well, we got a big city nearby, and, you know, the black people there are always killin’ people. Now, if a colored man comes into this county, I know he means trouble because he knows he doesn’t belong here. That makes him more dangerous than a white man. That’s why I’d pull my gun.”
The man who was speaking, and the others nodding their heads in agreement, are my colleagues. I am one of them when it comes to a statement of faith—but not when it comes to race and guns.
‘Surrendering my life to Christ’
When I speak of evangelicals, I am speaking of my own. I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ as my lord and savior 42 years ago. I attended an evangelical Bible college and seminary and was ordained as an evangelical minister. I poured myself into evangelism and disciple-making. Today I’m a missionary to top government officials in Washington, D.C., and I chair one of the oldest associations of evangelical clergy in the country. I love my Lord, I love his people, and I love doing God’s work.
Meaning happens when the purposes of the writer come together with what the reader thinks is important. Since all aspects of any one thing cannot be perceived all at once, we focus our attention on this or that aspect of a thing depending upon what we want to achieve. This is why we can read a particular text many times and find new insights each time.
This is also why we cannot agree on what the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution means. The amendment reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Many of us who support restriction on the kind of guns and the size of ammunition magazines that private citizens can own focus attention on the clause, “a well regulated Militia.” On the other hand, many who do not support restrictions on the kinds of guns private citizens may own focus attention on the clause “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
How did this gun-owner-since-he-was-eight find himself at a prayer vigil to end gun violence on the steps of the Michigan state capitol? The easy answer is that Michigan Prophetic Voices, a nonpartisan, statewide organizing clergy group invited me to be there. But I had another reason.
In my family owning a gun was explained as a rite of passage, not as a Second Amendment right. When my father handed me my first gun he said, "You are old enough now to learn how to use this safely. There is one thing you have to promise me: never point it at anyone. If you do, I will take it away for good." I made the promise.
The man who said those words had heard different words from his father. "Never steal another man's property," my grandfather had told my dad, "and if it's yours, you fight like hell to keep it."
Those words shaped events of an early August morning in the 1970s when both of those men leveled shotguns at would-be burglars in the family business and, out of fear for their own lives, fired. One of those 20-something men was killed.
We know we are addicted to something when that behavior damages our relationships with people. When alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, or work is more important than mother, father, husband, wife, child, friend, or neighbor, we know we have a problem. Similarly, we know that we are worshipping an idol when a created thing becomes more important than the Creator, when we put our faith in our fears and a dead thing that cannot love us back becomes the object of our ultimate concern. We know we are worshipping an idol when our devotion fails to cause us to love and to respect our neighbor.
In a Connecticut hearing about gun violence, Neil Heslin — a father whose son died in the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School —asked why any one individual citizen needs military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. People in the room answered by quoting the Second Amendment. In this case, the Second Amendment was more important than this father’s pain. Their lack of respect for his pain indicated a deficit of both compassion and love, not only for this grieving father but for a grieving nation.
Let us be clear. The Second Amendment is not holy writ, and a gun is not God. Far too many Americans have made these created things, these inanimate objects more important than the compassion we ought to have for one another. This is fetishism. This is idolatry. This is morally wrong.
So you might think that religious folks for the most part are not big fans of guns, and for the most part you’d be right.
And then you run across these comments from a California legislator, who said guns are “essential to living the way God intended.” That was Rep. Tim Donnelly, who told a Christian radio show Jan. 16 that guns “are used to defend human life. They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom.”
Well, yes, guns are used that way. They are used in lots of other ways too — to kill people we don’t like, to hold up banks, to commit suicide. It’s harder to wrap those under the banner of God’s intent.
For Christians, it’s hard to square the deification of guns with Jesus telling his followers to put away their swords, even as he was being arrested and led off to death.
That’s why a wide coalition of religious voices are speaking out in the great national debate about how we can live up to the Second Amendment’s call for having a “well-regulated militia.” Notice the words “well-regulated.”
As the Very Rev. Gary Hall, the new dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., said two days after the horrific shootings at Newtown: “I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”
I spent all day Saturday at a middle-school debate tournament. My seventh-grade son Luke loves being on his middle school baseball team, but also on the debate team, and this weekend his school competed with ten others. It was fascinating to watch and fun to be there. The topics of debate included statements such as, "All private citizens should be prohibited from owning a hand gun," and "Social media networks should have a minimum age of 18 or older to be a member." They have previously taken up subjects like "Should the U. S. leave Afghanistan?" "Is torture ever justified?" and "Should the Redskins (our local NFL football team) change their name?" Joy and I thought it was pretty cool that a public middle school would even have a debate team, with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders taking up subjects like that, and it helped draw us to Alice Deal Middle School.