Do God And Guns Go Together?

Today’s Des Moines Register contains a Letter to the Editor that sums up everything that works and doesn’t work for people who are trying to figure out a way to reduce the violence caused by guns.  The author, who identifies himself as a practicing Catholic, comments positively on an earlier letter from a reader who did not understand how someone could be pro-life and, at the same time, be against ‘common-sense’ measures for gun safety.  To which the writer of this letter opined: “Anyone claiming to be pro-life but silent on gun safety is irrational.”

church2             What the author seems to be saying is that pro-life activists who also identify themselves as gun supporters are crazy, which means that there are an awful lot of crazy people wandering around. The pro-life movement has always found its message receptively received by people who consider themselves to be religiously and socially conservative; i.e., Evangelicals, many of whom, particularly white Evangelicals, also tend to be extremely pro-gun.

Does the fact that someone might hold religious and social beliefs which appear to be inconsistent to someone else make that person a nut?  Or is it possible that what at first glance seem to be inconsistent religious and social beliefs aren’t really inconsistent at all?

Evangelical preachers were wandering around spreading the gospel in colonial times (basically because most were tossed out of England because they criticized the Anglican Church) but the movement really came into its own in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in particular when Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell began to make common cause with the rightward shift of the Republican Party in the years leading up to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.  This period happened to coincide with the emergence of a much more aggressive, politicized NRA leadership following what is referred to as the 1977 Cincinnati ‘revolt.’

Although the Evangelical movement has now spread all over the country and has even shown surprising popularity with inner-city, new immigrant groups, its basic strength has always been in the South among whites who also happen to be the population that overwhelmingly owns guns. And while Evangelical belief is based on a literal interpretation of the Good Book, another strain which runs through the faith is the idea that family safety and security are basic cornerstones of the faith.  That being the case, how could the gun industry and its NRA allies not attempt to promote a narrative which linked guns to protection from crime?

The fact that someone believes in the sanctity of life doesn’t mean they are being inconsistent by promoting at the same time an argument which views owning a gun as a means of preserving life when or if that life is threatened by someone else. Ask any gun owner if he practices proper safety measures and he’ll always say ‘yes.’ Ask the same individual what he would do if someone tried to break into his home and he’ll unhesitatingly tell you that he’ll pick up his gun and blow the bad guy away.  What’s inconsistent about that?

At the beginning of this column I said that there were things which worked and didn’t work for advancing the idea that we need to make a stronger effort to reduce the violence caused by guns. What works is reminding people again and again that no matter how you cut it, more than 120,000 gun injuries each year is simply a cost we shouldn’t have to bear. And it doesn’t work to wait until after the injury occurs, then grab the guy who committed the injury, slam him into a cell and throw away the key.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that just because someone believes a gun doesn’t represent a threat to themselves or anyone else means that such an individual has no honest respect for human life. I long ago decided that what I believe may conform with reality but that’s only because I define reality in a certain way. Which may or may not work for anyone else.

 

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Why Do People Stop Owning Guns? A Possible Answer

Sometimes surprises come from the funniest places, like a study of the relationship between religious belief and gun ownership which turns out to yield possible answers to one of the major points of disagreement in the gun-violence debate. But before we get to the big surprise, let’s spend some time looking at the basic findings of the study itself.  Published by David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest who teaches an undergraduate course on the sociology of guns, this study attempts to create a ‘nuanced’ view of gun owners based on looking at gun ownership relative to religious belief and what Yamane refers to as various forms of religiosity, such as attendance at religious functions and strength of religious beliefs.

church             What Yamane claims to have discovered is that, contrary to what many people believe, evangelical Christians are no more likely to own guns than Catholics, Jews and people who profess no specific denominational orientation at all, although evangelicals are more oriented towards gun ownership than members of mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalian, Methodist, et.al.) But when Yamane talks about gun ownership, it’s very important to understand that he defines a ‘gun’ only as a handgun, basing this choice on the fact that lately more and more Americans state that the primary reason they own a gun is for self-defense.

Yamane’s focus on handguns is an important nuance to inject into the gun debate because the motives that drive people to own handguns, by definition, will be different than the reasons why people own and use long guns whose design and function basically fit the requirements for hunting and sport. And I wish that more gun scholars would follow Yamane’s lead in this respect and nuance their own research to take into account the differences involved  in the ownership of handguns as opposed to the general ownership of guns.

On the other hand, Yamane has to be careful not to push his nuanced methodology too far.  Because as he admits, most gun owners own multiple guns, and the fact that they consider their primary reason for currently owning guns to be self-defense doesn’t mean that they aren’t also buying and using long guns for hunting and sport.  So the fact that someone decides to own a self-defense gun because he doesn’t trust the government to keep him safe, still leaves open the question as to why that same person owns other types of guns. Which makes correlating the reasons for gun ownership with other social or cultural factors a bit more difficult to do.

But let’s leave those issues aside and get to the big surprise which awaits the reader if he/she can wade through the sociological jargon which permeates sections of the text. Yamane states at the outset that gun owners tend to live in rural areas, the South and the Great Plains/Mountain West. But he notes that when these folks move out of those places, the only population which retains the same or higher rate of gun ownership are former residents of rural zones. But what he doesn’t tell us (perhaps the data simply doesn’t exist,) is where these ‘out-migrants’ go to live, because with the exception of former rural dwellers, folks who leave the South or the Midwest and Great Plains show a significant decline in their ownership of guns.

This is a very important finding and may represent a great gift to the gun violence prevention (GVP) community because a major proposition of the gun-control crowd, fiercely contested by the other side, is that more laws help curb gun violence. So if the ‘out-migrants’ caught in Yamane’s data become less involved with guns after they leave the places where they were born and grew up, does this perhaps mean that they are moving into areas which have greater regulation of guns?

The fact is that most states with strong gun regulations also tend to be states with lower per-capita ownership of guns. But which came first – the lack of guns or the tough gun laws?  Too bad the answer to that question still isn’t known.