Fostering love, not fear

For her June 2023 editorial, Teri McDowell Ott goes to her local gun shop to learn a different perspective. Afterwards, she wrestles with fear and love.

Teri McDowell Ott reads “Foster love, not fear.”

“Keep calm and carry,” my neighbor’s bumper sticker read. Not a sentiment I shared. I am not calm around guns. I did not grow up with them. Until the writing of this editorial, I’d never held a gun. My hands shake when I’m nervous, and guns make me nervous. More than enough reason to steer clear.

As the epidemic of American gun violence accelerates, I – like many of you – feel called to learn and do more. Thoughtful Christian scholars and Presbyterian peacemakers have informed my views as well as a West Point graduate who led an infantry platoon through murderous combat in Afghanistan. And recently, I visited a gun store in my community. We can’t solve any social problem by standing in our respective corners, trying to shout each other down. Dehumanizing my “keep calm and carry” neighbor as a gun-loving monster just perpetuates more violence.

“Liberty Arms” – the name of the store – spoke to me of the ideology I’d find inside. The store’s website advertised a “Faith and Freedom” shooting event at a local firing range. I doubted the people who shopped at Liberty Arms or attended its events understood the nuances of Christian nationalism and the dangerous way love of country easily bleeds into and over love of God. Idolatry is difficult to recognize when it is draped in the powerful, beloved symbol of the American flag.

A golden lab greeted me as I entered the store, offering me her dog toy and begging to play. A White woman with a Virginia accent stood behind a glass counter showcasing revolvers. More women are buying guns than ever before, I learned. I could buy a pistol in any color, to accessorize any outfit, small enough to conceal in my purse.

We can’t solve any social problem by standing in our respective corners, trying to shout each other down.

When I introduced myself as a writer, the woman stiffened, quickly deferring to her manager. I tried to calm her obvious fear of the pen and notebook in my hand, explaining that I just wanted to learn more about gun ownership in general. But the manager, Josh, emerged — a White man, maybe in his 30s, with a semi-automatic handgun clipped to his belt.

“Gun owners don’t like to talk to reporters,” Josh said. But he was kind enough to answer my questions about guns, background check processes, and sales trends. He placed the most popular purchase in my hand, a 9mm Sig Sauer P365 selling for $560.

Yes, my hand shook.

I quickly handed it back, nodding to a long row of what I called “assault rifles.”

Josh corrected me. The AR in AR-15 stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” named after the original manufacturer. The military turned down ArmaLite’s original gun, so the design rights were sold to Colt Industries. Colt remade the weapon as the M-16, which became the standard-issue automatic rifle for Vietnam War troops. A semiautomatic version was created for law enforcement and the public — the AR-15. Both rifles can shoot 30 rounds effectively (meaning lethally hitting the target) 600-800 meters – about 1968.5-2624.67 feet – away. For comparison, the effective range of a 9mm handgun is 25-45 meters, about 82-147 feet.

To put the dimensions into perspective, consider this: including the end zones, the length of a football field is 360 feet.

“Why do people buy AR-15s?” I asked Josh.

His answer: “Because they’re a lot of fun to shoot.”

It’s not about the gun, it’s about the killing

The sale of these AR-15s “disgusts” Afghan war veteran Eric Hanson. “Who gives a shit about their fun?” he said. “That guy can get a new hobby.”

Eric isn’t anti-gun. As he puts it, he’s “anti- human being-killing gun.”

“Guns, in general, are a tool,” he explained. “Shotguns are for waterfowl and rifles are for coyotes, and assault rifles are for killing people. That’s their purpose. And they’re highly effective.”

Eric lived with his M4 assault rifle at arm’s reach for over a year in Afghanistan. He went through extensive arms training before his deployment. “People have no idea how inexperienced they are. We, as civilians, can’t handle this tool. All the mass shootings are evidence of this. If people really want to carry an assault rifle and kill somebody, then they need to enlist and risk their life.”

Eric’s words reminded me of Biblical scholar David Lincicum’s chapter in God and Guns: The Bible Against American Gun Culture where he writes about how our technology and tools shape and change us. Lincicum quotes the French philosopher Bruno Latour, writing, “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it.” I read these words to Eric, and they struck a nerve.

“You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it.”

Eric describes his life post-Afghanistan as a farmer and proud father of a 2-year-old daughter as “so, so good.” But the war, and the killing our country required of him, still haunt him.

Eric choked back painful emotions as we spoke. “It’s not about the gun, it’s about the killing. When you have the gun, you know you can do that. Like, it feels good. In combat, the first couple seconds are bad. Cause they always shoot at you first. That’s just the way it goes. They ambush you. If you’re not shot immediately, then pretty much you’re good. And then you just go about your business of trying to kill ‘em. That’s what those guns are for … killing people.”

The Outlook published Eric’s journal from his time in Afghanistan in our October 2021 issue on supporting veterans. I’m grateful for Eric’s honesty, his willingness to talk about the darkest, most painful aspects of war. This tall, strong, articulate man can’t keep himself from crying when he speaks of it.

In our debate over guns, I never hear people speak about the soul-crushing consequences of taking a human life. Our fear of death leads many to buy and carry a gun. Maybe we should be more afraid of the killing. Fear emerges as the through-line in all my conversations about guns. We are a people afraid, taking matters (and guns) into our own hands. The customers buying guns at Liberty Arms fear death for themselves and their loved ones, loss of property and possessions — and fear people they believe will do them harm.

At Liberty Arms, racial identity was a clear aspect of our conversation. Josh informed me of his right not to sell to anyone he deems “sketchy.” When I asked Josh what “sketchy” meant to him, the gun store manager stumbled over his words, confessing, “I don’t know the ‘right’ words for them.” I won’t publish the words he used — but they were clear references to people of color and immigrants. “A lot of people are scared,” Josh added, noting his accelerating sales.

Fear is something I understand, and White people need to be more honest about the fear of Black people embedded in our brains and bodies; the illogical fear that turns a bass clarinet-playing Black boy who mistakenly knocks on a White neighbor’s door into a life-threatening Black adult male. But Andrew Lester’s racist fear would not have threatened Ralph Yarl’s life had Lester not answered the door with a gun in his hand.

As a fearful people, we are trapped in a vicious cycle. We buy guns because we are afraid. More guns lead to more gun violence, which makes us more afraid, leading us to buy more guns. This fear is blinding us to the facts. Clear data proves we are less safe with a gun in our home, on our belt or in our purse. Many gun owners lack the education and training to respond clearly in a crisis. As Tyler Austin Harper reports in Slate, “Nearly 40 percent of gun owners report having no prior gun safety or live-fire training.” We are a strangely “gun-casual” population, treating lethal weapons as talismans to assuage our fears, rather than as Eric Hanson’s “tools.”

I wonder, can we dare sit with our fear? Can we follow its thread – gently and humanely – to its root source? Who benefits from keeping our fear inflamed? Who is capitalizing from all this killing? Healing can only begin when we are willing to touch the wound.

I wonder, can we dare sit with our fear? Can we follow its thread – gently and humanely – to its root source? Who benefits from keeping our fear inflamed? Who is capitalizing from all this killing? Healing can only begin when we are willing to touch the wound.

People of faith can be helpful here, not only because we worship a God who commands “You shall not kill” and a nonviolent Savior who admonished the disciple trying to defend him with a sword, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” But also, there’s power in seeking the truth of who and whose we are. We belong to God — each and every one of us. We need not be so afraid. We need not fashion idols for our protection. Our faith calls us to foster love, not fear. And love does not show up armed to kill. Rather, love is armed with the courage to explore the root of our pain, to examine and confess our fear, and to nurture the flourishing of life — not its taking.