Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died

David Lincicum makes a Christian case for repealing the Second Amendment.

automatic pistol on a black bible

Imagine for a moment a counterfactual history.

The year is 1999, and the nation is reeling from the high school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. A current of political will builds. Leaders on both sides of the aisle put aside their differences and agree that this moment is one of clarity, a harbinger of things to come if they do not act. They know they will face opposition, but they begin to call for the repeal of the Second Amendment. After months of acrimonious debate, the campaign succeeds and the amendment is repealed. The legislation allows current gun owners to keep their arms. But the manufacture of new guns is prohibited, the sale of new or used weapons outlawed, ammunition regulated, and only narrow exceptions allowed.

We the People - United States ConstitutionWhat would a world without the Second Amendment look like? Repealing it certainly would not serve as any talisman to erase hostility and hate. Acts of violence, even acts of mass violence, would still occur. But how many of the more than 300,000 students exposed to gun violence at school would have been spared that trauma? How many of those who have died by firearm suicide – over half of all suicide deaths, as reported on the Prevent Firearm Suicide website – might have survived? How many of the thousands who die every year in accidental shootings might still be alive?

We live in a country that shows no signs of questioning the Second Amendment. The proposal to repeal it strikes some as irresponsibly utopian, sure only to fuel the type of surge in gun purchasing that inevitably follows any move toward gun safety regulation. The notion of repeal strikes others as a dystopian attempt to deprive citizens of one of their most cherished rights. But no one sees it as a realistic outcome. Why not? It’s simple: Our nation’s collective attachment to a lethal instrument carries more weight in public consciousness than all these human costs do.

The Groundhog-Day-like cycle is as predictable as it is tragic. A mass shooting vaults the question of gun access to the forefront of our national consciousness. Talking heads argue about politicizing the issue and point to competing frameworks for understanding why the shooting happened, while political deadlock stymies any meaningful legislative response. Other news overtakes the debate, and the unresolved questions fall silent until the next mass shooting brings them roaring back.

Is this cycle bound to repeat endlessly? Is it time to abandon all hope and resign ourselves to the martial future we have created for ourselves and our children?

Christians are called to imitate a Messiah who laid down his life when he met with unjust violence, rather than taking up arms in his own defense.

As a Christian theologian and a biblical scholar, I am vocationally certain that reflection on Scripture can provide resources for imagining an alternative future. In that spirit, I outline here a Christian case for repealing the Second Amendment, addressed particularly to those Christians who should in principle be the most receptive to a scriptural argument. One might imagine that Christians, as a demographic, would be on the forefront of opposition to guns. While higher religiosity does correlate with greater opposition to gun use, a story in Christianity Today shows White evangelicals and other Christians are still, in fact, more likely to own a gun than are members of other religions or average citizens.

But as a group of biblical scholars convened by Christopher Hays and C. L. Crouch demonstrate in the 2021 essay collection God and Guns: The Bible Against American Gun Culture, the overall shape of the Bible’s witness stands squarely against a celebration of the gun. Even if some Christians occasionally act as though the issue should be settled by a handful of biblical proof texts about swords, the New Testament sketches a clear narrative shape of the Christian life. Christians are called to imitate a Messiah who laid down his life when he met with unjust violence, rather than taking up arms in his own defense.

At the heart of the debate about guns in this country stands the question of rights. The U.S. Constitution confers on citizens the right to bear arms, and that right has been repeatedly expanded through judicial decisions at the local and national levels. But must a right, once granted, be taken up by those who have the right?

When the Apostle Paul wanted to adjudicate a question, in the ancient port city of Corinth, about whether Jesus’ followers should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, he presented the question as an issue of laying down one’s rights. Those who wanted to eat the meat – invoking their knowledge that idols were powerless nonbeings – were correct in their position and could have insisted on eating. But Paul urged them to show deference to those who were troubled by the practice and to act out of love by not eating. In other words, he asked them to give up their rights for the sake of love. Paul went on to offer his own example: He had the right to be paid for his missionary labors, but he laid down that right so that he could offer his message as a gift. And Paul summed up the whole discourse by pointing to the example of Jesus: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

At the heart of the debate about guns in this country stands the question of rights.

This basic pattern repeats throughout the New Testament. Jesus himself refused to call for divine vengeance when he faced his own execution. As the Gospel of Matthew tells it, when Jesus was about to be seized by an armed mob that wanted to haul him to his death, he did not call his disciples to arms. Facing bad guys with swords, he did not call on his friends to play the part of good guys with swords. Rather, he called them to nonviolence and suggested that if he wanted to, he could have overcome this violence with supernatural force: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). But Jesus laid aside his divine birthright and instead laid down his life in love.

The First Letter of Peter reflects on this: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (2:23). This hardly describes a stand-your-ground mentality.

The New Testament defines the shape of Christian life as one long process of conforming to the example of Jesus, a process made possible by the Spirit that transforms the believer into the likeness of the Messiah. That is, the New Testament defines followers of Jesus as those who do what Jesus did and who privilege love of the other above self-preservation. They lay down their own rights to guarantee the flourishing of others, particularly those weaker than themselves.

The responsibility to care for the weak rather than the right to preserve oneself: That is one of the central elements of the moral vision of the New Testament. What kind of political commitments might that inspire?

We live in a country that shows no signs of questioning the Second Amendment.

If all early Christians and other people of goodwill made it their duty to prioritize care for the weak, we should be willing to give up some rights that we enjoy to make that possible. That is, after all, what prioritizing something often entails. The Christian case for repealing the Second Amendment boils down to this: A country without our currently easy access to guns would see fewer firearms deaths, particularly among children and marginalized communities. Gun violence has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children, according to a December 2022 feature in The New York Times Magazine. A May 2022 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that gun violence tends to affect communities of color disproportionately.

Even if the repeal needed decades to reach its full effect – as it almost certainly would, because there are more guns than people in the United States, according to a 2023 article in The Trace – our great-grandchildren could live in a much safer country than we do today. And that preservation of life must be worth more to us than our own self-defense and the feeling of security some gun owners report. (In fact, the National Library of Medicine reports gun owners are more likely to die by a firearm than non-gun owners are.)

This proposal will strike some as Pollyannaish wishful thinking, not least in light of our national psyche’s deeply entrenched attachment to the gun. Gun violence in this country is, at least in part, the result of an ideology that fetishizes an instrument of death and constructs a culture around that organizing symbol. Christians are also part of a culture organized around an implement of death: the cross. But whereas the gun invites one to violently oppose another, the cross beckons one to die with Jesus in other-centered love.

What should we call such an overweening attachment to the gun, even in the face of all the carnage it has wrought? Can we describe that as anything but demonic?

The term “demonic” will strike some as too strong. We have become accustomed to imagining demons as little red cartoon men with pointy sticks that poof into existence at a moment of temptation — or perhaps as the fantastical creatures painted by Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But as the New Testament conceives of demons, what matters about the demonic is that it embodies a force contrary to God’s creative purposes for life, and that force becomes effective through human agency.

In his essay “Healing the Possessed,” the great Tübingen theologian Ernst Käsemann wrote, “The demonic does not emerge in those airy or even higher strata in which astronauts can encounter them today. It always and everywhere emerges in human heads and hearts that disavow their Creator with their knowledge or their ideologies.”

If all early Christians and other people of goodwill made it their duty to prioritize care for the weak, we should be willing to give up some rights that we enjoy to make that possible.

Taking seriously the Bible’s injunctions to other-centered love means subjecting our human institutions — whether the U.S. Constitution or the local gun show — to the priority of life. The Apostle Paul thinks of God’s reign as an economy of life, but one competing claims to sovereignty oppose in the service of death, what he refers to as demonic rulers and powers. For Paul, the Messiah has disarmed the rulers and powers not by arming himself, but rather by laying down his life in an act of condescending self-dispossession — and he has summoned his followers to imitate him.

To exorcise a country possessed of a demonic influence, we must pursue a politics of the cross. The cross disarms, and in so doing it shapes a people who cannot take refuge in a right to pick up arms once more.

So do I really think that a push to repeal the Second Amendment could succeed? I am enough of a Niebuhrian realist to think not and instead to aim for some more pragmatic goal, like renewing the assault weapons ban or expanding red flag laws, which provide for extra scrutiny of anyone who meets the criteria for high risk of committing violence with a firearm.

Those are noble goals that should be pursued. But I think we should, at least occasionally, ask ourselves whether we could dream about something more.

11mm bullets for a short gun. bullets isolated on white background.For years I despaired of any meaningful response to gun violence. My despondency peaked after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the eloquent nonaction that followed. But after the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, florida – as the young survivors of that shooting stood to protest a reality that adults would not protest – I felt moved by hope for the first time in years. Maybe my generation, and my parents’ generation, had failed. But these tough, resilient, visionary young people, hardened by the battle zones we let them endure, could carry the cause forward.

The fortitude of this young generation has caused me to ask: What would the full flourishing of our society look like? Not what is the most realistic minor tweak we might somehow push through to make buying a semi-automatic weapon marginally more difficult, but rather, what do we want for our children’s children?

It is time to step back and recognize that the Second Amendment has been a failed experiment and that, as a country, we have reached its reductio ad absurdum. Whatever its theoretical merits might have been, the terrible weight of its unintended consequences should lead us now to reconsider it at the most fundamental level.

As Christians, we should be truth-tellers. The message may be unpopular to some, but it is no less necessary: Christians must lay down their rights for the sake of love and instead advocate a national laying down of rights in service of the preservation of life.