God and gun control: Shootings prompt religious debate

More than 30,000 Americans die each year from gun violence, yet gun control has not emerged as a significant agenda item for faith-based organizations seeking to affect public policy.

In fact, polls show that while the public is still supportive of some gun control laws, Americans are increasingly against further restrictions. 

The Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012, along with the August 2012 shootings in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and in a movie theater in Colorado, reopened the long-standing national debate over gun control. 

But gun control has not emerged as a significant agenda item for faith-based organizations, despite the fact that houses of worship have been periodic targets of gun violence. The attacks also generated a dispute within faith communities about the proper religious response to gun violence.

Background

Throughout the 1990s, gun control emerged as a salient issue, especially in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999 and culminating with the Million Mom March for “sensible gun laws” that took place on Mother’s Day 2000.

Gun control was one of a handful of issues that did not spark the interest that was expected in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, according to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. As an article he co-wrote in December of that year said, “A survey conducted days after the massacre found that just 37 percent of Americans favored a ban on handgun sales, down 10 points from 2000.” By 2011, the figure had dropped even further, to 26 percent.

Houses of worship are themselves not immune to gun violence. Examples, in addition to the August 2012 shooting at the Sikh temple, include:

  • In March 2009, a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., and shot and killed the pastor with a .45-caliber gun.
  • In November 2008, a gunman walked into a church in Clifton, N.J., and shot and killed his estranged wife and a worshipper who rushed to her aid.
  • In July 2008, a man with an apparent grudge against liberals opened fire during a musical at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., killing two and wounding seven.
  • In December 2007, a 24-year-old man opened fire at a missionary training center near Denver and then at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, killing four people in total before shooting and killing himself.

Statements from faith groups

While many religious groups have policy statements decrying gun violence and advocating gun control, those statements are often a decade old or more, and gun control advocates say that few religious groups are making gun control a priority. The push for a faith-based action for gun control is also complicated by the fact that gun ownership and opposition to gun control are part of the religious worldview of many Christians, especially evangelicals and Pentecostals in the South and West. Southern Baptists and Mormons, in particular, are influential voices opposing restrictions on gun ownership.

In 2002, Richard Land, then the chief public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, decried what he called “a long-term assault on your Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”

Here are statements from a representative sampling of major religious organizations and denominations.

Why it matters

The passions surrounding the gun control debate have opened a fissure in American society, a split that also affects religious communities. The toll from gun violence is enormous, and it affects urban, suburban and rural communities. It also affects houses of worship, which have sometimes been the site of shootings.

News articles and research

  • “Will Rick Warren lead a Christian movement for gun control?”

    Read a Sept. 18, 2013, column by Jonathan Merritt on whether Rick Warren might wade into the gun control debate in light of his son’s suicide.

  • “Mental Health Again an Issue in Gun Debate”

    A Sept. 18, 2013, New York Times story discusses the possibility of bipartisan efforts to change mental health policy to help prevent gun violence.

  • “There Have Been More Mass Shootings Since Newtown Than You’ve Heard About”

    A Sept. 17, 2013, infographic by The Huffington Post details 16 mass shootings that occurred nationwide during the first nine months of 2013.

  • “Archbishop calls for us to ‘reach out’ in wake of tragedy”

    Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki condemned the August 2012 shooting at the Sikh temple. He told a local radio station: “None of us are free from evil in the world. There is evil. Individuals have free choice. Hopefully, they’re guided by the sense of devotion to God and justice, but we know that evil touches the lives of every community, sometimes in very tragic ways.”

  • “After Aurora”

    Read an editorial in the Aug. 13, 2012, edition of the Jesuit weekly America calling for more gun control in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., shooting.

  • “Life, assault weapons and consistency”

    Read an Aug. 3, 2012, Associated Baptist Press column on assault weapons, in which Editor Marv Knox says that “This, too, is a pro-life issue.”

  • “On Gun Control and Prohibition”

    New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic who often writes about the religious and moral dimensions of topical issues, has a July 26, 2012, blog post titled “On Gun Control and Prohibition.”

  • “Michael Bloomberg presses President Obama, Mitt Romney on gun control”

    Read a July 25, 2012, Politico article about a coalition of U.S. mayors who are pressing both major presidential candidates to give voters more details about their stances on gun control.

  • “Court upholds Georgia ban on guns in church”

    Read “Court upholds Georgia ban on guns in church,” a July 24, 2012, story by Religion News Service.

  • “Banning guns isn’t the answer”

    Read a July 23, 2012, story at Tablet Magazine, an online Jewish periodical, titled “Banning Guns Isn’t the Answer: Stricter gun-control laws won’t prevent the next mass shooting, but better mental-health policies might.”

  • “Is gun control a religious issue?”

    A July 23, 2012, Religion News Service article explores the question “Is gun control a religious issue?” It’s pegged to a column by the Rev. James Martin, posted by the Jesuit weekly America.

  • “Making Non-Sense of the Colorado Shootings”

    Read a July 22, 2012, essay on Christianity Today’s site, “Making Non-Sense of the Colorado Shootings.”

  • “For Christians, gun control should be a no-brainer. Why isn’t it?”

    Read blogger Ellen Painter Dollar’s July 22, 2012, column on Patheos.com, in which she says that gun control is such a hot-button issue that some people of faith are unwilling to take it on.

  • “Can we talk about guns?”

    “Can we talk about guns?” is a July 21, 2012, blog post at The Christian Century by Richard A. Kauffman. “Could we have a civil conversation about our differences on guns and the deleterious effect of guns in our society?” he writes. “Any chance that churches could start that conversation?”

  • “Religious leaders call for prayer and tighter gun control after Colorado shooting”

    Read a July 20, 2012, RNS article about religious leaders urging tighter gun control, as well as prayer, in the wake of the Colorado shooting.

  • “Confronting our culture of violence”

    Read a July 20, 2012, post at the Daily Theology blog titled “Confronting our culture of violence.” It is by Kevin Ahern, a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. Ahern wonders if “the time is ripe for the US Bishops to clarify and teach how we might address this challenge pastorally and politically?”

  • “Guns and gun control”

    The New York Times maintains a Times Topics page on gun control.

  • “Gun Control: Key Data Points from Pew Research”

    This June 10, 2013, roundup contains results of recent polls on gun control, gun rights and the effect of the Newtown shooting in December 2012.

  • “Record-Low 26% in U.S. Favor Handgun Ban”

    Polls show that despite high-profile shootings and other incidents, the public’s enthusiasm for gun control is waning. Gallup reported that a record-low 26 percent of Americans favored a handgun ban in 2011, and 53 percent opposed banning semiautomatic guns or assault rifles. Most of those polled did want current gun control laws enforced more rigorously, though. Forty-seven percent of U.S. adults owned a gun in 2011, according to Gallup.

  • “Slim Majority of Americans Support Passing Stricter Gun Control Laws”

    An August 2012 survey found that by a large majority, Americans consider the constitutional right to own and carry a gun to be as important as the right to free speech. An even larger majority of those polled, though, voiced opposition to people carrying concealed weapons into houses of worship. What’s more, there was considerable difference of opinion along religious demographic lines about how best to deter gun massacres. The survey was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service.

National sources

Organizations - Gun control advocates

  • The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

    The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was founded by Jim Brady, the former White House spokesman who was wounded in the head during the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981, and Brady’s wife, Sarah. The Brady Campaign says it is “working to reform the gun industry and educate the public about gun violence through litigation and grassroots mobilization.” It is one of the leading voices in the gun control debate and is the umbrella organization for several other groups. One of those is the Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence coalition, established after the January 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Tucson, Ariz. Brendan Kelly is the media contact.

  • Cure Violence

    Cure Violence, an initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, takes a public health approach to reducing violence and strives to change community attitudes as one way to combat the problem. Tactics have included a “Covenant for Peace in Action,” which was joined by more than 170 of the city’s religious leaders. Other cities have adopted the Cure Violence model, and in June 2012 the United States Conference of Mayors affirmed its support for the group’s work. Gary Slutkin is the founder and CEO.

  • The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

    The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is a leading advocacy group that works with faith-based organizations “to secure freedom from gun violence through research, strategic engagement and effective policy advocacy.” Contact media director, Andrew Patrick.

  • Heeding God’s Call

    Heeding God’s Call is a faith-based movement that seeks to end gun violence. Its partner faith communities include Christians, Muslims and Jews. Email through the website.

    Contact: 267-519-5302.
  • The Violence Policy Center

    The Violence Policy Center is a prominent Washington-based lobby that approaches gun violence as “a broad-based public health crisis of which crime is merely the most recognized aspect.” Felicia Feingersch is the media contact.

Organizations - Gun control opponents

  • American Center for Law and Justice

    The American Center for Law and Justice supported the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.” Contact Gene Kapp, media director.

  • The Foundation for Moral Law

    The Foundation for Moral Law, formerly headed by retired Alabama Judge Roy S. Moore, who gained notoriety for his battle to have a Ten Commandments monument installed at the courthouse, has filed amicus briefs in recent high-profile cases involving gun rights. Kayla Moore is president.

  • Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership

    Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership is a Wisconsin-based organization “initially aimed at educating the Jewish community about the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed.” Rabbi Dovid Bendory, also known as “The Gun Rabbi,” is the group’s rabbinic director. Bendory is  a certified NRA  instructor and range safety officer, and his firearms classes include religious and ethical insights on personal defense. He is based in New Jersey.

  • Rutherford Institute

    The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville, Va. It represents clients in religious liberty issues. Contact media liaison Nisha N. Whitehead.

  • The St. Gabriel Possenti Society

    The St. Gabriel Possenti Society, a Catholic group based in Arlington, Va., promotes self-defense through gun ownership and is named after a Catholic seminarian in Italy whose “marksmanship and proficiency with handguns single-handedly saved the village of Isola” from a band of Garibaldi’s nationalist soldiers in 1860. The group claims Possenti as the patron saint of “handgunners.” John Snyder leads the society.

Legal resources

  • FindLaw.com

    FindLaw.com post links to case law and texts. Contact through the website.

  • Supreme Court of the United States

    The official website of the Supreme Court of the United States posts background information about the court, as well as court decisions and arguments.

    Contact: 202-479-3000.
  • United States courts

    The website of the federal judiciary — which includes the U.S. Court of Appeals, district courts and bankruptcy courts — posts court records, judicial statistics and information on judges. Contact through the website.

Individuals

  • George Barna

    George Barna is directing leader of The Barna Group, an evangelical research company in Ventura, Calif. He is author of nearly 50 books and over 100 articles. He is a popular speaker at ministry conferences around the world and has taught at Pepperdine and Biola Universities and several seminaries.

    In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Barna wrote an essay arguing that gun control was not the main issue raised by the massacre, but parental control.

  • Galen Carey

    Galen Carey is vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that has polled Americans on current event issues, such as gun control.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.
  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior research adviser at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics, American evangelicals and politics, the Christian right, religion and elections, and religion and presidential politics. He also serves as director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron. He is the co-author of The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics. He can speak about Americans’ views on gun control, religious demographics and other political issues.

  • Robert P. Jones

    Robert P. Jones is CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Contact through Adam Muhlendorf.

    He can discuss findings of the institute’s August 2012 survey of Americans’ attitudes on gun rights and gun control, including how the findings varied along religious lines.

  • Stephen A. Kent

    Stephen A. Kent is a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and an expert on religions and their views on crime and responses to violence.

  • David B. Kopel

    David B. Kopel is an associate policy analyst and expert on firearms issues with the Cato Institute. He has written several books on gun control, including Aiming for Liberty: The Past, Present and Future of Freedom and Self-Defense. Kopel’s personal website includes a page of links about religious writings on self-defense and gun control.

    Contact: Contact 202-789-5200.
  • Ron Sider

    Ron Sider is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which promotes Christian engagement, analysis and understanding of major social, cultural and public policy issues. He is also Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, Pa. He is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.

  • Jim Wallis

    The Rev. Jim Wallis is an evangelical author and commentator and the founder of Sojourners magazine, a periodical that tries to promote social change through Christian values. He has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and can comment on public policy issues.

  • Benjamin Wittes

    Benjamin Wittes is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Harvard Law School-Brookings Project on Law and Security.

    Contact: 202-797-6206.
  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • James Kelly

    James Kelly is associate professor of social work and director of the Grace Ann Geibel Institute for Justice and Social Responsibility at Carlow University, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Pittsburgh.

    In a story after the Virginia Tech shooting, he told Catholic News Service that for most people, gun violence has still “not risen to the level of social problem that requires a universal approach.” He works at Carlow University, based in Pittsburgh.

  • Jon Pahl

    Jon Pahl is an associate professor of church history at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He has written about young people and violence and is the author of Youth Ministry in Modern America: 1930 to the Present (Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), which examines youth ministry in four traditions: Lutheran, evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and African-American.

  • Mark Tooley

    Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, an ecumenical alliance working to bring churches’ social witness in line with “biblical and historic Christian teachings.” The organization, which is based in Washington, D.C., has been critical of mainline church agencies and those on the religious left for their position on immigration reform. He has written several articles on gun control and other delicate issues.

  • Clyde Wilcox

    Clyde Wilcox is professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He specializes in electoral behavior and public opinion and can comment on the Catholic vote, abortion, gun control, gay rights, church-state issues and other issues involving religion and politics. He wrote “Abortion, Gay Rights and Church-State Issues in the 2000 Campaign” for the book Religion and Liberal Democracy: Piety, Politics and Pluralism and he is the co-author of The Values Campaign? The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

In the South

  • Michael Boylan

    Michael Boylan is a philosophy professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., who has written about ethical perspectives on gun control.

  • George Clifford

    The Rev. George Clifford is an Episcopal priest and ethicist serving at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, N.C. He has blogged about gun control.

  • John K. Cochran

    John K. Cochran is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa and has written widely on religion and crime.

  • Byron R. Johnson

    Byron R. Johnson is a professor of sociology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who has written widely on the relationship between religion and criminal behavior. He is the author of the entry “The Role of Religious Institutions in Responding to Crime and Delinquency” in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion.

  • Hugh LaFollette

    Hugh LaFollette is the Cole Chair in Ethics at professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He co-authored Brute Science: Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation and has written extensively on gun control and other issues.

  • Bill J. Leonard

    Bill J. Leonard is a professor of church history and dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. and the author of over 15 books including The Nature of the Church (B&H Publishing Group, 1991) and Word of God Across the Ages: Using Church History in Preaching (Broadman Press, 1981).

    In a column posted Aug. 2, 2012, by the Associated Baptist Press, he asks, “How can churches minister in a society unwilling to give up its guns?” Another column, which appeared in March 2011, recounts the history of guns in churches — hardly a new phenomenon, he says — and discusses what churches should consider doing about it. He serves on the faculty at the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University.

  • Ben Witherington III

    Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination, in the wake of the recession, of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”

    Read his July 21, 2012, essay, “The Aurora Debacle,” at Patheos.com and a blog post he wrote after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, “Christians and gun control: An idea whose time has come?”. He serves as Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

In the Midwest

  • Timothy Hall

    Timothy Hall is an associate professor of philosophy at Oberlin College & Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio. He teaches a variety of ethics courses, and his research interests include the applied ethics of gun control.

  • Dwight N. Hopkins

    Dwight N. Hopkins, University of Chicago theology professor, has written about black theology of liberation, and also about gun control. Black liberation theology, he says, is aligning more closely with black churches and developing partnerships with liberation theologians in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. 


  • David Kratz Mathies

    David Kratz Mathies is an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. He teaches an ethics course in which students examine and debate contemporary moral issues, including gun control.

In the West

  • Don Lindley

    Don Lindley is an assistant professor of criminology at Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver and was a member of the Denver Police Department for 33 years.

  • Franklin E. Zimring

    Franklin E. Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. He specializes in issues of criminology, violence and family law.

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