Guns, Tobacco and Moral Authority

By James E Copple

Guns have become a public health issue like tobacco and alcohol, and our families are the chief victims. But where is the leadership of our churches, denominations and faith communities on the issue of gun-violence? We must challenge the American gun narrative; support good policy and cultural shifts necessary for common-sense, family-focused reform; and we need to get on the right side of history.

We are paying dearly to defend outdated artifacts of early American government; its tired and false mantras; nostalgic, antiquated symbolism; and inaccurate, unsubstantiated statistics borne out of lobbies and interests steeped in protectionism and based in the status quo, power, money and fear.

Guns are lethal instruments that kill more people than they save. We subscribe to the enamored notion that guns protect us, but the numbers say otherwise: Guns in the home are 80 percent more likely to injure or kill you or a family member than stop a possible intruder. And according to the Violence Prevention Center, there were more than 11,000 gun-involved homicides (2010) vs 230 used in self-defense or justifiable homicide.

The NRA disputes that data, claiming more than 2.3 million uses of a firearm for self-defense. Regardless, the U.S. ranks No. 1 among industrialized or “rich” nations in gun-related homicides.

Our affair with guns runs deep, and there remains an anxious clinging to the promise of safety in a constitutional right to bear arms. That 18th-century amendment, with emphasis on the word “amendment,” came from constitutional framers sending a message to England that our right to an armed (a musket, to be clear) militia ensured our protection from an outside threat. This historical artifact is about as relevant as the constitutional “three-fifths” provision for counting anyone other than white males, or the implicit bias against women and slaves that denied the right to vote. Because gun ownership is steeped in our culture, it will take a cultural shift to change it. Yet, it must be one anchored in good policy. We did it with tobacco, and we have done it in other areas of our democracy. We can do it with guns.

Remember all the arguments by the tobacco industry and smokers declaring a right to smoke without state interference? The population addicted to cigarettes (and the money they represent) fought any and all change. Gun owners are doing the same.  Most Americans knew tobacco was bad for them, yet lawmakers influenced by the tobacco industry stonewalled every effort to regulate or control tobacco production. It took nearly 25 years to change the cultural norms on cigarettes.

We face the same challenge with the gun industry, which owns Congress and continues to fight efforts of any kind that might threaten the right of citizens to own as many guns as they want.  However, the majority Americans support the following:

  • Mandatory background checks
  • Smart guns operable only by owner
  • Safe storage, so stolen guns aren’t used to kill innocent people
  • Centralized databases and waiting periods for purchases
  • One gun-sale-per-month restrictions to reduce trafficking
  • Denying access to guns or their purchase to convicted felons, sex-traffickers or criminals with a history of sexual or domestic violence[1]

When we do these things, gun-related homicides and injuries decrease. Further, these efforts don’t deny responsible gun-owners from owning and using firearms.

We mostly accept this to be true, but denial and fear perpetuate inertia, and we hesitate to embrace evolution because we respect the founding fathers; because lobbies scare us; because many don’t have the time or inclination to do the research or understand the issues; because we are content to trust our representatives, the media and social-media to know the questions and conduct due-diligence on our behalf.

And in the ways of the world, things just aren’t relevant to us until they touch us personally. Unfortunately, the reach of gun-violence is always tragic and often fatal. Then, we feel it and know it; that something must change. We say it; debate it; and write about it. Then the momentum fades and nothing changes, because our memories and attention spans are short, and because we are intimidated by powerful, patient and well-endowed gun interests. Because we have families to tend; congregations to serve; and the gun-interests’ only task is tending, defending and serving the gun.

Recently, Pope Francis challenged us with the idea that gun manufacturers couldn’t be Christians. Many gun owners took offense, yet many of these same people, involved in communities of faith, had no problem condemning Big Tobacco. In fact, many of those religious traditions claimed you couldn’t be a Christian and smoke.

Why hasn’t our faith community and leadership met the pope’s challenge? Oh, we are against gun-violence, but we don’t seem to have the will to support policies that would prevent it. Why? Because the majority of evangelical leaders are looking at parishioners who support the right to carry firearms, and those parishioners’ tithes and offerings support church budgets and the salaries of religious leaders. We have to get on the right side of history before we find ourselves chasing this issue, scrambling later to claim we were leading the change.

What if we saw our religious leaders challenging congregations to embrace common-sense gun control as a means to protect our families and our children? We believe in protecting our families and children, yet the nation we cherish leads the world in family- and child-related gun injuries and deaths. Is that not a moral imperative?

We claim to be pro-life, and that reverence can’t mean only up until the moment a child is born; only if the budget can withstand the pressure of special interests and disgruntled parishioners; only if it’s easy; only if it’s in our backyard; only if we somehow have no other choice. It’s there, stalking our backyards and sanctuaries, and every time we decide to let tragedy fade in favor of a strident stand, we fail our institutions, our country, our faith and ourselves.

1] This information is compiled from Handgun Control, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice and the National Rifle Association.

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