The Altar of the Gun

Statue of Bellerophon Taming Pegasus by Jacques Lipschitz. Photo by Tim Nafziger

Note: I found writing this piece to be a way of channeling my own anger at the massacre this morning. But I recognize that anger is only one part of the grief process. Please join me in praying for the families and friends of those killed.

American worships the gun. Today, 33 more were sacrificed on the altar of our devotion to the gun. Specifically to semi automatic handguns. There are already dozens of articles from disciples arguing that the massacre today at Virginia tech could have been avoided if some of the students had been carrying guns so they could shoot the killer before he killed them. We trust the gun more than we trust God.

The brutal reality of our gun fetish is that selling guns and ammo is highly profitable. But it is not simply the fact that the market values short term earnings from gun sales more than the social, cultural, political and long term economic damage that gun violence does to our society. More importantly, the gun industry long ago learned to effectively invest their short term earnings into the social, political and cultural sphere. Their investments in the NRA, especially since 1977 years have returned 10 fold and the results are a culture in which gun ownership is intimately connected with the values of self-sufficiency, responsibility and security that so many Americans identify with. We’ll call these frontier values.

As much as we’d like to wish that the new Democratic congress would seize on this moment to pass some common sense gun laws, the reality is that many of the new members of Congress were partly by actively courting those with frontier values. Unless their constituency shows signs of disconnecting handguns from frontier values, any vote for limiting the sales of hand guns will be doomed.

It may be that changing our gun culture requires looking at movements that have successfully challenged large corporations with large amounts of cultural capital. The anti-smoking movement comes to mind. The last 30 years have seen a drastic shift on the public perceptions of smoking. The parallels are striking. The right to smoke was once also closely associated with frontier values. The industry also heavily invested in cultural, social and political institutions to maintain and promote the cigarette. For a time it seemed that they were effective. But these days its very hard to find anyone in political office trumpeting the rights of smokers.

What were the tactics and strategies of the anti-smoking lobby? They brought law suits by second hand smokers against big tobacco. Unfortunately a law passed in 2005 protects the industry from any parallel suits.

Another tactic of the anti-tobacco movement was its relentless funding of anti-smoking advertising. Through memorable add campaigns they have gradually associated with smoking with disease and decay. It seems this solution has much potential given the brutal reality of gun crime. Is the anti-gun lobby much less well funded? Have they not found the right message?

Of course, part of the anti-smoking victory can be attributed to the scandal of Tobacco companies lying to consumers for many many years. This highlights a major difference between gun industry and the tobacco industry is that gun manufacturers are much less visible in the debate then big tobacco was. The NRA is by far the most visible and powerful gun lobbying organization. The wikipedia article on Smitth & Wesson tells the interesting story of how gun owners turned on the hand that fed them after Smith & Wesson was seen to have compromised on gun control.

But there is hope. In the United Kingdom after the Dunblane Massacre, more than 700,000 Brits signed the Snowdrop petition calling for a total ban on the private ownership and use of handguns in the United Kingdom. The petition led to the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 which completely banned handguns in the UK (this was the final in a long series of hand gun control laws) According to a report from the home office, from mid-2005 to mid-2006, only 49 people were killed by handguns (Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, page 36). This is a rate of roughly 1 per million compared to 55 per million in the US (FBI 2004 Crime report). It turns out that a mandatory five-year jail term for carrying a hand gun does have an effect. I lived in the UK from 2004 through 2006 and noticed that fatal shootings were so rare that they regularly made the national newspaper. People take the hand gun ban for granted and find the gun religion in our country to quaint and strange. On one of my first evenings in the UK I watched a documentary in which a UK reporter went deep into US gun country and interviewed gun disciples. It was like watching an exotic safari.

Change is possible. Massacres like the one at Virginia tech do not need to be a reoccurring horror in our headlines and our lives. Let’s work together to end our worship of the gun.

Comments (18)

  1. EA

    I understand your anger at the events today. We all feel them. But to blame the object and not the shooter is misplaced anger.
    If the shooter hadn’t used a gun he would have found other ways to hurt the community- bomb threats, poison, etc.
    The painful truth is if someone wants to inflict damage they will find a way to do it. A gun, unfortunately, is a sensible way to cause harm. If he had wanted to hurt someone in that dorm and didn’t have a gun, and had instead poisoned the water supply, think how many more innocent people would have been hurt in his efforts.
    Like it or not, the gun, while dangerous, is more humane.
    Outlawing guns will not stop violence. Teaching people to take responsibility for their actions, better access to mental health care, teaching people to control emotions and rage- that will help end violence. Responsibility will end violence.
    Outlawing guns will only mean people will find other ways to inflict pain.

  2. EA

    PS- in response to your example of the UK and gun control laws.
    Did you know they now have more knife crimes in the UK than the US has (per capita) in gun crimes?
    It is estimated that in the UK 1 in 5 male school children carries a knife to school.
    outlawing guns didn’t end their crime problems

  3. Hootsbuddy

    Outstanding, timely and bold.
    I agree and blogged about it.
    Keep salting and know that God plus one equals a majority.

  4. Douglas

    Why are we blaming the gun? Before anyone labels me a crazy NRA member, I do not own a gun and nor subscribe to the NRA. Whate happened today was horrific but the only person responsible for this attack is the attacker himself. It is not the gun makers fault, the students fault, the schools fault, or the bullet makers fault. The man who chose to do this act is responsible.

    We have to be careful not to let such events create a knee jerk reaction for laws.

    At the cost of freedom of speech, I hope you will allow my comment to stay.

    Thank you. Douglas

  5. Mark

    Are you an idiot? We do not worship a tool; we worship God! You seek to blame an inanimate object for the actions of a person! That is neither sane nor rational. Please get a clue before posting any more of this hoplophobic tripe! You, by your very statements, are actually part of the problem, not part of the solution! You are helping to create more victims and more tragedies!

    “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good”

    — George Washington

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    — Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

    “False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.”

    — Cesare Beccaria, as quoted by Thomas Jefferson’s Commonplace book

    “…quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit, occidentis telum est.” […a sword never kills anybody; it’s a tool in the killer’s hand.]

    — (Lucius Annaeus) Seneca “the Younger” (ca. 4 BC-65 AD)

  6. TimN (Post author)

    A few responses to the comments above:

    EA (and Douglas): You are entirely right to point out that getting rid of guns will not stop crimes all together. I hadn’t heard the particular statistic you quote about higher knife crime in the UK than the US, but it doesn’t surprise me. Most police officers in the UK wore knife proof vests around all the time. However, its worth noting this quote from an emergency room physician in London:

    Dr Lemen, emergency physician at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, says only one or two admissions a month are gun related. “There is an increase in gun related crime, particularly in London,” he says. “Despite the great media concern the vast majority of injuries are stabbings (20 per week) and other blunt assaults (100 per week)–such penetrating injuries are more common and a greater cause of morbidity. More people die from being stabbed than shot because there are more people being stabbed. The trouble with guns is the fatality rate of an assault is around 30%-50% whereas the mortality rate of being stabbed is probably only 1% or 2%. Stabbing is a far more common crime.” (from Looking down the Barrel)

    I regret if my post suggested to you that gun control would be a magic potion to solve crime. As you point out access to mental health care and anger management training are also important tools for lowering crime rates. I thing poverty reduction and community policing are also important steps.

    However, when it comes to large scale massacres such as the one that happened this morning, hand guns lower the threshold for impulsive acts. You are right that the shooter could have instead poisoned the water supply. But that would have taken extensive research, planning and time that a mentally unstable person is unlikely to be able to muster. For example the < a href="" in 1927 which is still the worst school massacre every (45 killed and 58 injured) took over a year to plan. It takes a extraordinarily meticulous madness to plan this type of bloodbath. Or a terrorist. But the handgun lowers the bar and allows even the briefly insane to kill tens of people. Mark: The vehemence and vitriol with which you deny your allegiance betrays you. I notice you do not quote the Bible, but from your own sacred text cobbled together from two Deists, a secular rationalist and a Greek stoic philosopher.

  7. joe

    People hurt people. The question is, do hand guns and automatic weapons make that more possible. of course they do. would 33 people have died if he was armed with a butcher knife? probably not. but people still would have died.

    for myself, it isnt so much about the gun. it is about a culture of death that we live in. our culture is saturated with death and mayhem. i am not the guy who blames video games and Quentin Terrentino movies. i am talking about the general attitude of death, mixed with a disconnectedness and hopelessness.

    you solve those issues and then we got something. Ezekial 37 we all know is about the Valley of Dry Bones. a valley of death. What does it say the cause of these dry bones are? V.11, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”

    Can you here the cry of culture from Ezekial? I can. People are dying. literally. who carries this hope for something better gang? God through us.

    “I will put my spirit in you and you will live, and i will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that i the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”

  8. Katie

    I find it interesting how quickly a few people came to the defense of guns after Tim’s post. If you feel the need  to claim that you aren’t a “crazy NRA member” or pre-emptively claim Freedom of Speech and ask that we don’t call you a wing-nut and delete your comment…it might be a sign of something.

    Call it a “tool” and an “inanimate object” as much as you want. I have a terribly hard time thinking of a handgun that can shoot 8 rounds in 2 seconds as an innocent “tool” or “object.” It is a serious weapon and the only purpose of such a weapon is to cause harm to people, a lot of harm to a lot of people, very quickly and easily.

    As Joe mentioned, yeah, this is about more than guns, we have a serious problem of a culture of death and violence that won’t be solved by gun control. No, I don’t think that all guns should be banned or that all guns are bad all the time. It would, however, be a good start to challenge the idea that we should all have unimpeded access to such weapons.

    Please stop with the “yay, guns” talk. I would like to think that George, Ben, Tom, and Lucious would all be appalled at the idea of such weapons in the hands of anyone who wanted them. I guess we’ll never know because they’ve all been dead for an aweful long time and can’t tell us what they think on this. Yay, a bunch of dead white guys said some things that support your point…I don’t really care, that doesn’t mean you aren’t wrong.

  9. Skylark

    *chuckle* People come out of the woodwork when someone disagrees with their pet views. Do people from various pro-this or anti-that message boards sit around watching for other boards to talk about “their topic” and then a delegation of members is sent to set it straight? Poor form.

    Anybody seen “Lord of War”? Excellent, chilling movie. I believe at one point the main character says the AK-47 is the true weapon of mass destruction. We may not have as many of those in the U.S. per capita as we do handguns, but the basic idea that they’re too easy for the average person to get still holds true.

    I’m surprised none of the gun-rights supporters brought up the statistics of more people dying in car crashes than at the end of a gun. Before you do, let me say the purpose of a car is not to crash into things and kill people. It’s to get someone from one place to another at a certain speed and comfort level. A gun does none of those things. Its purpose is to maim and kill. If people suddenly started using guns only to shoot skeet, trap, and paper targets, I’d have no problem with the proliferation of firearms. Target shooting is fun, no joke. I can’t remember the last time I heard of someone accidentally dying while shooting skeet. (Hunting accidents are different. I won’t start in on that.)

    Making guns harder to get would limit the number of nutjobs who get them. Yes, the black market would still exist, but tighter restrictions would add another complexity to the mix, thus reducing the number of people who are able to take guns to school and shoot dozens of people. The “briefly insane” that Tim mentioned may not find it worth the trouble.

    I’m also all for anger management, conflict resolution, etc to reduce the other factors that contribute to these events. But there’s no reason why we can’t try to work on this thing from multiple angles.

  10. Mark

    TimN wrote: “The vehemence and vitriol with which you deny your allegiance betrays you. I notice you do not quote the Bible, but from your own sacred text cobbled together from two Deists, a secular rationalist and a Greek stoic philosopher.”

    Strawman argument. I always have an irrationally reaction to stupidity, especially when it has the potential to negatively affect my safety. And I quoted two Christian men inspired by God in the founding of this country (I do not subscribe to the liberal rewriting of history to push the agenda that this is not a Christian nation) and two experts during their lifetimes on the affects of crime and punishment upon society. God is no respecter of persons, especially those who lived in times when it was not possible to hear of Him. When He blesses His children with wisdom, it makes sense to listen to them.

    Again, I do not worship tools and the need to insist upon this falsehood for those who understand the gift that God has given us in being able to defend ourselves, our families, and our country does your argument no service.

    Katie wrote: “Please stop with the “yay, guns” talk. I would like to think that George, Ben, Tom, and Lucious would all be appalled at the idea of such weapons in the hands of anyone who wanted them. I guess we’ll never know because they’ve all been dead for an aweful long time and can’t tell us what they think on this.”

    They would be more appalled at the idea of the population at large being disarmed en mass. They understood that this creates victims for the violent elements of society and slaves of the government. And we do know how they felt because they wrote prolifically on this very subject.

  11. TimN (Post author)


    Thanks for stopping the name calling. And I agree with you that people other than Christians are capable of wisdom.

    You’ve made the case that you don’t “worship” guns. Perhaps a different way to phrase it would be that you see guns as sacred or as you put it, “a gift that God has given us.” You believe that if handguns ownership were illegal for private citizens it would go against the core values of the United States. And the core values of Christianity apparently.

    I notice that you repeatedly mention God but never Jesus. Is this perhaps because you find Jesus inconvenient since he blessed the peacemakers, told us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, do good to those who persecute us and repeatedly refused the way of violence? Its hard to imagine this man endorsing a “tool” whose sole purpose is killing and maiming. Skylark goes into this better than I can above.

    Finally you claim that taking away guns would make us slaves of the government. While this may have made some sense during the Revolutionary, today its absurd to suggest that hand guns and even automatic weapons could pose any threat to the highly advanced weaponry of the United States military. If US citizens tried starting an armed revolt against the US government within its borders your revolution would be crushed before it even began.

    From a purely pragmatic perspective mass nonviolent action is a much more effective tool then a gun. Just look at the Orange revolution in the Ukraine and the Cedar revolution in Lebanon. In each of these cases if the citizens had taken up weapons it would have given the government an excuse to kill them all. Guns do not protect us from slavery to our government. Active and engaged participation is what does that. This includes lobbying, writing letters, attending protests and voting. How does having a gun on your shelf help with any of that?

  12. Skylark

    Beautifully written, Tim. :-)

    Mark said: “And I quoted two Christian men inspired by God in the founding of this country (I do not subscribe to the liberal rewriting of history to push the agenda that this is not a Christian nation) […]”

    In my eyes, you dug yourself an even deeper hole with this statement. Let’s not confuse a democratic republic with Christianity. Gee, how did God cope before the U.S. came along? Christianity existed long before the U.S. did, and this governmental structure is hardly the epitome of the way God tells us to treat each other. Systemic abuses are here, too. I’m not advocating for any other governmental structure, please understand me. I’m not ignorant to the flaws of communism, socialism, feudalism, anarchy, oligarchies and all the rest. Because people are flawed, every structure we can come up with will also be flawed.

    Like Tim, I think it’s ridiculous to suppose the citizenry can launch an effective revolt against the U.S. government. It may accomplish genocide in countries like Liberia with poor heads of state, which is why I mentioned the AK-47. It doesn’t work when facing the WMDs of the U.S. military.

  13. Katie

    Speaking of strawmen…”They would be more appalled at the idea of the population at large being disarmed en mass.” I’m sorry but that is not the argument I’m making. I just don’t get how you get from the idea that maybe we should regulate access to semi-automatic handguns becuase they are very dangerous weapons that cause a lot of damage to our society (which I am suggesting) to the idea that “the population at large being disarmed en mass” (which I am not suggesting). Like I said in my comment, “No, I don’t think that all guns should be banned or that all guns are bad all the time. It would, however, be a good start to challenge the idea that we should all have unimpeded access to such weapons.” By “such weapons” I mean semi-automatic handguns. I’m not a big fan of other handguns but I won’t get into that.

    I would also personally question why our society has such a fetish for guns and such faith that they actually make us all safer. Recalling what Tim said originally “[guns are] intimately connected with the values of self-sufficiency, responsibility and security that so many Americans identify with. We’ll call these frontier values.” I would add that they are also a symbol of masculinity. I’ll wait to open that can of worms for another day though. I guess we just loves our guns.

  14. eric

    Well, seeing as it would be an affront to universally disarm the masses, and feeling a bit low on armaments these days myself, can anyone tell me where I can buy some nuclear war-heads and a can or two of anthrax?

    Gotta defend me and mine, you know.

  15. Joel Lewis

    Just read your article on Ekklesia – interesting reading. I think that there are at least some signs of hope on the horizon in this area. For a start, the proportion of households with guns in the US is approximately 33%, down from 54% in 1977. So despite the vociferousness of the pro-gun lobby, and the seeming support for the theory of gun ownership, the appetite of the average American for the actual practicality of gun ownership seems to have diminished significantly.

    Nevertheless, the need for some kind of paradigm shift seems undeniable from our perspective across the pond – the figures speak for themselves in that respect. More Americans have died by the gun on US soil since 1963 than have been killed in open warfare across the world in the whole of the 20th Century. Or to put it in more contemporary perspective, the US is taking a worse beating in its war with itself than with Iraq: for every soldier killed in Iraq since the invasion, approximately 40 civilians in the US have been killed by guns.

    One other thing that I have noticed is that a lot of the pro-gun lobby like to talk about the ‘fact’ that gun crime has risen in the UK since handguns were banned. In fact, the number of offences involving handguns (which, apart from automatic & semi-automatic weapons, are the only kind of gun that are actually banned) have fallen by almost 25 percent between 2001 and 2005. Whereas offences with shotguns, imitation weapons and other weapons (e.g. rifles) – none of which are banned – have either risen or stayed level. Imitation weapons account for the biggest rise in firearms offences in the UK in this period – which somewhat undermines the idea that the ban has made things worse. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m more than happy to live with a higher rate of “firearms offences” it boils down to a greater risk of facing an imitation weapon, and a lower risk of facing a real handgun …

    (source: )

    I was curious to see some of the responses above, in particular the assertion that one in five schoolchildren in the UK carry knives into classes. I find this highly unlikely, and would be interested to see the source of this information. I’ve taught in schools in the UK, and I know many people who still do — and have encountered nothing that would lead me to believe this statistic to be anywhere near the truth.

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