Guest writer- Ray Lyons
MAKE IT STOP demands the Boston Globe (June 16, 2016).
“We have a God-given right to defend ourselves, and firearms are an effective means of doing just that,” Chris Cox, the executive director of the [NRA]’s Institute for Legislative Action, said on ABC’s “This Week.” (June 19, 2016) Daily News article
So, which is it? Can we stop all guns and gun violence? Do we have an inalienable God-given right to own any firearm we want? The answer to both is a near absolute “no,” for both practical and legal reasons. From a practical perspective, I think everyone understands that a society that lacks sufficient means to defend itself will almost certainly be conquered by others who are willing to use force to do so. You may recall the opening scenes of the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” when an ape discovers he can use a bone to bash the skulls of other apes; wielding a weapon gave him power. It was true in the 1st century when the Roman Empire reconquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. It is true today in more places than I dare count. It is humans being human.
What about the law? Doesn’t it protect us and our freedoms? We hear so much self-serving, self-righteous demagoguery about “the law.” How can we distinguish truth from propaganda? Just as when Jesus resisted the Devil’s earthly temptations when Jesus emerged from the wilderness, God can help us.
This past Sunday’s Second Reading (Galatians 3:23-29) begins with “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law…” “Imprisoned and guarded under the law.” As a lawyer, this sentence always catches my attention, especially the “imprisoned” part.
What is law; why is law? We human beings create laws to simultaneously imprison, guard, and free ourselves; always imperfectly. Every law limits our freedom, but good laws expand our freedom to engage in activities with greater efficiency and less danger. Driving, for example; here in the USA we drive on the right and stop for red lights; this allows us to travel much faster and with greater confidence. But that freedom has its limits; we can’t, for example, drive 140 mph on Newtown Road.
We change our “regular,” statutory laws (those passed by the Legislature) constantly in a never ending quest to balance our safety and freedom (legal theorists talk about efficiencies of freedom, to make everyone as free as possible while minimizing harm). Even though it appears that Congress hasn’t done anything during the past 7 years, it has, in fact, passed hundreds of laws, most are relatively mundane and routine, but when the moment was ripe (perhaps a bit overripe) they passed legislation that became law. Not all laws are good; some are for political show or temporary political advantage (e.g. Gerrymandering and “Stand Your Ground”) that will not pass the test of time.
Which laws pass the test of time? From my perspective, the ultimate law is described in the first chapter of John, summarized perfectly and succinctly as “The Word.” “The Word,” unfortunately, is beyond true knowing and understanding in human hands, so Jesus, God’s intervenor to us, offered this translation: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40). Love God, love your neighbor; I’ve long struggled with the former, but feel the latter “grounds” our higher levels of laws; those intended to protect us from “the crowd” and the transitory whims of legislators and other government officials (it was “the Crowd” that condemned Jesus). I think of these higher levels of law as Human Authority that aspires to Eternal Authority. In our country they arose and evolved from the King of England (“I, the People”, acting as God’s Agent on Earth), to the Magna Carta (“I, the King, no longer Absolute, with some rights and protections granted to the Barons”), to the US Constitution (“We, the People” hold ultimate power). The US Constitution includes 27 Amendments that protect our right to free speech, religion, assembly, and to petition our government (the First), against unreasonable searches and seizures (the Fourth), to own private property and against self-incrimination (the Fifth), trial by jury (Sixth and Seventh), abolished Slavery (Thirteen), provides equal protection under the law (Fourteen), all men can vote, despite skin color or previous service as a slave (Fifteenth), and all women can vote (Nineteenth). The last four mentioned provide ample proof that even when we pass laws intended to aspire to Eternal Authority, we often fall short of the mark (what is 3/5ths of a human being?). Our founding fathers were human, not God.
And then there’s the Second Amendment “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” We all hear a lot about “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” and many people speak as if this means their right to own a gun, any number of guns, of any kind, is absolute, even “God-given.” But the Second Amendment is one sentence, not two, and the beginning phrase “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state” means something; but what is that something? And what can you say to someone who claims that the Second Amendment gives us an unfettered, Constitutional “God-given” right, to own any firearm we want?
Our secular “High Priests,” the Justices of United States Supreme Court, have addressed this question many times, including this week (when they refused to overturn a lower federal court’s decision upholding new state gun laws passed following the Newtown, CT massacre: https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2016/06/20/supreme-court-turns-away-challenge-connecticut-ban-many-semiautomatic-weapons/oLKCxiMUbOXYqTY8pJPXmL/story.html). In 2008, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled that we hold a Constitutional right to own a gun to defend ourselves, but this almost certainly over-stretches the Second Amendment’s literal words (4 Justices agree). It is well established, however, that for all other gun ownership questions, Congress and our state legislators hold the power to enact strong gun laws.
We can say the following with absolute clarity and confidence:
1. According to the Supreme Court, we hold the right to own a gun to defend ourselves.
2. Congress and the States hold the right to regulate guns, even to prohibit most (but not all) gun ownership.
3. We, the People, hold the right to ask our legislators to pass new laws to regulate guns – or to replace them with someone who will pass such laws.
At some very basic level, in our country the ultimate decision rests with us, “We, the People.” We are the Sovereign, the heirs of English kings; we choose the people who decide these matters for us.
A gun advocate asked me “Where do you draw the line?” That is a very appropriate question and I must admit, I don’t know exactly where we should draw the line. Legitimate hunters and sportspeople offer solid, compelling arguments that one bullet is not enough. But is two sufficient (double barreled shotguns)? Three? A six shooter? From my perspective, we must draw the line at something far less than a high capacity AR-15.
So let’s take it up one more level, to the top: what answer is most compatible with “The Word” — with loving our neighbors as ourselves? Looking back at the history of humanity, from a practical perspective I don’t think the answer is “absolutely no guns.” Unlike Jesus when he repulsed the Devil’s temptations; too many succumb to the lure of power, especially firepower; something practical is needed to keep them in check. But we also have an obligation, moral, ethical, and as Christians, to stop violent death whenever possible; to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
We have the absolute “God given” right to ask our legislators to pass laws to protect us from these death machines; don’t be afraid to say so. From my perspective, a good start is to once again prohibit the private ownership of weapons of mass murder such as AR-15s (just as Congress did from 1994 – 2004). We can “Make It Stop” – certainly not perfectly, but we can’t let that stop us from trying.
Do laws that limit gun ownership imprison us, guard us, or make us free? How do the “efficiencies of freedom” balance 49 dead people in Orlando (and the 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, alone, that killed 475 people and wounded 1,870) against the “rights” many claim to hold to spray bullets from a high speed killing machine? If we allow our minds to go silent so we can hear “The Word,” what does God say to us? How do we balance our obligation to protect ourselves and our families with our obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves? This is not intended to be an easy question to answer.
We need to talk, not shout, but we need to Talk. And Listen. And Act. As Christians and Sovereign Americans, we need to – and can – “Make It Stop.”