I’m a southern girl who grew up around guns.
My dad is a gun owner and has been for longer than I’ve been alive. He has a concealed weapons permit in his state of residence. He goes to the range regularly and sometimes practices with his pellet guns at home. I grew up with a respect for and a healthy fear of guns. If I knew nothing else, I knew they were not toys. No one in my community ever looked forward to using them on an actual person. That was almost unthinkable, save for the rare and unfortunate time when someone broke into your home in the middle of the night (which the deadbolt and security system were often sufficient to prevent). I was always surrounded by gun owners who were responsible, law-abiding, non-violent, and respectful of the power they wielded, so I know folks like this exist. Guns, for me, were a way of keeping us all safe, in the same way that a Security Camera System keeps people safe.
Yet, the suggestion that more “good” people should be armed in order to stop the “bad guys” is problematic, and I’ll tell you why: none of us are “good.”
Nope, not a single one of us. Not you, and not me.
People can exhibit an incredible amount of altruism and goodwill. But we’re also prone to prejudice and we too easily misunderstand each other. Case in point, in November a Tennessee woman pulled a gun on a man who’d only approached her to ask if she had a lighter. He didn’t want to rob her. He wanted to smoke a cigarette. He never came closer than 10 feet from her, but two seconds after asking her for a light, she brandished the gun. In her fear and misunderstanding, she aimed the gun at him, which, if fired, could have easily hit the bystanders behind him who were loading their merchandise into their cars. Even after being arrested and learning that the man was not threatening her, she remained defiant and insisted she was within her right to “protect” herself. In her words, “This guy is the bad guy and I’m the one in handcuffs walking away.” (For what it’s worth, she is white, and the man was black.)
I’m troubled by the quickness to label the stranger a “bad guy.” It’s not guns that scare me. It’s the white imagination, which cost Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, and Jonathan Ferrell (and nearly James Crutchfield) their lives that scares me. And not just the white imagination, but the hegemonic imagination, in which Christians fear Muslims, in which white people fear people of color, and in which citizens fear immigrants. That the president of a Christian university can encourage his students to arm themselves and get concealed carry permits in order to “end those Muslims before they walk in” frightens me. That we can ascribe the behavior of a few within another social identity to the entire group, while dismissing the violent acts of those in our own social group as “lone wolves” deeply disturbs me. That the ways in which we “other” people to the point of wanting to take illegal and immoral measures to keep them out of our space has me shaking in my boots.
In 2015, I see a recklessness and a disregard for the life of other people that I simply did not see among the “responsible gun owners” of my childhood. I’m not saying it wasn’t there. I’m saying it’s too easy to witness these days. The whole world seems to have gone mad.
Theologically, anyone counting themselves as “good” is problematic for me. I think of Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who’d kept the law his whole life, only to have Jesus tell him that only God is good (Luke 18:19), and be confronted with his own inability to completely follow God in every area of his life. As a Christian in the Reformed tradition, I’m reminded every time I worship that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and that we all share in that need. There is no one who is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Therefore I find it especially egregious that a Christian college would lift its own ranks as “good.” Theologically, we should know better than that, because our Bible tells us so. What’s more, if we fancy ourselves as “good,” then, because we often deal in dichotomies, someone else has to be bad. Who are the bad guys? The people who are not like us. The people who are not among our ranks. Even if they never bother or offend us they’re still anathema because we’ve counted ourselves “good” and them — by virtue of their opposite nature — as bad. If I’m different enough from you, you get to decide I’m “bad” — and God help me if you’re armed.
Nope, none of us are good. But, ironically, I think understanding that could go a long way in forging peace.
Why I was comfortable around the gun owners I grew up with is because every one of them knew what could happen if they abused their weapons. They checked themselves. They knew their own fallibility, and that if they weren’t careful they could do a great deal of harm to themselves and others around them unnecessarily. They didn’t really want to shoot anyone. They knew they could if the safety of their family depended on it, but they never went out looking for the opportunity. They were more afraid of violating the law and betraying humanity than they were of the nondescript, theoretical “bad guy.” Leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. are unrecognizable as responsible gun owners to me because they tell their people to get guns for the express purpose of using them on others. If there’s any good reason to have a gun, this ain’t it.
I’m for common sense gun control measures. I don’t think one should be able to purchase a lethal weapon without a background check. I don’t think one should be able to get a gun online as easy as one could get a book from Amazon without completing a Louisiana background check or from elsewhere. But that’s only part of the issue. I’m not scared of guns. I’m scared of the proliferation of guns coupled with the increased othering and demonizing of Muslims, immigrants, and people of color. I’m scared of people who have convinced themselves they are the good guys, because that means they’ve made someone else the “bad guy” who must be eradicated. When people are told to arm themselves, it’s not for the purposes of recreation — you know, just in case you should drive past the range on your way home from work. We’re telling them to be ready to kill, and giving them dangerous criteria for who they need to take out. How do people like James Crutchfield survive the imaginations of the prejudiced, paranoid, and packing?