Well, as a species, we seem a bit stupid.
This year I am reading from the Old Testament, which I have actually never read cover-to-cover, despite seminary, institute, BYU religion class, and teaching the book in Sunday school. And, last night I read something that really bothered me from the book of Genesis, a detail from the account of Noah and the Deluge: “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11, my emphasis). Having just finished the Book of Mormon again in December, I could not help but think about the bloody ends of two of the major civilizations in the book: the Jaredites and the Nephites—the Lamanites, of course, were also no strangers to violence. What bothered me is that the quality of violence was a condition for the Lord to cause the Flood and the demise of two civilizations (and actually, one could make the case that the demise of the biblical civilization had a lot to do with violence, as well) coupled the violence we’re witnessing at this moment on the Earth. The blood of Sandy Hook is still fresh on my mind and a Facebook friend of mine recently commented on the upsurge of gun buying—especially assault weapons—in Utah in response to anticipated changes in gun control laws. I have had conversations with other Mormons about these attendant issues and what deeply disturbs me is the quickness with which it seems many in the Mormon community seem to accept violence not only as a necessary course of action, but a desirable one as well. It seems we are swayed more by NRA jingoism than the scriptures.
To illustrate the absurdity of the “more guns=less violence” argument (an argument of causality not correlation) thrown around by gun-rights advocates, let me offer an analogous situation, one that will be distressing to our Australian brothers and sisters at this moment. If a community were to have problems with forest fires, how illogical would it be to offer as a solution an increase in match and lighter ownership? I think most clear-thinking individuals would argue that it would be an unacceptable solution because it actually increases the likelihood of the problem’s occurrence. We could formulate the problem in this way: the more the means become available, the more likely an outcome will be achieved.
To return then to the original concern of gun violence, gun-rights advocates are making the same argument: the answer to gun violence is more guns. Again, the more the means become available, the more likely an outcome will be achieved. The more guns are available, the more likely they will be used. Is there evidence that this is the case? As a matter of fact, there is a great amount of evidence. In a commentary on the Sandy Hook shootings, staff writers at The Economist recently pointed out:
America’s murder rate is four times higher than Britain’s and six times higher than Germany’s. Only an idiot, or an anti-American bigot prepared to maintain that Americans are four times more murderous than Britons, could possibly pretend that no connection exists between those figures and the fact the 300m guns are “out there” in the United States, more than one for every adult.[i]
But, there’s something else at play here besides mere numbers. Many gun-tottin’ Mormons simply parrot the NRA line that we have a higher murder rate because we have more people. This argument rests on the assumption that if other countries like Germany, Canada, etc. would have similar numbers of murders if they had as many people. Unfortunately, this claim has very little support. As a matter of fact, if we look at per capita murder rates, we find that this claim falls flat on its butt. Max Fisher in a recent Washington Post article points out that per 100,000 people, the US murder rate is 20 times higher than the average murder rate for other developed countries.[ii] Per capita comparisons, of course, are calculated to mitigate discrepancies in population differences. Thus, according to this research, if the population of Germany or another developed country were the size of the United States, we would still be twenty times more likely to be killed by a gun in America.
With the population factor accounted for, we cannot avoid the possibility that what makes our gun-related death rate so high is the presence of guns. So, how do we rank on gun ownership? The Economist article points out that in the United States we have more guns than adults. More detailed information comes from the 2007 Small Arms Survey, an independent research project sponsored by the Graduate Institute of International and Developmental Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, which reports that American gun ownership is 43,560 per 100,000 people[iii] and our firearm murder rate is more than three per 100,000 people (referring to the piece in the Washington Post). How does this compare to other developed countries? Sweden’s ownership rate is 40,910, yet their firearm homicide rate is less than 0.5 per 100,000 people. Germany’s ownership rate is 34,870 and their firearm homicide rate is even less than Sweden’s. Canada’s ownership rate is 32,590 and their firearm homicide rate is right at 0.5 per 100,000 people. Switzerland actually has a higher per capita ownership rate at 55,320 and yet has less than one firearm murder per 100,000 people. Thus, there are other developed nations with comparable gun ownership rates that experience far fewer firearm homicides.
Thus, when we account for differences in population and in rates of gun ownership, we find that raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Trying to figure out what the other pieces of the puzzle are is an important task and is crucial to addressing the situation. Let me just quickly suggest that one vital factor is America’s embrace of violent media. We love shoot ‘em ups, whether they be TV shows, movies, songs, or video games. What happens, though, as we consume all this violent media is that violence becomes normalized, a sociological term that refers to the fact that our norms are set by social practice and interaction. If we perceive that violence is normal and acceptable, then it is so because we have chosen that to be the case or we have not chosen to resist it. There are other choices available and we are not making those choices. Per 100,000 people, almost 12,000 more Swiss own guns, but they choose to use them on each other far less than we do. The fault for our violence lies with us and with our perceptions of the world, which is both reflected in and strengthened by our media culture.
The number of Mormons supporting the increase of guns in America is troubling on at least two levels. Number one, this support seems to support a pattern (violence) that the Lord, through the scriptures, has tried to teach us is a bad thing. If we are His followers, why would we rush to embrace something He has actively punished mankind for, in the case of Noah, and passively punished the Jaredites and the Nephites for? Why would we embrace the means of violence? Number two, this support evinces a willingness to embrace the ways of the world that should cause us to pause. Gun-tottin’ Mormons assert the right to defend their homes at the point of a gun—a problematic assertion. One particular aspect of this defense bothers me as a follower of Christ: how many times does the Lord promise of “fight our battles” if we will rely on Him? In this hypothetical scenario, these Mormons would rather rely on a weapon, an extension of the “arm of flesh.”
My concern here is that many Mormons, as evidenced by their behaviors and pervasively expressed attitudes, seem a bit too willing to resort to or rely on violence as a means of addressing cultural violence. Again, this is similar to saying we will address forest fires by buying more matches and lighters. The more I engage with the scriptures, the more convinced I am that we should expressly reject violence as a problem-solving strategy. Human nature, or the “natural man” if you will, shows that it will resort to violence often times with little or “cheap” provocation.
When all else fails, WWJD, right? I cannot quite picture Christ showing up with an AR-15 in hand (a tool, by the way, created solely for taking human life) to an NRA rally. Given His words in the scriptures, I think it is far more likely He would show up unarmed to a pro-peace or a human rights rally. Until we learn this lesson that Noah’s dispensation, the Jaredites, and the Nephites all failed to learn, to resist violence, we are doomed to realize their failures.
[i] The Economist. 2012. “New Town’s Horror.” 22 Dec. Print., p. 12.