The United States Senate is debating a measure that would require background checks for most gun purchases, including those made online and at gun shows. Under current law, when you go to a federally licensed dealer such as Wal-Mart or Dick’s Sporting Goods you must pass a background check. Dealers check to see whether there is any legal impediment, including felony convictions that preclude purchase. But, people who can’t purchase weapons from these dealers can go online – Craig’s List or E-bay -- or to a gun show, and purchase the same weapons without anyone doing a background check.
The bill in the Senate being proposed by Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA)would change the law, and extend the coverage to all purchases, except private – family to family purchases. It’s not a perfect bill, and doesn’t go nearly as far as I’d like it to go, but it’s a start. Despite the fact that 90% of Americans support such a measure (background checks) Congress is finding it difficult to proceed. For some reason they feel intimidated by lobbying groups such as the NRA that promise to run ads against them during upcoming elections. My hope is that the American people will speak up and encourage their representatives to pass sensible legislation – after all the sponsors have pretty solid gun rights reputations.
You might wonder why I as a pastor am wading into this issue. In part this is due to the fact that I’m a member of the gun violence task force of the Metro Coalition of Congregations. We’ve been studying these issues, talking with law enforcement issues, and formulating our positions. Our Task Force believes that the call to love one’s neighbor as one’s self requires that we act on behalf of our neighbors in this matter. We see this as a call to pursue the common good by working to reduce gun violence. We would like to see expanded background checks, ending of straw purchases, tracking of sales, and banning of assault style weapons and limiting ammunition clips to ten bullets.
Many who argue against any form of “gun control” see it as a violation of Second Amendment rights. In recent years this Amendment has taken on a sacred aura that makes it difficult to pass laws that place reasonable limits on ownership. The Bill of Rights is an important set of protections, but they must be interpreted and applied in a reasonable manner. For instance, I have the First Amendment right to worship as I please, but if my form of worship involves human sacrifice, the government has a responsibility to place a limit on my practice.
When it comes to the right to bear arms (and I think we need to look more closely at the context of this right that is linked to militias), it would seem appropriate that the government has the right and responsibility to interpret and apply the Amendment in a responsible manner. That is, they would seem to have the responsibility to discern what are reasonable limits on ownership – so that rights (and lives) of other citizens are not infringed. Thus, background checks would not infringe on this right, nor in my mind would be limits placed on the type and size of a weapon. When the Founders wrote this Amendment, the kind of weapon they had in mind was a single shot muzzle-loader. I doubt they could envision a semi-automatic rifle with a thirty-round clip filled with armor piercing bullets. To those who say that such a limit infringes one’s rights, where do you draw the line? What about carrying a rocket launcher or a nuclear device? I know I’m pushing the envelope, but some of the rhetoric I hear suggests that there are no limits, but is this reasonable.
We have a violence problem in our nation. There are many factors, and people on all sides are pointing fingers away from their favored parties. But let’s be clear, simply because someone suffers from mental illness, that doesn’t make them a threat. They probably shouldn’t obtain weapons, but let’s be careful about stigmatizing people who suffer from such illnesses. And as for violent movies and video games, there’s no conclusive evidence that they contribute to violence – and may actually subvert violent urges, but we need to have a conversation about our seeming need for such stimulation. In the end, however, the one common denominator in acts of violence isn’t mental illness or video, but the ease with which persons can obtain weapons – and our inability to track who obtains them. Can we not agree that we have a gun problem? Can we not agree that there are reasonable limits?
Now is the time, in the wake of Newtown and Aurora, events that likely wouldn’t have been prevented by background checks, to have a conversation about this obsession with guns. Back when I was young, living out West, many of my friends were gun owners (or their families owned guns). Almost all of them did so for the purpose of hunting. They may have kept a gun for self-protection, but most guns were used for deer or duck hunting. They were responsible owners, by and large. The rationale for owning guns has changed dramatically. The urge to own a weapon is sometimes fed by the fear (sometimes warranted) about the lack of safety in our communities. That’s understandable, though putting guns in the hands of persons ill-equipped to handle them may not be the right response. There is another form of fear that I’m concerned about, and that is a near paranoia about the designs of our government and need to “protect ourselves” against “them.” I fear that we are on the edge of violence against a government that we the people elect.
Back to the issue of background checks, which is the issue on the table for the moment --- opponents say that such laws would be ineffective. But why? If background checks at gun stores work, why not on the internet or gun shows? Besides, even if it only prevents a measure of crime from being committed isn’t it worth a bit of inconvenience?
So, I ask you to consider the measure offered by these two Senators. Perhaps it can be the down payment on a bigger conversation about violence, fear, and the love of neighbor. Let us encourage our Representatives both local and federal to do the right thing.