The Idolatry of Firearms

This article originally ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle in December of 2015. The idea started with a Facebook post I made sitting in a blind in South Texas.

Following the murders in San Bernadino, I found myself in a peculiar situation. I was sitting in a deer blind sick to my stomach about the problem of guns in America.

I am a Texan, a United Methodist pastor, and I’ve been a deer hunter my whole life.
It goes without saying that guns are a part of the culture here in Texas. I went hunting with my father and grandfather for the first time when I was just two months old on Thanksgiving; my father handed my bassinet up into the waiting hands of my grandfather in a deer blind.

Hunting has taught me about life and death, and about respect and responsibility. It has brought me closer to my family. I have given and received guns as gifts, and they have been special to me and to the people I gave them to. I have used guns that belonged to my grandfather – he died when I was four – and they are important to me. There is a song by songwriter Roger Craeger called “I Got the Guns” about the significance of firearms in Texas culture. It’s a song I like because it says things I understand.

Hunting is my favorite hobby. I’m frustrated by a trip to the range when I can’t get four shots inside a quarter-sized grouping. I like shooting, and I’m pretty good at it.
But every week there seems to be another shooting. Another mass shooting. And no matter the ideology or mental health status of the shooter, guns are at the scene each and every time.

In reflecting on guns, I’ve realized that while I may be a hunter, I don’t like what guns mean in America. I don’t like that they’re a status symbol, something to collect and be proud of, and something we’re so emotionally invested in that we won’t even have a conversation about regulating them. And I say that as someone who has some of these feelings myself.

My religion teaches me that if we are so invested in our personal ability to have something that we won’t consider its effect on our society, that thing is an idol. And America’s relationship with guns is nothing short of idolatrous. As a United Methodist pastor, I have a profound belief that part of my role is to help make meaning of the world we live in, and to try and speak truth that brings us closer to the world as God wants it to look: the Kingdom of God.

And every time we have the same shouting match about guns, we delay any kind of real conversation, and more people die.

One of my favorite theologians is Paul Tillich, and Tillich used a helpful term for situations like this one. He called them demonic. Demonic to Tillich meant that something was evil enough to be coercive. Something truly demonic plays on our insecurities and self-destructive tendencies.

There’s a demonic tendency in our culture that’s doing two things: It’s inspiring more and more and more people to go on killing rampages with guns, and it’s convincing most of us that there’s nothing we can do about it.

Prayer is important. Prayer is significant. Prayer has the power to change our hearts and indeed the world. But only if we respond to answered prayers with action and purpose.

I’m sick of political leaders responding to tragedy with hollow tweets about prayers, and following that up with no action. Most good prayer inspires action. It’s time to act on gun violence.

I’m no policy wonk. But I do know some things about guns. Guns last for decades, rarely get thrown away and often end up belonging to reluctant owners. I think it’s time for buyback programs for people with guns they don’t want. I also think guns, like cars, ought to have titles. Sell a gun? Transfer the title. Gun stolen? Report it. Knowing what’s out there is half the battle.

In addition, I support most of the traditional measures like strengthened background checks and longer waiting periods. But what’s more important than any of my ideas is a willingness from our political leaders to set aside their partisan biases and have real, significant conversation on gun control. Now.

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