What does the Bible say about gun control?

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What does the Bible say about gun control?

August 3, 2022 -

© Nomad_Soul /stock.adobe.com

© Nomad_Soul /stock.adobe.com

© Nomad_Soul /stock.adobe.com

Horrific mass shootings have rocked America in 2022. A racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, killed eleven people. In Uvalde, Texas, nineteen children and two teachers were massacred in an elementary school. These tragedies struck alongside headlines announcing that guns killed more young people than cars in 2020. Renewed calls for gun control have echoed through the country.

In July 2022, a mass shooter in an Indiana mall killed three people and was shooting more. In this instance, however, a “good Samaritan” bystander legally carrying a gun shot him dead. The civilian was twenty-two years old and showed proficiency with his weapon. Many more would certainly have died without his heroic actions. This incident brought renewed resilience for people protecting gun rights.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: there are no guns in the Bible. The Bible is a collection of divinely inspired works written by humans over a span of three thousand years, but the last inspired work that is included in the canon of Scripture was written during the first century AD.

In this resource, we won’t talk about what you should believe about gun control. Instead, we will seek what the Bible says about gun control while providing the basic layout of the debate. As is often the case in political division, more unites us than we might expect.

In this article

Arguments for and against gun control

Most Americans’ opinions on gun control sit on a spectrum. Americans are usually not for banning all guns, and most don’t affirm unrestricted access. At the most basic level, advocates for stricter gun legislation value safety. While those who defend gun rights typically prioritize freedom above other values, they also value safety. The number one reason cited for legally owning a gun is self-protection.

Gun rights activists claim that human behavior is the issue at the root of gun violence, not guns. They will often support stricter policing coupled with fewer gun restrictions.

Gun control activists say that guns make a variety of situations more deadly, especially certain kinds of guns, and that more guns in a system mean the wrong people will get them.

In a general sense, gun rights advocates may simply ask: If an intruder breaks in, or a mass shooter starts opening fire, wouldn’t you wish you had a gun? People who have any confidence using guns will nearly always answer yes.

On the other hand, gun control advocates might state that good people with guns rarely stop shooters. Even considering self-defense, does any law-abiding citizen need a “military-style” rifle with a high-capacity magazine? And, at the most basic level: Won’t fewer guns overall mean fewer gun deaths?

Gun rights advocates appeal to a few arguments for freer access to guns:

  • Guns allow law-abiding citizens to defend themselves, their families, and others from criminals.
  • A large number of legal guns in society will help protect it from tyranny and invading countries.
  • Guns have many purposes, like target shooting, and it’s not the government’s business to restrict something that has a perfectly reasonable, non-criminal use.
  • Gun ownership is protected in the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

Gun control advocates have their arguments:

  • Access to guns leads to higher suicide rates, accidental deaths, and homicides.
  • Many mass shootings and murders occur with legally obtained or stolen guns, so more laws restricting guns in general need to be enacted.
  • We regulate all kinds of things, like cars. At the very least, we should regulate guns with a similar level of government control.
  • Other wealthy countries have lower homicide rates overall and fewer gun deaths with stricter gun regulations.

First, let’s cover some basic definitions.

What are assault rifles and mass shootings?

Not knowing the correct terminology often leads to misunderstanding. Unfortunately, many terms in the gun control debate are not agreed upon.

For instance, people for gun control tend to support laws banning assault rifles. The US already heavily restricted what the US military calls assault rifles, which refers to a rifle with the ability to toggle between fully automatic and semi-automatic firing. On the other hand, some semi-automatic weapons were included in the assault weapon ban of 1994, a law that has since expired.

When the media talks about assault rifles, they typically mean semi-automatic rifles. Semi-automatic refers to a gun that shoots once every time you pull the trigger without the user needing to cock the gun.

A 9mm gun has a caliber of 9mm. This refers to the size of the bullet and the barrel of the gun for the bullet to travel through, as well as the size of the cartridge (which holds the gun powder). Some AR-15s are 9mm, but they may also be of all different calibers (and so have different destructive capabilities and ranges). Handguns are commonly 9mm as well. A “45” is more powerful than a 9mm, and a “22” is less powerful than a 9mm.

An AR-15 or common handgun can be any one of those calibers.

This means that, while people want to ban assault rifles (by which they generally mean semi-automatic rifles), they are not necessarily talking about more powerful guns than handguns. Many handguns are also semi-automatic. AR-15s typically have larger magazines (more rounds of ammunition before you need to reload), but not always. Most handguns hold between ten to seventeen rounds, whereas AR-15s have between ten to one hundred depending on the magazine, but ten to thirty is standard. Rifles’ long barrels make it easier to aim and give them longer range than a handgun of the same caliber.

However, in 2020, rifles only accounted for 3 percent of firearm murders, whereas handguns made up 59 percent.

On the other hand, semi-automatic rifles were used in many mass shootings, another term to be wary of because its definition varies widely. Typically, a mass shooting refers to four people killed or injured (besides the shooter) at the same event. Some researchers also qualify that it must be “indiscriminate,” meaning it excludes gang violence, armed robbery, or domestic violence.

Depending on these definitions, there were only six mass shootings or up to five hundred in 2019. This is because gang violence and domestic violence are included in the five hundred number, whereas the six only included shooters who weren’t targeting anyone in particular (like in the Uvalde shooting).

There are countless other terms. For example, there are different kinds of rounds, like hollow point or full metal jacket rounds. We’ve only spoken about rifles and handguns, but of course there are shotguns as well.

The point is that the terms are confusing. We should not assume that when people use misleading terminology, they do so with malicious intent. There’s a deeper layer of awareness about terms that’s needed when talking about policy issues, not only about guns themselves, but the way that studies use statistics.

We should still debate different policies’ merits, but we need to be vigilant of the terms involved.

What do the statistics say about gun deaths in America?

We can cover an overview of fairly uncontested statistics that show a breakdown of gun violence in America.

According to the CDC in 2020, 54 percent of gun deaths were caused by suicide, and 43 percent were due to murder of some kind. The remaining 3 percent were unintentional, involved law enforcement, or took place under unidentified circumstances. The total number of gun deaths in 2020 was 45,222.

The total number of gun deaths in 2020 was the highest on record, which is certainly horrific to reflect on. However, this number does not account for the increasing population of the US. There were 13.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2020. This is the highest rate since the mid-1990s, but it remains far below the highest rate of 16.3 in 1974. Gun death rates were on a downward trend since the 1990s but spiked in 2020.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, an additional 40,000 people were injured but not killed by firearms in 2020. The number of children killed (0–11) was 300, and the number of teens (ages 12–17) was 1,085. According to this source, which updated its 2021 numbers before the CDC, there was a small increase in all areas of gun violence from 2020 to 2021.

We will discuss this number further, but “defensive use” shootings that were reported and verified accounted for 1,500 shootings in 2020. This does not include someone with a gun deterring a criminal without discharging the gun and hitting the person, which would account for a much larger number.

Regardless of the definition of mass shooting, they account for a small fraction of gun violence, as tragic and evil as they are. Between a few dozen and several hundred people die in mass shootings every year depending on the definition used.

So, to recap, suicide accounts for over half of America’s gun deaths, about half were from murders, and a very small percent were from accidents, mass shootings, or defensive use.

What does the evidence say about gun control?

Evidence about gun control’s effectiveness is difficult to measure and evaluate. Comparing countries, states, and cities is often like comparing apples to oranges. This is especially true with regard to other countries and the US, which has a unique history when it comes to gun culture.

Considering the UK and Australia can certainly be helpful in the discussion, but only to a point. For example, while suicide by guns are lower in the UK and Australia than in the US, they have similar rates overall. Homicide rates overall are much lower in those countries compared to the US. However, the US’s homicide rate is also much lower than the neighboring South American countries.

Regardless of whether we believe in tightly restricting guns, we must carefully consider studies before jumping to conclusions. For example, while we might picture the Uvalde mass shooting as a typical example, 60 percent of mass shootings (four people dead excluding the shooter) between 2014 and 2019 were related to domestic violence, not indiscriminate killing. Unless, of course, you define a mass shooting as indiscriminate.

Some numbers are nearly impossible to measure accurately. Deterrence is a notorious example of this. Gun rights advocates will say that law-abiding Americans with guns will often deter criminals.

For example, one highly contested survey from 1995 suggests there are over two million annual instances of deterrent or defensive gun use. However, another study of confirmed sources suggested the number was closer to 70,000 (although it left out key instances of when people might use guns in self-defense). Several reasons exist for this discrepancy, but, in truth, the number of Americans who use a gun annually to deter a criminal is probably somewhere in the middle.

While there is some evidence that certain restrictions decrease suicide rates, in Australia the evidence is not so clear. There, when a massive gun buyback program rolled out and most guns were made illegal in 1996, suicide spiked for one year. Then, it trended down for a decade or so, only to start trending back up. Tragically, when guns were made illegal, the rate of suicide by hanging spiked dramatically. Homicides overall are much lower than before the laws, but the correlation is not exact. So, the question remains: How much did gun control legislation help?

In these conversations, narrowly defined evidence doesn’t seem to prove enough, while broader evidence often merely shows correlation.

What about states with gun control?

What about states within the US, like California? They’ve enacted nearly all the proposed American gun control policies in the past couple of decades. It’s true that gun deaths have gone down significantly, and we should take that seriously. There is reason to think some of the laws might help (see below).

While with respect to gun deaths overall California went from one of the worst States to one of the best, the state is about average with homicide rates in general. It does better than the national average with respect to suicides overall, and both have trended downard since gun control policies have been enacted. However, violent crime has also trended down nationally since the 1990s, so it is probably not all due to gun laws specifically. California’s laws may show that gun control helps lower gun deaths, but it doesn’t necessarily seem to lower homicides or suicides overall by much. Their strongest point is that they have had fewer mass shootings on average than before (a 25 percent decrease).

So, it’s plausible that gun control policies have actually helped decrease violent crime, but it’s not a sure connection.

Is the overall decrease in deaths because of gun control or other factors? The decrease correlates with gun control, which is important to note, but that doesn’t prove with certainty how effective gun control would be nationally.

On a narrower point, one study showed that Californians living with another person who owned a gun were just as likely to be victims of assault by strangers and were twice as likely to die from homicide overall. When I corresponded with the author of the study, I proffered a couple of different scenarios that might explain the study’s findings. He responded that each of the scenarios was plausible.

In each case of someone’s violent death, the circumstances are always complex, and even the narrowest studies can’t always draw specific conclusions.

It can feel hopeless swimming in dozens of scientific studies, each with its own specific parameters, and each side always countering the other’s points. This issue also feels urgent, and rightly so. So, do we give up and maintain the status quo?

Not necessarily.

The RAND Corporation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank that rigorously examines research to inform policy internationally. As far as the raw evidence goes, their findings were most helpful for the evidence portion of this debate. They have high standards for what qualifies as acceptable studies (which rules out a large number of them) and only make conclusions if multiple studies corroborate findings.

With their strict standards for research, the leap to deciding on a gun control policy is not a straight line—but it is much clearer.

How to healthily disagree with people about gun control

Having good faith conversations means respecting the other person as someone with a worthwhile perspective, even if you believe they are wrong.

Unfortunately, the media often portrays this problem as an all-or-nothing issue. Politicians rarely seem to compromise in today’s political environment. Interest groups like the National Rifle Association and left-leaning news sites may mask the truth by peddling fear instead of encouraging helpful, factual discussions. To rise above the polarized, partisan divide, we need to realize that a spectrum on the issues does exist.

For a good example of the debate playing out thoughtfully and respectfully between two Christians, I recommend the Good Faith podcast episode: “Gun Violence, Gun Rights & Gun Idolatry” with David French and Curtis Chang. Dr. Jim Denison’s Respectfully I Disagree also helps frame how to have beneficial discussions.

What does the Bible say about gun control? 6 biblical principles

We’ve covered what the Bible says about self-defense in-depth in “What does the bible say about self-defense?”

To summarize, the Bible seems to support self-defense in normal cases (an exception may be in the case of persecution for one’s faith). An Old Testament law in Leviticus protects people who kill intruders by accident (presumably in believed self-defense). However, it also condemns someone who kills a thief in daylight as a murderer. Violence ought to be a last resort, and violence is absolutely prohibited by someone if it’s in revenge, vigilante justice, or disproportionate to their crimes (Romans 12:19). Christians should be known as peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Right now, in our culture, Christians are unfortunately not always known for that.

We’ve identified a few other key biblical principles to remember in reflecting on this problem.

1. Both “sides” usually want to save lives.

While this is self-evident for people in favor of gun restrictions, it’s often true for those in favor of fewer gun restrictions as well. They pose the problem like this: Would you rather have “good guys” with guns or “bad guys” with guns? Others would argue that this is not a realistic picture of the world, but on the surface, it does make common sense.

In each situation, we can debate whether some certain law “would have” stopped deaths from happening. That’s helpful, but we cannot always know. In the grand scheme of America’s history, it’s difficult to tell whether our unique perspective on guns is beneficial for saving lives, but it’s important to discuss for our future. Either way, both sides desire the same result: to save lives. There are honest, honorable people who train with guns, treat them with the utmost respect, desire to use them as a last resort, and have a heart to protect their communities.

Liberal politicians and activist groups have their self-serving agenda, and likewise conservative politicians and interest groups like the NRA have their self-serving agenda, but most regular Americans just want what’s best for everyone.

Saving lives is a noble pursuit. Christians believe that life is sacred from conception until death. Each life is made in God’s image, and God stamps his imprint on each person (Genesis 1:27). God loves the world—each suicide victim, car thief, policeman, gang member, and pacifist (John 3:16). The sacredness of life must not be violated unless it’s in the protection of others and as a last resort.

2. Brokenness will plague our world.

It is true that people will continue to do violence no matter the weapon at hand. When gun homicides go down, homicides with other items go up. However, this is not necessarily a point for the gun rights “side,” who focus on behavior. People who have given in to evil and plan to kill someone, with easier access to a gun, will be more able to easily carry out their sinful desires. “In the moment” killings, like in road rage, are often committed with guns. As we previously discussed, domestic and intimate partner violence are also common reasons for gun violence (Proverbs 29:22).

The point is that sin and brokenness will plague this world until Christ returns to fully solidify his kingdom. Some liberals are in danger of trying to create a utopia through government control. Some conservatives are in danger of thinking in black-and-white terms, trusting in a sometimes idealistic idea of “law-abiding citizens with guns.”

3. All life is sacred.

It’s easy to dismiss the deaths of criminals as negligible or suicides as unavoidable (and that particular person’s problem). While it is true that earthly governments should wield the sword for justice, even the life of the criminal is sacred (Romans 13:3–4). That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to kill, although it is always wrong to murder (Exodus 20:13). It means we must prize and value life above essentially all else.

Accidental deaths, suicides, gang-related killings, domestic homicides, and mass shootings are all part of the massive number of gun-related deaths every year. Whatever the solution to each of these separate issues, we must always remember that all life is sacred.

For example, there is evidence that suggests suicidal people with easy access to guns are more likely to end up committing suicide successfully. Other methods of committing suicide are not nearly as effective as a gun. So, removing guns from people with suicidal warning signs will likely save some lives. While that can be done without governmental policies, suicidal people might be greatly helped by gun legislation.

4. “Mourn with those who mourn.”

Given that all life is sacred, the number of gun deaths every year in the US would crush our hearts if we could fully grasp the tragedy that each number represents. While we should talk about the numbers, we shouldn’t ignore compassion and empathy. There will always be tension when we talk about large numbers of people dying or suffering because our limited hearts cannot fully break for tens of thousands of people. Mourn with those mourning (Romans 12:15) and never forget compassion (Colossians 3:12).

5. Exemplify humility.

The scope of the issue is hard to grasp. And the evidence, dozens of scientific studies, and countless terms are often befuddling. Each of us should remember to listen carefully, not be quick to anger, and humble ourselves, knowing that our knowledge of the issue is limited (Proverbs 15:1; 19:1; James 1:19; Ephesians 4:31).

6. Avoid idolatry.

Americans have a unique gun culture among nations. We live under the Constitution, which says that owning a gun is a fundamental “right.” People who own guns must avoid the idolatry that can so easily come with the culture. There’s nothing wrong with having it as a hobby, as collector’s items, or taking training in security and self-defense. All of these are fine pursuits, if done wisely. But glamorizing death while placing all security and hope in guns is sinful.

Robert Schenck writes that he feels the “rush of self-confidence and even domination that . . .  goes with having lethal firepower at your immediate disposal.” Gun owners can easily fall into a false sense of security and power that they trust in. In reality we know that it’s easy to miss our target and endanger others. And, even if we shoot the right person, it’s no cause for celebration—it’s cause for mourning over suffering or a lost life.

David French is a conservative commentator, firm Christian, and believes in the right to bear arms. He nonetheless worries about a “gun fetish” that has gripped America. He wrote in June, “It’s . . . disturbing to see that spirit of armed defiance so closely correlated with the religious right. The decision of Christians to provoke their fellow citizens into feeling palpable, physical fear of armed violence is deliberately malicious and cruel.” This is a small subset of Christians, but it’s worth noting to be wary of.

We must avoid pride as well. Believers who lean towards gun restrictions and are typically left on the political spectrum should recognize that most gun owners are empathetic, and not foolish. Uncritically supporting activism for gun control doesn’t help solve the problem. While the government’s laws might help lower gun deaths, we can’t ultimately trust in earthly kingdoms (Psalm 20:7). We must not glorify uncritical “progress.”

Common ground on gun control

Already, fully automatic weapons are basically banned in the US. Policies that regulate behavior rather than a particular kind of gun are far more acceptable to conservatives. This common ground could help move us forward constructively. The most entrenched values probably won’t shift (although we should let the Bible determine our values), but as far as actual policies, I encourage every reader to research these laws.

Red flag laws

Red flag laws allow anyone to report someone who appears at risk of suicide or violence to a judge, and then, if the judge deems it necessary, have their gun confiscated for a period of time.

Gun storage laws (child access prevention laws)

These are already present in many states. These laws require that guns are safely stored. This seems to decrease accidental deaths and could potentially help decrease relatives stealing them for malicious purposes or to commit suicide. Owning responsibility for dangerous things in your possession is certainly a biblical idea (Exodus 21:28–29).

Stricter restraints on domestic violence criminals

These refer to laws that restrict people with a history of domestic violence of any kind from purchasing a firearm. There is some evidence that this could reduce violent crime.

Universal background checks

These would make sure that each gun purchaser, whether through a private sale or otherwise, would go through a background check for previous criminal activity. Ninety-two percent of Americans are for this measure. There is some evidence that this could reduce violent crime.

Waiting periods

While this is not particularly popular with many conservatives, establishing waiting periods does seem to decrease gun suicides. Again, it’s difficult to measure whether it would decrease suicides and violent crimes overall, but it might.

It also doesn’t restrict the purchase of guns themselves; it only limits the buying process. On the other hand, some will say it unnecessarily dampens freedoms and might contradict the Second Amendment. It’s an inconvenience for many and would be difficult to enforce. It would also require stricter control over private sales.

Americans are in favor of each of these laws by at least two-thirds majority. This doesn’t mean they all should be enacted at a federal level, or that they will even be effective. But, in our opinion, each of these at least deserves a long, hard look, especially since they have so much bipartisan support.

The biblical solution to gun violence

Regardless of whether you believe that stricter gun laws will help, storing guns safely and protecting them from theft is important to stopping the problem.

Limiting who you allow to borrow your gun is also key. It’s difficult to imagine friends or family doing something evil, but we are worse at reading people than we think and we shouldn’t be naive (Matthew 10:16). While we are not directly responsible for other people’s actions or sins, the Bible does speak to negligence, and those who own firearms should take safety seriously.

While guns can be used in self-defense, guns can also exacerbate an already bad situation. Defending others with a gun is likely wise and loving in some situations, but violence (especially killing) should only be a last resort. Vigilante justice, revenge, anger, or other reasons should not be reasons for violence.

If you know an abusive person who has access to a gun, get help. Go to the police and call 911 if they’re a danger to others. If they show signs of suicidality or self-harm, call 988. Reporting dangerous behavior is a selfless and just action.

We know that earthly kingdoms will never create perfect peace. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved in politics. It does mean that regardless of how perfect or imperfect the laws of the US are, we can spread God’s kingdom of peace where we are and in our lives. The same is true with guns, or without them.

A huge part of the gun violence problem in America can be helped by discipling people who might otherwise become criminals and gang members, by loving those who are tempted to self-harm, and making friends with the least of these. Since we know suicide is a such a huge part of the issue, we can help by loving the isolated people around us.

Instead of being overwhelmed by hopelessness, we should be encouraged to love those who need it the most.

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