As the nation grieves over the shocking and senseless murder in Aurora, Colorado, the conversation turns to how to prevent such violence in the future. Some wonder what role violent media play in motivating twisted killers. Others suggest that stricter gun control is a key step in curtailing such havoc. Some of these are suggesting that gun control is not only the only sensible measure but the only thing consistent with a pro-life ethic.
In this morning’s Washington Post, David Gibson of the Religion News Service examines the charges by some religious leaders, most specifically a Jesuit priest in America magazine, that it is hypocritical to call oneself “pro-life” and yet not support extensive gun control measures. He asked me what I thought. Is gun violence a pro-life issue?
Gun violence is clearly a pro-life issue to the extent that murder is evil and a violation of the dignity of the person and the right to life. That said, usually what people mean by including gun violence as a pro-life issue is not about gun violence, directly, but about gun control measures.
I don’t own a gun, and have no desire to do so, but I hold to pretty traditional conservative views about the Second Amendment as a personal and individual right. Like every other constitutional right, this right isn’t unlimited and all-expansive. But I’m generally suspicious of gun control measures as naive and ineffective, if not counter-productive, preferring to combat gun violence with strict law enforcement of existing laws. Having said that, I hold my Second Amendment views for different reasons and with different conviction than I hold my First and Second Commandment views.
My views on this issue are informed, I hope, by my conscience as a Christian, which is to be shaped by Scripture and the church. But my position on this question is not “Thus saith the Lord.” It’s “Thus thinketh Moore,” and there’s a big difference.
Many Christians and other pro-lifers support gun control measures, of course, and some support very extensive measures. But the question of gun control is a different question than the issue of gun violence itself.
The gun control debate isn’t between people who support the right to shoot innocent people and those who don’t. It’s instead a debate about what’s prudent, and what’s not, in solving the common goal of ending criminal violent behavior. That’s why orange-vested NRA members and vegan gun-control advocates can co-exist, as the Body of Christ, in the same church, without excommunicating one another.
The abortion rights question is a different one, both in American political culture and within the structure of Christian life and thought.
Tut the question of whether the unborn child is a human person bearing all the right to life. Wherever one stands on gun control, no one is denying the personhood of gun victims or their right to be protected from violence. Whatever one thinks about gun control, no one in the American debate today supports selling guns to those who intend to kill. The question instead is how to prevent guns from being used criminally. Some think gun control measures are a necessary way to do this; others think such laws are averting the real issue altogether, which is about enforcing existing laws not creating new ones. That’s a very different debate than the cultural divide over whether life in the womb is worth legal protection at all.
Behind all of this, there’s a larger question. I agree that pro-life convictions are about more than just abortion. We ought to be pro-life and whole life. Our convictions about the dignity of women and children harmed by abortion ought to prompt us to stand against criminal violence and dehumanization wherever it is. But we ought not to let the term “pro-life” become so elastic as to lose all meaning. In most cases, the expansion of “pro-life” is a way to divert attention from the question of personhood and human rights.
Gun violence is a pro-life issue in that it is a horrible evil, and it ought to remind us that all persons deserve protection from such violence. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree on all the specifics of how to achieve that goal. The abortion issue isn’t about prudential means to a common goal, but about legally protecting those who are subject to lethal violence.
Let’s grieve for the victims of gun violence. And let’s work to reason together about the best ways to achieve the common good on helping to prevent guns from being used for malevolent ends. Let’s let our pro-life convictions guide our consciences to work for peace and justice for all persons. But let’s see the difference between questions of clear conviction and questions of provisional prudence.