Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Guns Don’t Kill People, the NRA Kills People
My first experience with a gun death was in seminary during my Clinical Pastoral Education program. On my very first night of on-call work I was summoned to the emergency room to be with a woman whose son was shot and killed in an altercation with his brother. There’s not much to say to a woman whose one son is lying on a gurney with blood oozing from a hold in his chest while her other son is in police custody charged with murder. To be sure, Cain killed Abel without benefit of a handgun, but I’m pretty sure that in the absence of a gun that June night in New Haven, the worst we’d be seeing would be treatment for a broken jaw.
Several years later a man who had come to me for counseling and who I had referred to a psychiatrist for more intensive therapy became despondent and took a rifle from his closet with the intention of killing his family and himself. The gun jammed after the fatal shot that killed his teenage step-son while he was sleeping. That spared the rest of the family death, but not horrible grief. Was an alcohol fueled argument to blame for the one death, mental illness for the other? Or should we look at the one common element in these two tragedies: the ready availability of a gun?
According to official statistics, between 2002 and 2014 a yearly average of 28 U.S. citizens were killed by terrorism. But in 2013 over 11,300 people were murdered by guns and 21,175 people committed suicide with a gun. In 2015 alone 375 Americans have died in mass shootings. Some of those murders and suicides were, no doubt, carefully planned and would have occurred by some means even if no gun were available. But not many. Most were driven by despair, impulse, anger, or despair coupled with alcohol and drugs. People kill. But they kill most efficiently and effectively with guns.
I’m not a hunter. Nor am I a devotee of target practice, though as a boy I enjoyed target shooting at YMCA camp. But I’ll accept that guns can be a part of recreational sports. That assumes, however, careful control, good training, and very serious safety precautions with secure storage and locking mechanisms at home. I’m willing to accept that there are reasonable people who believe that arming some civilians for self-defense is appropriate, but I don’t really accept the self-defense argument for having a hand gun in the house or the store. I admit it. I’m no moderate on the question of guns. I don’t want to own them and I don’t want the people around me to have them, either.
It doesn’t particularly surprise me that the thousands of deaths by guns of mostly Black and Hispanic residents of our urban cores doesn’t move the political class to action on gun control. What does surprise me is that the murder of twenty-six children and staff in a prosperous Connecticut suburb makes no impression, or that presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s response to the most recent mass shooting in Oregon was, “Stuff happens.” But of course the NRA has Congress in its pocket, or should we say the NRA has its hand out to the politicians’ doling out cash to ensure that those who block any gun control laws are rewarded, while those who promote sanity and safety are punished. In 2012 261 members of Congress received donations from the NRA. People do kill people, and not always with a finger on the trigger.
Cars don’t kill people, drivers kill people. True enough. But we license drivers and suspend licenses. We regulate car manufacturers and impose safety standards (not always as well as we should as in the case of GM). We impose speed limits and penalize those who break traffic laws. We raise insurance rates on dangerous drivers and reward safe drivers. We stop people when they drive under the influence of alcohol. We devote a lot of state and local police manpower to monitoring the driving of our citizens. We do all of this because we know that it vastly reduces the number of accidental deaths. But guns? Fire away!
The gun lobby’s approach to gun safety is to flood the nation with more weapons. Shootings in school? Arm teachers. Shootings in church? Arm pastors. After the Newtown shootings one gun manufacturer reported a 52% increase in sales. I don’t know about you, but if I found out my pastor was packing in church, or that my colleagues here at the seminary had handguns in their desks, I’d think twice about going to worship or coming to school. A few years ago a man was seen waving a gun on a busy New York street. Several police officers opened fire to stop him. Not one of these well trained officers hit the suspect, but several innocent civilians were wounded. If professionals perform this poorly I shudder to think what would happen if amateurs drew weapons in the sanctuary or seminary room.
So here’s an extremist statement from a non-violent person: People do kill people. People who run the NRA, people who fund the NRA, people who benefit from the NRA, people who submit to the threats of the NRA. In other words, guns don’t kill people, the NRA kills people. It’s as simple as that.
John H. Thomas
October 8, 2015