Commentary

Gun control push a reminder of limits on preventing evil

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An emotional president of the United States announced that he was going to do something by executive authority when it came to what he described as the problem of gun violence.

As Eric Lichtblau and Michael D. Shear of the New York Times reported: “As tears streamed down his face, President Obama on Tuesday condemned the gun violence that has reached across the United States as he vowed to take action to curb the bloodshed with or without Congress.”

The president was surrounded by many people, friends and family as described of those who had been victims of recent shootings. The president said: “In this room right here, there are a lot of stories. There’s a lot of heartache.”

He went on to say: “There’s a lot of resilience, there’s a lot of strength, but there’s also a lot of pain.”

As the New York Times and other major media indicated, what the president announced is not any new proposal for legislation. There is little political opportunity, and that’s an understatement for any kind of legislation on this issue at present, and that would include opposition from members of the president’s own party — not only from the opposing party, the Republicans.

There no doubt was a great deal of emotion in the room, including the emotion of the president as he made this announcement. But the announcement itself doesn’t come down to much in terms of actual change in policy. Indeed, as the New York Times reported:
“A number of the executive actions he plans are only suggested ‘guidance’ for federal agencies, not binding regulations. They were framed mostly [said the Times] as clarifying and enforcing existing law, not expanding it.”

Furthermore, even the New York Times, one of the most pro-gun-control newspapers in the nation, acknowledged that what the president announced may lead to no basic reduction in the number of gun sales in America.

Here are a few statements from the New York Times lead article: “There were nearly 21 million gun sales were processed through the background check system in 2014, but some industry analysts say as many as 40 percent more firearms could have been sold through private transactions not subject to background checks.”

They then said: “Even the most hopeful advocates say the new plan would affect only thousands of sales.”
Later in the New York Times article, we read that,
“Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch told reporters Monday that she could not say whether the new restrictions would have had any effect in a series of recent mass shootings, including last month’s attack in San Bernardino, Calif."

Furthermore, the New York Times also had to acknowledge that background checks, fully legally required, failed in preventing Dylan Roof from buying a handgun, despite having admitted to drug use. Dylan Roof, of course, was the shooter in a massacre of nine people at a South Carolina church in June 2015. All of this was basically conceded by the president when he said yesterday, and I quote:

“Each time this comes up, we are fed the excuse that commonsense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying. I reject that thinking [said the president]. We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”

We should note the language used by the president here. It’s the kind of language we might expect in this kind of context. The president described his proposals — the executive actions in very limited form announced yesterday — by describing them as commonsense reforms. That’s the kind of language a politician uses to defend his proposal or action, and it’s the kind of statement we can easily understand.

No sane person would be against commonsense reform. The very use of the term “common sense” indicates that this is a sense that should be common to all. But the commonsense reforms that the president is talking about in terms of what he wants in gun-control legislation — those so-called commonsense reforms — couldn’t get through either chamber of Congress, including getting past members of his own party.

The United States of America is a nation that is framed by a Constitution in terms of our form of government. That Constitution’s Second Amendment required by the original states for the ratification of the Constitution grants to citizens the right to bear arms.

Just about any sane Christian looking at this would have to understand there are some restrictions that are not unconstitutional. After all, none of us, sanely, would want the neighbor next to us to have an arsenal like a paramilitary organization.

On the other hand, the Second Amendment, plainly stated, does give to citizens the right to own arms. That doesn’t mean that our neighbor should be allowed to own a tank or antiaircraft missiles, but it does mean that the Constitution, in its very original form required for ratification by the states, included the affirmation that citizens have the right to bear arms.

One of the most interesting developments that seems to come after every one of these mass shootings is not what you might expect. It is not a decrease in gun sales in America, but rather an increase in legal gun sales. There are certainly different levels of debate in terms of this issue.

At the one level, biblical-minded Christians, trying sincerely to operate out of a biblical worldview, may come to differing conclusions about whether or not a Christian should own firearms. That’s something that’s up for legitimate debate, and it’s something that isn’t going to be answered in a black and white context, because Scripture does not speak directly to the issue.

At a second level of debate, this is a legal and political issue, and here the Constitution of the United States is clear.

What isn’t clear is exactly what kind of legislation is consistent with that constitutional affirmation. That's something to be hammered out by Congress and the courts. But that’s something that has been hammered out by Congress and the courts for the better part of the last two centuries and more.

The reality is that the American people are generally averse to gun control legislation, and that’s been true not only in recent years, but ever since the nation’s founding, and it is true in all 50 states to one degree or another.

From a Christian worldview perspective, one particular sentence in the president’s address should draw our attention. It is this: “We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”

That is morally compelling language, but there is no way to know exactly how that morally compelling language can be actually translated into public policy. We could, as the president said — and we should — wish that we could stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world.

We wish that we could read the human heart and the human mind and know who would use guns with an evil intent. But the reality is we have a very limited ability to do so.

There is no reason to question the president’s emotion when he gave the speech nor his sincerity in presenting these proposals. But there is every reason to question the seriousness or the effectiveness of a set of proposals when the administration itself has had to say they may have done nothing to prevent the recent massacres the president cites, nor to prevent any in the future.

Shedding tears over the massacre of first graders is undeniably right. Deciding how that is to be translated into serious public policy—that’s a far more difficult challenge, and one that will now be given over to political controversy.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

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