On Monday, America was subjected to another mass shooting. In Colorado, again. Colorado, home of Columbine High School where 15 people were killed in 1999; home of a movie theater in Aurora where 12 people were killed in 2012; and home of New Life Church, where five folks were killed in 2007.
And Colorado, where the National Rifle Association met only 10 days ago to challenge a ban on assault rifles, like the one used in Boulder.
Many of us were still processing the shooting in Atlanta, looking for ways that we can stand in solidarity with Asian Americans, supporting marches and vigils happening this week in response. And then 10 people were killed in Boulder.
There comes a point where the “thoughts and prayers” offered by policymakers and those in positions of influence and authority becomes dangerously close to taking the Lord’s name in vain. As a Christian I believe in prayer. I also believe in action, as the Bible says in the book of James: “Faith without works is dead.” There is something deeply problematic about offering thoughts and prayers after every mass shooting while refusing to take the necessary actions that will save lives.
These are the words of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It is interesting that it begins with the words “well regulated.” That seems to be the last thing some American patriots want, but it is right there in the Constitution.
A tiny minority of Americans (even a tiny minority of gun owners!) holds extreme views that prevent us from protecting our communities from the scourge of gun violence. What we have today is not well-regulated militias but a chaotic nation with more guns than people, even though two-thirds in our country choose to personally not own a gun and exercise the right not to bear arms. Yet this vocal minority, including a disproportionate number of people who call themselves religious, imposes its will on the majority.
It is striking that the NRA posted only half of the Second Amendment at their headquarters in Sacramento, California. It reads: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” They left out that half about “well regulated” and “militia.” It’s important to remember that the Second Amendment was written when there was no standing, centralized military, so localized militia were the security force, whether that meant dealing with escaped slaves, conflicts with native Americans, or any other threat to the well-being of land-owning white families.
The organized state militias have evolved into the National Guard and various state defense forces, and it makes sense that the Second Amendment would protect these organized groups that can be mobilized for the common good. But alongside these semiregular forces, the idea of the militia group evolved into something else entirely: a private group of gun owners who are nearly indistinguishable from hate groups or domestic terrorists. These groups have thrived on a militant nationalist and white supremacist ideology that has fueled the worst acts of domestic terrorism in the United States. They have used “armed protest” — which is to say, terrorism — to push their agendas at statehouses across the country, the Unite the Right rally in Virginia in 2017, and in Washington between the election and the inauguration.
There is no need for an unorganized or irregular militia, to say nothing of volunteers who try to impose their views on their fellow citizens, when we have a standing Army, reserves and National Guard, and armed federal, state and local law enforcement.
The question becomes this: Does the Second Amendment guarantee the collective right to own guns, like in the case of the militias, which still need regulation, or is it an individual right not contingent on any affiliation to a group? And the Supreme Court has ruled on this one. For 200 years the courts interpreted “the right to bear arms” as a collective or state right, but in 2008 it became crystal clear (in District of Columbia v. Heller) that the right to bear arms is an individual right, and states cannot block it.
But the court also made clear that the Second Amendment is not unlimited. Here are the words of one of the most conservative justices, the late Antonin Scalia: “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. ... The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms.”
In short, individuals have a right to guns, but those rights are not unlimited. They are subject to rules, regulations and restrictions. The jury may still be out on whether that is true in practice.
The unregulated “militias” have evolved in a uniquely American way, priding themselves on being “patriots” while also being ready to go to war with the military and police. These are the 3% of gun owners who own 133 million guns, about half of all firearms in America. They are not the majority of gun owners, but they are a forceful, intimidating minority. They don’t trust the government and believe in arming themselves in case the need should arise to fight the government itself. It’s easy to understand why there is so much overlap between conspiracy theories like QAnon and the growth of new militant groups like the Proud Boys.
The Second Amendment offers neither the moral authority nor unlimited legal authority for gun ownership.
Here’s the good news. More than 90% of Americans, including gun-owning Americans, want to see some changes when it comes to gun laws in America. What’s more is that a stunning number of gun owners find themselves at odds with the gun extremists and gun profiteers, that 3% minority, and with the uncompromising, unreasonable ideology of the now-bankrupt NRA.
These gun extremists, among the 10% or fewer who resist commosense gun laws, have held the conversation — and the politicians — hostage. When we think about the Second Amendment, it is important to remember the historic context. Slavery was legal. It was written before guns were able to shoot more than one bullet at a time, and when the three-fifths clause was acceptable. Times change, and societies evolve and advance. Maybe it is time to rethink the Second Amendment.
For we also know that the Declaration of Independence declares the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We also have the right to live. We must also protect the right not to bear arms. One person’s unregulated right to bear arms can infringe on another person’s right to live.
As a Christian, I would be remiss if I did not also recognize that the gun crisis in America is also a spiritual and moral crisis. White evangelical Christians are the largest gun-owning demographic in America. Imagine if every Christian in America took their commitment to Jesus as seriously as gun owners take their commitment to the Second Amendment.
The Bible also speaks of being careful not to misuse our freedom (Galatians). It tells us not to return evil for evil. And it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” with the NRA’s gospel of “stand your ground.”
The Second Amendment offers neither the moral authority nor unlimited legal authority for gun ownership. It is time that Americans, and especially my fellow evangelical Christians, refocus the faith they have placed in that article.
Shane Claiborne is the president of Red Letter Christians, a prominent speaker and activist, and a bestselling author.