Gun Reform or the Horrifying Norm?

The recent mass shooting of young school children (and some of their teachers) in Newtown, Connecticut, has shocked the world. It is truly horrific. It’s hard to even think about without feeling physically ill or having tears begin to well up.

Somewhat predictably, it has also resulted in the same media frenzy – verging on the obsessive – that usually follows such events, as well as the tired emotive rhetoric that stymies actual discussion and which usually results in the maintaining of the status quo (once the news cycle has moved on to the next tragedy, or some Royal somewhere does pretty much anything).

Much has already been written on these events, and there will be much more to come. Knowing this, I would just like to offer a couple of thoughts that, I hope, might be helpful.

1) Firstly, the noble-sounding calls for making sure that this moment is not ‘politicised’ are code for making sure that the policy status quo remains and ensures that this will happen again.

Now, I’m sure that there are some very well-meaning people who are making these calls (just as there are many who know exactly what they are doing). I’m sure that there is a sense for many (especially with the media obsession with these events) that there just needs to be space for the families to grieve in peace. I understand this. I’m also not a fan of cheap political point-scoring.

But one thing I know for sure is that, if the moment is not seized, if policy change is not set in motion while the horror of it all is still being acutely felt, then policy change will not come and this sort of thing will happen again (and again and again). I think recent history has shown, beyond all doubt, that this would certainly be the case.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for knee-jerk reactions that are based purely on emotion. That rarely (if ever) results in good policy outcomes. What I am arguing for, however, is for all the policy discussion and debate that has happened in the wake of each of these catastrophic events (and there has been a lot!) to be brought to bear on concrete policy being put forward while tide of human good will can carry it. We know what needs to happen. We know the sort of policy that needs to be put forward. Much thought has already gone into this, but ordinary circumstances do not provide the impetus to disrupt business as usual. If this opportunity is lost now, then (and I really do hate to say it) policy reform in this are might be left on hold until the next ‘unthinkable’ tragedy. The time for action is now – right now – because the power of the status quo is, in normal circumstances, simply unchallengeable.

And this brings me to the second point.

2) Actual change on the issue of gun violence in the U.S. will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

The history of the U.S. is written in blood.

Birthed in the Revolutionary War, the nation came of age in the Civil War and reached full maturity with the events at the end of WWII. The history of the U.S. is a history of violence and, I would make the claim, violence is part of the nation’s very DNA. This can be seen, I would suggest, in everything from the decimation of the Native American populations, to black lynchings (usually at the hands of crowds of very ‘respectable’ white folk), to gang warfare and drive-by shootings, to modern U.S. foreign policy and the drone murders of thousands of innocents.

(As a kind of excursus here, is it not obscene that the deaths of dozens – or hundreds, or even thousands – of innocent children in drone bombings doesn’t attract the same media attention as the murder of innocent American kids? I am not for one minute trying to play down the absolute horror of this recent tragedy in Connecticut, but rather trying to get my head around the obscenity of the indiscriminate killing of ‘other’ children whose lives don’t seem to be worth as much…)

In this context, the 2nd Amendment (linked as it is to the very birth of the nation) has, I think, become what some might refer to as ‘structural sin’*. This concept is so deeply engrained in the corporate psyche of the nation that it is almost inextricably linked with national identity. And this structural sin has given birth to, dare I say it, a kind of ‘demonic’ entity that seeks to preserve the structural sin from any watering down or, indeed, from being ‘exorcised’ from the Constitution. Yes, I am talking about the NRA (and others like it). These entities hold an inordinate amount of power, and the whole has become something much more than the sum of its parts. They seem to feed on tragedy and grow more aggressive each time their power is tested.

Now, please let me be very, very clear here: my use of such language does not for one moment mean I am saying that this tragedy is some kind of punishment or judgment from God. I am not saying that. I will never say that. I don’t believe that.

What I am saying is that the natural consequences of ‘structural sin’ are things like oppression or exploitation or destruction or death. The specifics can vary, but the effects are always very similar. The powerful cling to self-serving power and the innocent and the vulnerable are trampled under foot.**

And the only way to break the cycle is an act of corporate ownership of the problem – like a new A.A. member admitting that they have a problem and ‘owning’ it – and an act of corporate repentance (which entails an active turning away from the cycle of sin).

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the 2nd Amendment needs to be ‘thrown out’ (I’m not sure that this would ever be possible, even though it has all the applicability to the modern U.S. as dietary regulations in the Hebrew Scriptures do for Christians***). What I am saying is that there is a possibility to at least put a fence around this structural sin and to limit its power.

And that possibility is available right now.

Though changing attitudes in the U.S. on these issues is an extraordinary task, though it will mean in part challenging the very identity of the nation, I believe there is an opportunity at this moment. Even through all the similar tragedies of the past there has not been enough utter brokenness to see something change. Even with all the good will of those in the U.S. who have passionately and tirelessly campaigned for these changes there has not been enough recognition or acceptance of the extent of the problem to see that change enacted.

But this time it’s different.

This time, it was kids.

I don’t know why, but something seems to happen to us all when innocent kids are involved in these tragedies (well, perhaps ‘kids of people like us’ might better sum it up, but I don’t want to be too cynical here). Somethings breaks inside. Somehow we are able to understand the horror at a deeper level. Somehow it allows a moment of clarity in an otherwise out-of-focus world. I think this article from The Onion sums it up well (language warning!).

Though the task is very difficult – indeed impossible under normal circumstances – I have hope that something good can come from this horror. This doesn’t change anything for the dozens of grieving families and a community brought to its knees (and all the other families and communities devastated by previous tragedies), but it might just mean that other families and communities are spared a similar fate.

America, the time is now. May God be with you at this time.


* Sometimes referred to as ‘institutional sin’ or ‘corporate sin’.
** Please let me make it clear here that I don’t for one moment believe that all Americans are ‘evil’. That is not what I am saying at all, even though I’m sure some will accuse me of saying this very thing.
*** I make this comparison because I think it’s particularly well suited. Both situations involve the careful exegesis of ‘sacred’ historical texts in situations far removed from their original context.


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

7 thoughts on “Gun Reform or the Horrifying Norm?”

  1. Jack. The Chinese also have had problems with knife wielding lunatics going on the rampage at pre and primary schools. Last Friday 22 kids and an adult were seriously injured in what has been a series of assaults on Schools in their precincts. Though the media has been strangely silent on this.

    On a personal basis I enjoy shooting. While I no longer am involved in the sport, I am considering once again getting involved in it next year. In the past because of work (farming) requirements I always had access to a firearm. In saying this, I do not believe that any body needs to own a military style firearm for personal use. However even with our own tough gun laws, we Australians have also failed to stop gun crime and we are hearing on a near daily basis of a shooting somewhere going on in the NSW region.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Craig.
      I think the events in China are important to note, but as much for the differences as for the similarities. The guy took in a knife (or knives) and, as far as I know, no one was killed. Though it’s still certainly a horrific thing to happen, the difference had a gun been used would’ve been catastrophic.
      In regards to persistent gun crime in Australia, I believe that the legislation around handguns is somewhat different to rifles. Christine Milne (leader of the Greens and someone who was instrumental in the ‘Howard’ gun reforms) has been talking about this quite a bit, and I think she has a very good point. Also, I don’t think we are going to stamp it out entirely, There will always be people who try to go around the laws or import illegal firearms, but having sensible gun laws goes a very long way towards making a real difference (and makes prosecution of those seeking to get around the laws easier).
      I think Australia has done quite well in this regard and, though there is some way to go, I think we should be proud of how our nation reacted to something like Port Arthur.
      Like you, I grew up with easy access to firearms do to my rural background, and I even owned (illegally) a rifle myself for quite some time. I have been involved in clay target shooting as well as ‘spotlighting’ and, while I have come to the position that I never personally want to be around firearms again, I do understand that there are good arguments to be made for those in rural situations to have (well-regulated) access to firearms. I certainly don’t see too many other good arguments for the general public to have access to them, and think that any use for recreational purposes should be extremely well regulated.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      My hope is that what I write might make sense to people on both sides of this debate, so I appreciate your comments.

      While I personally don’t want to be around firearms, I do understand their attraction. What I don’t understand is why any gun enthusiast would not want their sale and use properly regulated (which is, I think, evident a lot of the time in the U.S.).

      Decent regulation does not mean a total ban, but just provides some parameters around the use of these weapons.

      1. I firmly agree with you. I would never push anyone into firearm appreciation or ownership. I like Australia’s system as it tends to weed out those who want guns for the sake of guns from those who are genuinely interested in sports shooting. And while I am not an expert on American law, I do not think firearms restrictions diminishes the right to bear arms. I do not believe that any sportin shooter in Australia would argue that current Australian firearms laws limits them in their sport.

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