by Dick Duncan
Dr. Duncan is executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries.
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 25, 1979, p. 469. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Some 9,000 gun murders are committed every year by law-abiding citizens who might have continued to be law-abiding had they not possessed firearms. One thing is certain: guns don’t create love or trust. Guns don’t bring life — they only take it away. And life is precious — it is a gift of God.
Handguns were responsible for the murders of 9,200 persons in the United States in 1976 — a figure amounting to 49 per cent of all murders committed that year. Over 117,000 people were assaulted with guns of all types; many of these people were blinded, deafened, paralyzed, dismembered or otherwise disabled.
In my city of Birmingham, Alabama, some more recent and exact statistics were assembled with the help of Dr. Donald Rivers, the chief coroner and medical examiner. During the first ten months of 1978, there were 89 homicides in Jefferson County; 75 occurred in Birmingham, 14 in the suburbs. Of those 89 deaths, 64 were brought about by guns.
Of the 64 gun-death victims, 47 were black people; 17 were white. Perhaps this fact tends to explain why so few people with power are concerned about guns. As long as the deaths occur mostly in the city, and mostly among blacks, white suburbanites fail to notice.
Of the 64 gun deaths, 48 involved handguns. Thus, for the period under consideration, 54 per cent of Birmingham’s murders were committed with handguns — slightly higher than the national average. Twelve homicides were committed with shotguns, and four with rifles.
But these are statistics. And statistics can become meaningless in discussions of human beings. More to the point are stories of the people who make up the numbers. Of course privacy dictates that fictitious names be used, but in all other respects, the case studies are authentic. Most of these are from the Birmingham area, but they could be from anyone’s community.
On January 1, 1978, a man whom we’ll call Robert was found dead, lying in a pool of blood in his apartment. He was killed with a .38 caliber pistol, but his assailant is unknown.
On October 16, a man we will call Norman came to the home of a woman we’ll call Denise. He knocked at her door, but no one answered. Most of us would have walked away in such a case. But Norman had a gun. So he took his .38 caliber Smith and Wesson from his pocket and fired through the door into the house. Denise was inside. Five shots hit her — in the left hand, the stomach and the back.
On May 21, a six-year-old boy was playing on the front porch of his home. An argument broke out between two men in the street. The subject of the argument was a clothesline pole that had been knocked down. Both men had guns, and they began firing at each other. The little boy tried to get out of the way, but he was too late; he was dead on arrival at University Hospital.
On January 15, a man whom we’ll call Charles was arguing with his wife, Pearl. The argument got rather loud. Another man, Harold, heard them and went to help. Harold saw Charles become abusive with Pearl, so he told Charles to stop. Charles went for his .22 caliber pistol; Harold reached for his .82. Harold was faster, and Charles is now dead.
On February 19, Claude was drinking. The more he drank, the angrier he got at his friend Allen. The problem reportedly was some stolen CB radios. So Claude went to see Allen to have it out. He took along his .38 caliber pistol with the two-inch barrel. Sure enough, the two men got into a fight. And fights with guns leave more than black eyes. Claude is now dead from a .38 caliber bullet in his chest.
On March 4, Mary Lou and her husband had been drinking. She went to bed, and demanded that her husband come to bed with her. He refused. She began complaining — first about no sex, and then about that .38 caliber revolver he kept in the house. He became angry, got the gun, pressed it against her vagina and pulled the trigger. She is now dead.
On January 7, Nancy and John, who lived together, left a party because of an argument. They drove home and began fighting again shortly after they arrived. John was in the bedroom. He got angry and threw a shoe out of the room as a sign of disgust. Nancy was disgusted, too; she took out her duly registered .22 caliber pistol and fired a random shot into the bedroom to scare John. The shot went through the room, as she had planned: It also went through John’s chest, heart, right lung and liver!
On February 27, a boy was playing basketball at a nearby schoolyard with a friend. Suddenly from nowhere a shot rang out, and the boy fell to the ground, hit in the abdomen. One day, 20 hours and 45 minutes later, he died of that single gunshot wound from a .22 caliber revolver — fired by a disturbed juvenile who never should have been able to get a gun. But then, should anyone?
On April 5 Gloria went with her brother to the home of her estranged husband to pick up some furniture. She got into an argument with her husband, as happened often — but this time was different. She had brought along a .32 caliber revolver. When her husband began to shout, she pulled out her gun. He ran away, and she fired twice, missing. She then gave the gun to her brother. He didn’t miss. The husband is now dead, Would he be, had the weapon not been present?
In the summer a six-year-old boy whom we’ll call Ken had an argument with a playmate of the same age. The playmate decided to get even. He entered his house and went straight to the place where his parents kept their (registered) .357 Magnum. He cocked the gun and gave it to his three-year-old brother, telling the younger boy to “go get Ken.” The three-year-old did as he was told, and Ken is now dead. Guns don’t kill people — people kill people. Or so we’re told. Would Ken be dead if the other youngsters had not had access to their parents’ gun?
On September 16, Bill was at home with his girlfriend, Carol, and some friends. All were drinking beer. Bill remarked that he was interested in a certain good-looking woman. Carol heard him, and moved to where he was sitting. She hit him. Bill grabbed her arm and told her to go away. She went into the bedroom. It should have ended at this point — a simple lovers’ quarrel. But in the bedroom, Carol found an Essex .12 gauge shotgun. She fired it once from the doorway, about 12 feet from Bill. He was hit in the head, and not even an emergency craniotomy could save him.
On September 29, Martin was complaining to his father-in-law about the latter’s talking “bad” to Martin’s 11-year-old daughter. He wanted it to stop. A. simple request from a thoughtful parent, right? Wrong. Both men had been drinking. The father-in-law charged at Martin. Martin was ready. He had a .32 caliber revolver, and he used it. The father-in-law became another gun-death statistic!
On September 30, Charlotte came home and found her estranged husband in her house. An argument followed. Charlotte walked out the door toward her car. This should have ended it. But apparently there was a loaded .16 gauge shotgun on the rack. The husband took it and fired in the direction of his wife. She was hit in the back, and is now dead.
On October 1, Albert went to the home of his friend Gary. Albert asked Gary if he wanted to go get some whiskey. Gary said No. Gary then noticed that Albert was looking at Gary’s wife, and he asked why. Albert reminded him that he didn’t have any wife; but if he had one, he’d be happy for Gary to look at her. Under normal circumstances, this situation might have concluded with a laugh, or perhaps a bloody nose. But both men had guns. Gary reached for his .22 caliber stack-barrel pistol. Albert was first with his .38 revolver (duly registered and permit issued). Gary got it in the head, and died shortly thereafter.
Finally, there was the man who bought himself a .44 caliber pistol as protection for his home. That evening while he was loading it, the gun accidentally went off, killing his six-year-old son. Distraught, the man put the gun to his own head, but his wife managed to knock the weapon aside. He then ran outside and threw the gun into the street. Police searched the area later, but the gun had already been picked up — perhaps to kill again. “Guns don’t kill people — people kill people.” Tell that to the father who accidentally killed his own son.
There are thousands of case studies like these. Many of the victims are dead because of their own misconduct. Others were innocent of any wrongful act, but ended up dead anyway. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if perhaps the Christian community as a whole could deliberately act to reduce the number of these horror stories? It could happen — if only we will care enough to do enough.
But why should the church be concerned? Of course the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But few who have guns really intend to kill anyone, regardless of the actual consequences. And no matter what one says about the paving composition of the “road to hell,” intentions are quite important in Christianity.
In biblical times, a clear distinction between “tool” and “weapon” was impossible. The ax, for example, was used for felling trees, shaping wood, hunting animals and for hand-to-hand combat. The bow and arrow were used for hunting food and for warfare. In contrast, today’s guns, particularly handguns, have little practical value except as a weapon (their sporting use is the only exception).
Of course, we don’t find anything specifically about guns in the Bible; they weren’t invented until the 14th century A.D. Common weapons in biblical times were various types of knives, axes, spears — and especially the sword. Like handguns, swords were employed for defense, for warfare and for suicide. Yet the biblical writers yearn for a time when people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
The distinction was also made in the Bible between offensive and defensive weapons. Offensive weapons include swords, spears, daggers, javelins, lances and mauls. Defensive devices take in the shield; armor, walled cities and moats. Today we buy guns for defense, but such a step so often leads to a family tragedy — with no one defended. Perhaps we would be smarter to put our trust in deadbolt locks, floodlights and alarm systems.
In Gethsemane, the guards and priests, led by Judas, came to take Jesus. Peter tried to defend his Master with a sword, and he cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus said, “All who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”
Threats breed threats. War breeds war. Revenge breeds revenge. And those who buy handguns for protection are four times more likely to have those guns wind up killing a family member or a close friend than they are to have the guns protect anyone. Only 1 to 2 per cent of burglars are ever shot. But there are some 9,000 gun murders committed every year by law-abiding citizens who might have continued to be law-abiding had they not possessed firearms.
Christ came, among other reasons, to reconcile people with one another — to bring them together. We come together in proximity in our modern cities. But instead of really coming together, we build fences; we become prisoners in our homes, “safe,” with one or more guns to protect us. Some people refuse to go out on the Street unless they have a gun. Then, at the least provocation, it is there, ready to separate people permanently — by death. One thing is certain: guns do not bring people together, except for funerals. Guns don’t create love or trust. Guns don’t bring life — they only take it away. And life is precious — it is a gift of God.