by Elisha James Jones
Bringing a firearm inside my home was an occasion worth noting, even if the action itself was not a monumental one. My wife and I prayed over the weapons and our hands that would control them, and locked them in the safe under our bed. I had fired guns before, and there was not much mystery to what they were. But still, I never grew up living in the same space as a firearm like my wife had. Hers was a family of hunters, and even with her increased familiarity with guns, she never slept in the same room as them like she did now. We had not been uniquely gung ho about becoming gun owners. My wife no longer hunted, and while I thought shooting for sport at a range sounded enjoyable enough, the thought of carrying a firearm made us both nervous. This initial tension has more or less has become emblematic of my thoughts and feelings, both politically and spiritually, on the role guns can or should play in the lives of citizens and Christians.
To state the obvious: as Americans, the presence of firearms is more or less ubiquitous in our national culture, even if one does not grow up with or around them. I remember watching Dirty Harry as a high schooler, captivated by Clint Eastwood pointing that .44 Magnum and asking the criminals “do you feel lucky?” The message was obvious: the gun is a great and mighty thing, a steely symbol of masculinity, and when borne by a good man, the creator of order and peace in a world of violence and chaos fostered by lesser, criminal men.
Around that same time, on my sixteenth birthday, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The trial, media discussion, and arguments I would have at school both in and out of class, remain seared into my mind as perhaps the first major time race felt tangible and palpable as a force in and on my life.
Nearly a decade later, I watched my country burn. George Floyd was murdered in a manner particularly heinous, even as we’ve been desensitized to government-sanctioned slaughter being streamed into our pockets on what seems like a weekly basis. Millions of us who had been cooped in the house from a pandemic poured into the streets, outraged at yet another man who looked like me being killed in the street without due process. I had just finished my second year of law school, and had undergone a shift in my beliefs as they related to freedom and rights, in particular the right to bear arms. This all boiled over to the point of making a serious change in that summer of 2020. We lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the time, and of course the immense weight and remembrance of Heather Heyer’s death while marching for racial justice in those same streets we marched in was not lost on anyone. At the same time, there was great irony in seeing Charlottesville P.D. clear the streets for protests decrying their very existence and operating procedures.
“All Cops Are Bastards”
“F*** the Police, F*** the System”
“No Cops, No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A.”
To say the least, I left the protest unimpressed. The slogans, regardless of my feelings of their accuracy or truthfulness, drove home another, more pressing point. These white liberals and leftists would march in the streets with me and declare that my life mattered and had value. And yet, they painted a picture of a political and social landscape which was wholly racist, teeming with constant danger. Without necessarily buying the entirety of these claims, I did know that the legal system sided all too often with not only the police who enacted racist violence, but also with the George Zimmermans, the self-appointed defenders of the “community.”
And so, that summer we bought our guns. The shootings perpetrated by Kyle Rittenhouse and the political discourse I saw unfold after they were done reaffirmed why I had done it, and that I made the right decision.
I thought often as the guns crossed the threshold into our home about the words of Christ. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Two swords is enough. Turn the other cheek. What kind of Christian was I, to bring weapons capable of great destruction into my home and ready my hands to maybe use them some day? Garry Wills famously compared firearms in America to Moloch, a false god of great destruction and evil. I struggled with the notion that I was simply perpetuating the bloodshed and carnage we in this country know so well, making offerings at the altar of this false god for a false sense of security.
I believe all people have a right to self-defense, and to bear weapons that allow them to defend themselves to enact such defense efficiently and potently, even to the point of killing. The scriptures do not forbid defending oneself in the moment of being faced with an adversary, and the Book of Exodus shays that a thief breaking into the home at night time is able to be fatally struck without penalty to the defender. This distinction in particular always stood out to me: the context of killing a thief at night assumes the law accounts for family being in the home, when the possibility of harming life is likely to occur. Killing a thief, even within your home, becomes impermissible after sunrise, when the defense being made is almost certainly only of property. This framework on the actual act of striking down a fellow man helped reassure me of the propriety of maintaining arms to protect my family in a world where violence is rampant. It also stood as a direction for America to take in reforming a culture of guns that is deeply problematic.
American gun culture, in its modern iteration, is largely an idolatrous expression of self. The gun industry profits on selling attachments, holsters, and tactical gear that leans toward a militaristic and survivalist aesthetic, of a man always prepared for war and incapable of being victimized. The gun culture of modern America is preoccupied, obsessed even, with turning the average person (almost always a man) into a great warrior king. For every regent, the home is turned into a fortress certain to slaughter any criminal who dares attempt to take what is not theirs. Dirty Harry is no longer a singular hero, a pillar and symbol of masculine defiance of evil. Now, every man wishes, even demands, to not only be Eastwood, but Stallone and Schwarzenegger too. The worst thing to be in this mindset is unprepared when (not if) the crime reaches your door. The greatest danger, it seems, is not that one may lose their property or life, but that they have become victimized, emasculated by less honorable men. And so, the black steel and polymer phalluses must protrude, must take up more and more space with flashlights and lasers and specialty sights. Extended magazine capacities and bump stocks. Guns which chamber newer, faster, and more powerful caliber ammunition, or resemble weapons of the military. Better to be judged by twelve than to be carried by six. My grandfather said this to me once, explaining why he had a pistol. This mindset has exponentially expanded, it seems, to encapsulate daily life for so many Americans, to the point of multiple states passing legislation abolishing licensing requirements for concealed carrying of firearms by everyday citizens. This is in many ways the world of the Zimmermans and Rittenhouses: the call for, the demand, to let guns proliferate over the country, to secure order by any means necessary.
The writer Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about how American gun culture has changed since her childhood in Texas in an article for The Atlantic titled “What a Gun is For.” The article was framed around photos that Representatives Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Lauren Boebert of Colorado posted online around Christmas featuring their respective families, children included, carrying various models of semi-automatic rifles in a standard Christmas Card pose. Bruenig notes that first and foremost, the guns serve in the photos as provocations of liberals with issues or sensitivities with firearms. That ownership of weaponry has become a point of self-expression combined with the anticipated (and often hoped for) provocation of others is a recipe for disaster in itself. But Bruenig goes on in the article to point out that modern American gun culture has shifted the meanings of the firearms themselves from tools which did not merit much attention beyond shooting vermin to the culture-warring machines which represent a defiant expression of American exceptionality, props to take photos with for the internet. This point, in my view, is a great encapsulation of a large part of what needs to change in American gun culture: guns are not toys, not items with which we express ourselves, and not symbols of our persona. They are tools, tools capable of great and powerful harm when not used properly. Whether used for a living or for recreation, a level of somberness is sorely needed around guns in a culture of flashing lights and sensationalist ads. (Something the gun lobby has itself participated in)
The last component of reforming the culture of guns, in my view, is of a spiritual nature. Of the many words of Christ I recalled when thinking about bringing weapons into the home, there was one reflection which sat in my heart and stirred me to action more than the others:
Blessed are the peacemakers.
The Anglican theologian and clergyman Charles Ellicott stated in his commentary on the scriptures that this title, Peacemaker, is distinct from simply having a slow temper. Rather, this is instead a higher form of grace, actively acting towards other with a deliberate peace. Such a principle being applied to modern gun culture would drastically and radically change how we view bearing arms. When we actively cultivate peace, what do we start to believe?
I would suggest that we collectively might not be as paranoid and quick on the draw as so many of us are now. When we actively cultivate peace and grace towards others, something as innocuous as a shove or a traffic dispute does not result in the brandishing of a gun. Cultivating peace and grace for our fellow man defuses a situation as a first resort, not thumping the chest and saying “I have a gun,” daring the opponent to make the next step. Being a maker of peace means we are not eager to have the opportunity to use a gun on a criminal, but rather mournful of the prospect of ever being brought to that. Indeed, these changes all mean we do not cling to our guns quite as tight as we once did.
And this is the point. Weapons are tools given to us to help ensure our self-defense, but they are not what we cast all of our hopes upon. A life built on the foundation of the gun is one likely to be turbulent and unstable. In other words, to live by the gun is to also die by it. I still own a gun, and will continue to do so for the safety and protection of my family. I make no apologies for it, and to this day encourage others in my family to consider arming themselves for self-defense in a country that seems less sure of itself with each passing month, especially for Black Americans. Self-defense is an honorable and good thing. But as the country floods itself with more and more guns, I pray my nerves are steeled, and that I can be a peacemaker, continuing to encourage others to bear arms in peaceable and reasonable quiet. Perhaps this means I will someday be caught unprepared, and harm will befall me. But at the very least, I will know who my God is, and He is named neither Smith nor Wesson.
Elisha James Jones is an attorney and writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Duquesne University and a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law. His work has been previously published in the Lexicon literary journal and Burnt Pine Magazine.