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Guns and God: How religion has warped gun reform in the United States

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shutterstock 726401527 Guns and God: How religion has warped gun reform in the United States

I was in fourth grade when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colo., murdered 12 students and one teacher in what became known as the Columbine School Shooting.

The evening of April 20, 1999, along with millions of other Americans, I watched the news with my parents. Unable to peel our eyes away from the screen, we saw footage of students running for their lives while SWAT teams hurried them to safety. I distinctly remember a young girl falling into mud on the grassy slopes The images seared into my brain and gave me nightmares. I woke up in a cold sweat the next morning, terrified to return to my small Catholic grade school. What if it happened there? My parents assured me that I would be safe (13 years later, the parents of 20 students slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School would not be able to offer those same, empty platitudes). And so, I returned to school, unknowingly entering into what was to be a new normal in America.

In the wake of the Columbine shooting, journalists and politicians alike attempted to explain what happened. They spun stories about how Eric and Dylan had been bullied, listened to Marilyn Manson music and wore black trench coats. I briefly developed an irrational fear of goth teens after watching afternoon talk shows that seemed to perpetuate this discriminatory narrative. Many people placed the blame on gory video games and nearly all said that the parents should have been more attentive and less negligent. I don’t recall much conversation about gun control or access. (And it wasn’t until I read Dave Cullen’s investigative book Columbine in 2011 that I learned just how false all of those explanations about music and bullying had been.)

But what really influenced me was reading She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. Cassie, a 17-year-old Columbine student, had been one of the slain students. Legend had it that the shooters had asked her if she believed in God. Without even a hesitation, Cassie said “Yes” and was promptly killed. At my youth group meetings, this book, slim and blue with a picture of blonde-haired Cassie on the cover, a target zeroing in on her face, was pressed into our hands. We were told how brave she was to stand up for God — even when she faced death.

I read through the book with gusto and even wrote a book report about it, detailing how Cassie, an angsty secular teen turned evangelical Christian, made the ultimate sacrifice: dying for God. Around the time of publication, it was revealed that this never actually happened. While Cassie did tragically die, she was not asked about her faith in God. Rather, Valeen Schnurr, a classmate, was shot before she professed her devotion to God. Thankfully, Valeen did not die. However, the narrative of dying for God was impressed upon us students. Jesus died for you. Would you die for him? 

The problem, according to our religious teachers, also seemed to be that God’s presence wasn’t in schools. Public schools needed — nay, demanded —  bibles and Jesus because it was only He who could save us from mass shootings. And as Catholic school students, we were taught to be grateful that we received an education in a place where the bible was present in our daily lives. So as horrifying as the shootings (and my subsequent nightmares) were, I concluded that there was something beautiful about becoming a martyr for God.

Since 1999, there has been a steady drumbeat of mass shootings throughout the United States. In 2021 alone, there have been 103 mass shootings. Just in the last few days there have been two deadly shootings: one in Georgia and one in Colorado. But despite an overwhelming majority of Americans who want common-sense gun control, there has been hardly any meaningful gun reform.

Instead, Religious Right legislators seem to be doubling down on the same type of phony martyrdom story line that I experienced as a Catholic youth after Columbine. For example, Colorado state Rep. Richard Holtorf last month told fellow state Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was murdered in the Aurora theater massacre in 2012, that instead of gun reform, we need God. He condescendingly explained to the grieving father, “Here’s the most important thing we have to remember: Scripture tells us that when something is taken away from us, we must understand that maybe there is a time when God needs the spirit of those children to do something in heaven.”

These comments echo other Christian nationalist mantras. For example, in 2013, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry responded to President Obama’s gun violence plan with a call for prayer: “Laws, the only redoubt of secularism, will not suffice. Let us all return to our places of worship and pray for help.”

Similarly, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has said that the problem is we have removed God from public schools. In an interview, Huckabee, author of God, Guns, Grit, and Gravyremarked: “The common denominator in all of this is … disconnecting from God. … A lot of our country [is] utterly disconnected from any sense of identity with their creator.”

After the Parkland school shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives ignored the students’ urgent pleas to pass gun safety regulations and instead approved a measure to require public schools to post “In God We trust” in a “conspicuous place.” Similarly, the Alabama state Senate voted to allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property. State Sen. Gerald Dial explained, “I believe that if you had the Ten Commandments posted in a prominent place in school, it has the possibility to prohibit some student from taking action to kill other students.” No actual gun control measures were passed.

Jerry Falwell Jr. opened a gun range at Liberty University when he was its president, opining that it was “where terrorists are most likely to strike.” In doing so, Falwell created a false narrative that Christians are persecuted in the United States and need to be ready to defend themselves at all costs.

The lack of legislation fits squarely with the connection between the Religious Right and guns.  A recent study found that Christian nationalists believe that gun rights are “God-given and sacred” and that Christian nationalism is a strong predictor for opposing stricter gun laws. Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association (NRA), has proclaimed that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”

These statements of God-ordained guns were put into action this past summer when a Christian crowdfunding website raised more than $520,000 to help pay the legal fees of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who is accused of shooting and killing two persons during protests last summer in Kenosha, Wis.

As a woman, I get particularly dismayed at the way that the Christian Right goes to bat for anti-abortion measures — at their giddiness to take away my reproductive freedom. Since Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, there have been more than 1,000 abortion restrictions adopted in the United States. And yet, the antis twiddle their thumbs at mass murders. For people who claim to be “pro-life,” they act as a death cult.

There’s a quote that circulates in the progressive spheres of the Internet whenever there is a mass shooting in America:

“I want any young men who buy a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion. Think about it: a mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or a judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, traveling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protesters holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protesters who call him a murderer. After all, it makes more sense to do this for young men seeking guns than for young women seeking an abortion. No young woman needing reproductive freedom has ever murdered a roomful of strangers.”

But the Religious Right doesn’t see it that way. Instead, it berates women for exercising bodily autonomy, while putting millions of people’s lives at risk by opposing gun reform.

I know that I’m not the only one that is disheartened, exhausted and dismayed by the lack of gun reform in the United States. In fact, the majority of Americans support responsible, regulated gun ownership. Science supports this too. One study showed that restricting concealed-carry permits and “stand your ground” policies can reduce deaths by more than 10 percent.

Simply put, gun violence is a public health and safety issue. Praying will do nothing, but action can do everything. That’s why we need our secular voices more than ever. I firmly believe that we can collectively work toward a country where the bible isn’t legitimately used as an excuse to defend the inexcusable.

Photo via Shutterstock by By ibpstock

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