Memorials are being held for victims of gun violence this week, a year after a gunman shot and killed 26 children and educators at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. And many victims and proponents of gun control are incensed that dozens of people are still dying each day, including young ones.
“Newtown happens every week in America,” Rev. Matthew Crebbin of the Newtown Congregational Church said at a remembrance of the December 14, 2012 shooting, flanked by people holding up photos of lost loved ones. “Every week we lose precious children to guns.”
Not only have proposals for new national legislation in the wake of the tragedy foundered, but most laws passed by state legislatures have actually loosened restrictions on private weapons.
Why is this the case? There’s no denying that there is a deep-seated fascination with guns in America. But it should also be seen as part of an apocalyptic theology that dates back to the early days of the republic, says Donovan Schaefer, who teaches religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
“America was founded as a sort of utopian religious community - it meant different things to different people right from the beginning,” he said, “and somewhere along the way guns themselves - the actual physical object of the gun - became a sort of religious artifact.”
He says that’s the way the National Rifle Association - the principal U.S. gun lobby - treats it.
“The NRA’s strategy is to appeal to that minority of gun owners who are very invested in this apocalyptic idea of the United States as fighting this constant battle between freedom and tyranny,” he said.
Opponents of gun control use an apocalyptic vocabulary that resists reasoned debate, says Schaefer.
He cites NRA chairman Wayne LaPierre’s response to the school shooting that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
And Schaefer says the NRA’s late president, actor Charlton Heston, also spoke in such terms when he issued a rallying cry to gun owners in a speech that ended with him holding a rifle aloft and challenging the government to take his gun “from my cold dead hands!”
Last spring, President Obama tried unsuccessfully to turn outrage over the elementary school shooting into legislation that would strengthen background checks on gun purchases.
Pro-gun rights pastor David Whitney believes in a “God-given” right to bear arms and called the president’s proposals “unlaw.”
“If someone is enacting ‘unlaw’ - that is they’re specifically violating the provision of our law - they have become a domestic enemy,” he said, adding that if that would happen, it would mean “very deep trouble.”
One of the memorial services this week was at the Washington National Cathedral, a symbolic landmark.
The Cathedral’s dean, Reverend Gary Hall, has come out strongly in favor of gun control.
“For people of faith, gun violence is not a morally ambiguous issue,” he told those present.
2nd Amendment sacrosanct
Hall argues that the Second Amendment of the U.S. constitution - which talks about “a right of the people to keep and bear arms” - has been turned into a religious commandment by segments of the gun lobby.
“Somehow the second amendment gets theologized as a kind of absolute right where people have access to guns, and that somehow the country’s going to come undone apart and the American era will be over ‘if you take our guns away from us,’” he said in an interview.
Hall added that the gun has become part of a popular theology that is at odds with scripture.
“One of the chief idolatries in the bible is weapon worship, as if weapons are going to provide security,” he said. “And I do think there’s a way in which the gun has become symbolic of safety and security in a weird way.”
At one of the remembrances, the mother of Newtown schoolteacher Lauren Rousseau held a picture of her daughter and said: “Lauren never touched a gun, and she had no experience whatsoever with gun violence before that day.”
For her and other relatives of victims, the gun has been a source of sorrow and suffering, and their hope for no further tragedies is up against some strongly held beliefs in America about guns.