Striking a balance—what’s the Christian view on gun control?

The terrible shootings last December in Connecticut have fuelled a new gun control debate in the United States. In Canada, we recently abolished the controversial long-gun registry, making some people happy and others very distraught. What's the Christian view on gun control?

The Bible may be silent on modern firearms, but gun debates often have a religious element to them. Recall Barack Obama's 2008 comment about unemployed people in depressed rural areas who "cling to guns or religion." Pilloried for that comment, he later explained he meant that "People...rely on the traditions and the things that have been important to them for generation after generation" like faith, family and traditions like hunting.

Indeed, there are a lot of connections between political conservatives, traditional Christians, and gun rights supporters, especially in rural areas. But most Christians today live in cities and don't own guns, and they tend to support gun control laws as much as their urban neighbours.

Gun control is one of those issues to which there is no simple biblical response. (For a very disillusioning experience, try Googling "what does the Bible say about gun control?" I found many polemics and very little thoughtfulness.)

Many in biblical times carried or stored weapons for self-defence—think of Peter producing his sword to defend Jesus in Gethsamane. It's a very grey line, especially in the Old Testament, between organized military operations and ordinary violence; weapons were common and, for better or worse, a normal aspect of daily life. On the other hand, the Bible also teaches a lot about rejecting violence; Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, and of course he rebuked Peter for his actions in the garden.

There's an important difference between Canada and the United States that may help in applying Christian principles to this situation.

In Canada, gun control debates have been mainly over registering weapons used for hunting, and protecting yourself and your livestock from predators. In other words, it's about using guns against animals, and in rural areas where there's a clear practical reason. Even some Christians who otherwise teach pacifist traditions may own guns for hunting or for protection in the wilderness.

In the U.S., gun debates are more about people, especially the alleged need to have a gun to protect yourself from other people with guns, even in densely populated cities. Most Canadians, including many folks who bitterly opposed the long-gun registry, don't argue that we need to adopt the wide-open American approach, with semi-automatic weapons easily available, and the right to wield a concealed handgun in Starbucks.

In short, American debates are more about self-defense and are more individualistic—it's about me—my right to have a gun, and nothing should restrict me. Canadian debates seem (at least to this Canadian) more everyday and practical, and Canada tries to balance individual rights against the community interest in controlling the spread of guns.

To me, the Canadian approach is more Christian, trying to strike a balance when our faith doesn't necessarily set a clear direction.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.