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US gun law reform is biblical


Sandy Hook victimsUS President Barrack Obama concluded his emotional address following the Newtown school shooting with words of scripture, invoking God to 'heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds'.

This reference to Psalm 147 was fitting. He was not so much delivering a speech to the nation as offering a lament on its behalf. It was one of his most presidential acts to date.

But such words are laden with responsibility. Broken hearts and open wounds demand a response. Obama acknowledged this when he declared, 'These neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, and these children are our children, and we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.'

Meaningful action. Obama will be judged not on his words, but on how his administration defines this term and then delivers it, in the face of no doubt vitriolic opposition. Otherwise there will be even more schools, street corners and plazas to add to the already lengthy list of public spaces where such gun massacres have occurred.

The pundits aren't optimistic. Paul McGeough criticised Obama's failure to initiate the national conversation that he himself called for after the Texas shooting that left six people dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords seriously injured. Obama's call to 'challenge old assumptions' and to explore everything 'from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system' was followed by silence.

Perhaps Obama should revisit Psalm 147 in its entirety.

At first it seems ill-equipped for the task. God is praised as the One who 'makes peace in your borders'. Yet where is peace now? God has 'strengthened the bars of your gates, blessed your children within you'. Yet where were these godly gates when a man walked into an elementary school and started taking these blessings away?

Such questions do not have easy answers. But in fact what the Psalm offers is not answers, but a question. It asks us who or what is the guarantor of our freedom and prosperity?

For many Americans the answer is twofold: themselves and their guns.

There is a certain logic to this. US gun law has its roots in resistance to British gun restrictions. Also the militia groups that helped win independence from the British were citizens defined by their ownership of guns and willingness to use them.

Yet even taking into account the wide difference between the late 18th century and our own era, not to mention the intervening developments in firearms that allow such small things to wreak such terrible havoc, this mistakes the relationship between guns and freedom. The guns get too much credit, and the patriots too little.

People with good guns don't give you freedom — any tinpot dictator can hand out firearms. Rather good people armed with citizenship do.

In the same time that America has had lax gun laws the nation has stumbled into two disastrous wars, tanked the economy thereby igniting a global financial crisis, and skidded into political gridlock. All these forces have curtailed American freedom and hurt prosperity.

Yet in a slightly earlier era during the civil rights movement, freedom was enlarged and the realisation of the Declaration of Independence 'that all men are created equal' was advanced, all by unarmed citizens.

Indeed which two outcomes would produce more freedom: if every American bought a gun and joined the NRA or if every American took their citizenship seriously and contributed meaningfully to public life?

This is not to argue for a world without guns, per se. But it is an invitation for Americans to reconsider the reflexive connection between freedom and guns that makes introducing any meaningful gun reform so difficult.

This view is consonant with Psalm 147. There is an underlying scepticism of martial prowess in the Psalm, for God 'takes no delight in the strength of horses, no pleasure in the runner's stride'.

Obama's road will not be easy. However as a second term president he is unencumbered by the need to seek re-election. He can afford to upset the powerful. I hope before he does he rereads Psalm 147 and is emboldened by having a God 'who numbers the stars and gives to all of them their names' to call upon.

I also hope he is inspired by the psalmist's vision of a God who is defined by generosity and seeks to emulate this in his leadership; that he empowers his fellow citizens rather than merely arms them.

Not because I think Obama is particularly devout, but rather because surmounting the legislative and societal hurdles to achieve 'meaningful action' will be little short of miraculous. And because of how unutterably sad it will be for future victims if 'meaningful action' turns out to be weasel words for no action at all. 


Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a community development worker in the Sutherland and St George area of Sydney. He is completing a masters in international studies with a China major. He won the 2012 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers for his essay 'Catholic and Aboriginal 'listening revolutions'

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, Barack Obama, Sandy Hook massacre, Newtown, Connecticut, gun control



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Existing comments

I am an American. I have watched us addled by guns for fifty years. We will never take meaningful action. I'll bet any reader a dollar each that nothing whatsoever comes of this except words. There's too much money in it and some weird violence DNA. There's no reason you should be able to cheerfully buy a machine gun here within a few days. None. But you can. Nor will that change. Any nut can buy whatever he wants (always a man, isn't it?), and many is the politician and the businessman and the investor who is happy he can do so. We will mouth empty sadness and continue to make and sell guns to the world's crazies. No one wishes this was not so more than me. But...

Brian Doyle | 18 December 2012  

Just one of the best articles I've read (on any topic!) in a long time. Beautifully written and full of wisdom. Well said Evan Ellis! Thinking Americans should read this and ask what freedom means to them and what it requires.

George | 18 December 2012  

Best to leave all gods and holy books out of this debate I'd say. For every confected psalm against the US population will find a hundred supporting their foolish ways. Whatever foolish national investment they have made into their faux Christianity has done them no good at all so far. Handwringing with prayers and church services all hide the horrible truth, that this is a haywire nation that serves its own citizens very poorly, never mind the corrosive effect it has on the rest of the world. If those who thrust themselves forward as 'leaders' over there had an ounce of decency about them then they'd just speak the truth about not only gun ownership but also the dog-eat-dog nature of their 'civilisation' over there.

janice wallace | 18 December 2012  

The psalms, like the parables, are meant to make us reflect and ask questions, of ourselves and our situations. Evan insightfully suggests that Obama should engage in this process motivated by Psalm 147. Perhaps a key question Barack and we should ask is: " Which is better -- to survive a second term as President and achieve nothing, regarding the protection of the vulnerable from mass shootings? Or, fail to survive a second term, but to have "lost", because you changed the one thing that others wouldn't or couldn't?" The answer may well surprise us all, in ways that we can't yet see!

Garry | 18 December 2012  

The image of the surviving children being told by teachers to close their eyes as they held hands and were led past their slaughtered classmates has stuck in my mind. Obviously no-one would wish to traumatise these children any more, but in some way I believe we need to start using shock tactics to wake up the broader adult public about violent crime. The theory is we don't publish photos of the deceased out of respect for family etc, and also so as not to desensitise the general public to violence (somehow thinking it would make them blasé about it). Well, I don't think we are sensitised to violence to begin with - at least gun lobbies are not. The efficiency with which the Newtown school was locked down and sealed could be seen as a cover-up that protects the interest of the gun lobby. What is we showed the graphic reality of this horror - at least the members of the NRA? If it saves someone's life in the future, maybe it's worth a try.

AURELIUS | 18 December 2012  

Gun reform must face up to the problem that when Clinton, with mainly Democrat support, banned assault rifles with Congress approval, more than 30 Democrats lost their seats in 1994 & Clinton has written that this was the issue that cost them that support.

peter gavin | 18 December 2012  

DeBrabander made a similar point when he wrote for the NYT: an armed society ... is the opposite of a civil society. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/the-freedom-of-an-armed-society/

Anne | 18 December 2012  

Evan has highlighted a question that I have struggled to understand about the US gun lobby for a long time, it's the question of citizenship. I just can't get my head into the mode of thinking that a democracy's citizens should arm themselves against the government they have democratically elected. Yet even in my email this afternoon was a spam diatribe on how all gun massacres are govt planned and orchestrated with the sole intention of inciting hysteria and removing guns from the hands of citizens so that the govt can then 'take over the country.' There is something very strange in this kind of thinking. I imagine the Brian Doyle of the first comment is the Portland, Oregon, Brian Doyle and one of my favourite Eureka Street authors for the calm lyricism of his prose. If so, I've got a sneaking suspicion that not even he can put such weird thinking into a perspective that would somehow inform the Australian psyche. That such a significant proportion of a nation's citizens can see themselves as isolated and under threat from, instead of being connected to, their wider community is beyond my comprehension.

Kim Miller | 18 December 2012  

I'm SURE you won't post this.....ppl might just come to see the liberal/progressive agenda....but I simply COULDN'T resist letting you know that I KNOW and will tell everyone I can find to tell....just love how your picture that you use to incite is ACTUALLY from the SANDY HOOK BOAT EXPLOSION HOAX from Jun 12, 2012…. http://news.yahoo.com/sandy-hook-boat-explosion-elaborate-hoax-075305112–abc-news-topstories.html WOW! You ppl have NO SHAME AT ALL. :/

Sunny | 01 February 2013  

I have never owned nor wanted to, but I fully support Americans right to bear arms. This article is muddled with religious overtones that have no place in government or public debate. I'maa good ole independent American, and you know what? Most of us are. You leave us alone we leave you alone. We don't believe half of what's on TV, and we don't take hard line stances on political debates, either side. Personally, I don't believe everythingthe media has told us .

chris james | 01 February 2013  

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