Self Defense. I realized a few months ago that these two words have very different meanings for different people, and a varying degree of importance too. To be honest, it isn’t something I had ever given much thought. Not until I found myself sitting in a church on a Sunday morning utterly engrossed in a debate on ‘God and Guns’.
When I heard that my housemate, Martha, a priest at the nearby Episcopal Church, was participating in a debate about guns, I was instantly intrigued. The night before the debate, as she narrated part of her core argument against guns, her pacifist attitude was apparent and I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement with everything she was saying.
The next morning, as I walked to the church where the debate was taking place, I was certain that as someone who had been shocked, saddened, and afraid after the innumerable mindless shootings across the US in the past few years, my personal position was to impose strict licensing and re-licensing rules, curbing widespread ownership. I admit that this was from a very limited understanding of the breadth and depth of the issue and sprung primarily from my belief in non-violence. This was before I met the young, brave girl who spoke about the “other” side of the gun debate; before a new face and context was put before me. I can’t say that what followed after I entered the church and heard multiple conflicting viewpoints changed my mind entirely, but it most definitely led me to ask myself a few very important (and difficult) questions I had otherwise never considered.
My first impression of Catherine was that she was just a few years older than me. I suppose I automatically assumed that the pro-gun speaker would be someone old. Someone orthodox, conservative, and unlike me. But Catherine wasn’t. She and her husband had recently experienced a traumatic break-in where they, being gun owners, were brought face to face with the possibility of shooting someone in self defense. That was her story and a large part of her reasons to support the Second Amendment stemmed from it.
Since the debate was on how guns and violence were perceived in the Bible, she began by interpreting the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill’ and stating that it referred to murder which was different from justified killing. She went on to talk about Martin Luther King, saying that even he, despite his adamant non-violent stance, had once applied for a permit to carry a concealed handgun. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler had also noted that, after King’s house was bombed in 1956, he had applied in Alabama for a concealed carry permit. He was denied permission, but had armed watchmen to guard against further assassination attempts. It is said that King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home and the question of “whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest.”
After Martha and Catherine had spoken for a while, a European human rights activist in her late thirties requested the mic to speak. She looked genuinely perplexed as she echoed some of my own thoughts and questions. She began by sharing that, given her background, nationality, and upbringing it was truly difficult for her to fathom ‘gun-ownership’ as a fundamental right. She explained that countries around the world, including those who considered freedom and safety as foremost priorities, were able to control crime and violence without individual gun ownership. She said that to her, as a devout Christian, the most important thing for her was salvation – her own and her attacker’s.
An older gentleman insisted that gun owners were the main reason for the problem of violence and wars. To this, Catherine calmly explained that there is a huge difference between war and self defense. She and others who agreed with her insisted that they were strong proponents of non-violent resolutions of disputes but in situations where that wasn’t an option, they would not hesitate to lift a weapon to protect someone they love.
A domestic violence victim, relating the horror she went through during the years of her marriage, shared that she understood both sides of the coin and often wonders what her own personal belief is. Regardless, she offered that she knew for a fact that in the heat of the moment, when someone is aggressively and constantly putting you in harm’s way, the urge to fight back and protect yourself (even to kill the perpetrator) can be extremely overpowering. It’s human nature, she said.
Respectfully, some who held a strong anti-gun position shared that at times, couples fail to resolve marital conflicts by seeking proper platforms or outlets like a counselor or trusted third person. Often, they resort to violence and in moments of anger, powerlessness, and desperation, and a gun lying handy can and has lead to fatal “mistakes”. They insisted that in the very least, gun ownership should be highly curbed and regulated by including regular mental check-ups and frequent decertifications. One of them also mentioned that if she had a gun in her home, it wouldn’t make her feel more secure but rather, it would make her live in constant fear. (To this, Martha also added the importance of the discipline and practice of continuing to examine our fears, a challenge that is what makes us human. Guns may give us power which may lead to a false sense of security but ultimately, it is essentially superficial and the fear still lurks beneath. If there were no guns, perhaps we’d be forced to deal with conflicts differently, perhaps more compassionately?)
These excerpts are only a portion of the extensive conversation that took place that morning and I was truly amazed and pleased to see how honestly and respectfully such a sensitive topic had been approached by everyone present. While I wasn’t swayed to support Catherine’s position by the end of it, I definitely understood her perspective better and could even empathize with her and her husband. Most importantly though, the conversation touched me as it led me to wonder whether I would ever pick up a weapon to defend someone I love. And if I did, how would I ever be able to live with myself knowing that I took someone’s life? Our actions have consequences and I don’t think I would be able to live with those that would follow an action as permanent, reckless, and fatal as gun violence.