Some Thoughts on Mass Shootings

The Second Amendment

Despite the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision, I have never thought that a reasonable reading of the 2nd Amendment guaranteed an individual’s unequivocal right to possess firearms. In fact, the only Supreme Court decision that focused on the 2nd Amendment, US vs. Miller in 1939, found that there is no individual right to bear arms independent of the nation’s self-defense interests. There is also reason to believe that Madison wrote the 2nd Amendment to protect the rights of southern states to have militias that they could use to put down slave revolts. 1

I do believe, however, that every person has an inherent right to self-defense. 2 I take this to not be a civil right enshrined in law, but as a basic human right. Although there are weapons that are designed to be used for defensive roles, assault rifles, by definition, are not. I have no sympathy for those who argue that their guns are necessary for defense against a tyrannical government. I have seen four Apache helicopters on an attack run at a range in Fort Hood. If you think that your AR-15 will defend you, you’ve been watching too many bad action movies. 3

Good Guys with Guns

Lately, there have been demands to arm teachers to prevent school shootings. This is a variation on the idea that the only solution to gun violence is more good guys with guns. There are obvious reasons why this is untenable. We had problems with active shooters when I was in Afghanistan. The solution was not to have more people carrying guns, since everyone except me and the other two chaplains were already armed. The solution was to have a soldier standing at the ready at every meeting, doing nothing but looking for signs of hostility, prepared to shoot as soon as a weapon was drawn. That’s what the only “more guns” solution looks like – an armed guard standing with weapon drawn in every classroom, in every corridor of the mall, covering every line of sight in every public venue, etc. 4 That’s not a country where I want to live.

Possible Solutions

Mass shootings are a complex problem, but not irreducibly complex. We shouldn’t pretend that our only options are an impossible perfect solution and doing nothing. So, what should be done? There are some means that, I believe, would help reduce the level of gun violence.

  1. Treating sources of terrorism consistently would be a good first step. White nationalism has always been an ideology associated with terrorism, from the lynchings of Reconstruction to the mass shooting in El Paso. As a terrorist ideology, white nationalist demands for racial purity are no different than demands for religious purity from other movements that we rightly label as terrorists.
  2. Ban assault weapons – that has already been shown to be effective.
  3. Ban high capacity magazines. Otherwise, thirty people are dead before the “good guy with a gun” has an opportunity to respond.

May God forgive me, if I ever demand my rights at the possible expense of another human being’s life.

  1. Conservatives had no problem with gun control when the Black Panthers were taking up arms to press for equal civil rights. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed an act in 1967 banning the carrying by members of the public of loaded firearms in cities. He said there is “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” It’s also curious how reticent the NRA is to come to the defense of registered African-American gun owners.
  2. Specifying this right will, by no means, be simple. I do not believe that people have the right to do anything that will result in saving their lives. I also do not believe that the right to self-defense is automatically a right to kill, if there are other effective means available. There are also tricky questions about prisoners on death row, etc. This is also a right that implies certain duties, like the duty to ensure, as much as possible, that no innocent people are harmed. This means that gun-owners have a duty to acquire and maintain a high level of skill. This could mean that the public has a right to demand that those who wish to carry firearms in public be tested and certified.
  3. I’ve also recently heard that when criminals get semi-automatic weapons, then citizens need full-auto. In my infantry days, the only situation in which fully automatic fire was used was to spray a room with bullets before entering. So, saying this is the same as saying “When criminals get semi-auto, then citizens kill indiscriminately.”
  4. That doesn’t mean that a member of the public with a gun will not occasionally act to prevent, or minimize, some tragedy. That will have to be weighed against members of the public misidentifying a target or harm done by negligent discharges, a particular problem that we had in Iraq.

Ethics of War Handout

These are some concepts and terms used in a presentation on the ethics of war, given at Oklahoma Baptist University on December 1, 2017.


Consequentialist Pacifism: Although war is not intrinsically wrong, the benefits of war are always outweighed by the costs.

Deontological Pacifism: War is always intrinsically wrong, regardless of its consequences.

Doctrine of Double Effect

War could be permissible, even if we know that innocent lives will be lost, if

  1. Taking innocent life is not the reason that we go to war,
  2. The lives that are saved are proportionally greater than the lives that will be lost,
  3. Taking innocent life is not the means to saving lives, and
  4. Saving lives is otherwise permissible.

Just War

Jus ad bellum: Conditions that determine when a state can justly go to war.

Jus in bello: Conditions that specify how a war must be fought

Jus post bellum: Conditions that determine when one can justly end hostilities.

Jus ad bellum Jus in bello Jus post bellum
Just cause Obey international law Just cause
Right intention Discrimination Right intention
Proper authority/declaration Proportionality Discrimination
Last resort Humane treatment of POW’s Proportionality
Probability of success No means mala in se
Proportionality No reprisals

Just Peacemaking

Ten principles of just peacemaking: 1

  1. Support nonviolent direct action.
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.
  5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

  1. From Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War, 2d ed., edited by Glen Stassen (Pilgrim Press, 2004). [return]

Thoughts on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby

Social media was certainly inundated with reactions to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. The majority were at the two extremes—either this was a great victory for religious liberty and a stunning blow to the Obama administration, or it was an unprecedented power-grab by religious conservatives and wealthy corporate America that will only prevent women from getting the health care that they need.

As is generally the case, neither extreme position is correct. The Affordable Care Act is safe, and only certain corporations will be exempt from providing health coverage in very limited instances, provided that the government can easily provide such coverage. So, I don’t think that the situation is as bad as some progressives have concluded.

That’s not to say that I think that the situation is good. I fear that the Supreme Court has placed the government in the position of having to determine what counts as a sincerely held religious belief, which may have more far-reaching implications for religious liberty than simply having to provide comprehensive health coverage.

In any case, this is just one of the problems with linking health-coverage and employment. The solution to this and other problems, including the exorbitantly high cost of health care in the United States compared to other countries, is to adopt a single-payer system.

Triumph of the Will

Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, is the film that I couldn’t remember in Aesthetics this morning. Roger Ebert, in his 1994 review of a documentary about Riefenstahl asks exactly the right question:

“These are by general consent two of the best documentaries ever made. But because they reflect the ideology of a monstrous movement, they pose a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?”

World Food Summit

The summit on soaring food prices ended last week. For years, I have read that there is plenty of food available to feed everyone on the planet, but the problem was distributing that food. We know from recent events in Myanmar that uncooperative regimes can make aid distribution impossible. Now, though, it seems that there is a genuine food shortage, not simply a problem of distribution. What has changed?

Continue reading “World Food Summit”

International Aid and Religious Freedom

I am a Baptist who is committed to religious freedom, and I think that the separation of church and state is critical for maintaining religious freedom. I also believe in the value of the classical liberal tradition, in which everyone should have the freedom to choose their own values and act to achieve what they think is good, provided that it does not interfere with another’s ability to do the same. So, I am generally suspicious of legislation that interferes with the liberties of other people when my religious beliefs provide the sole reason for favoring the proposed law.

I am, however, advocating that the country increase the amount of money that we spend on international aid, specifically aid that is designed to reduce poverty. Yesterday, I claimed that this is consistent with the teachings of Jesus, but even aside from religious motivations, such aid is in our national interest. One could liken it to the rebuilding of Europe and Japan following World War II. Post-war reconstruction was not only the morally right thing to do, it also had immense national security benefits.

This same point was made by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley in an address to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in February. Let’s not simply rest on our past achievements, though.