We live in a gun culture. There are millions of people in this country who own guns, who regularly shoot guns in safe and supervised situations, and who insist on their right to carry guns for their protection. I don’t really know that culture. I have never owned a gun. I never wanted to, nor felt that I needed to. If I remember correctly, I have used a gun twice – once at a skeet range when I was at Boy Scout camp, and another time in northern Wisconsin in a secluded area under careful adult supervision. My friend and I shot at an empty coffee can about 50 yards away. I was about ten.
Whether we are fully engaged in and supportive of the gun culture – or have no connection to it, we are all affected by the scourge of gun violence. The shooting in Parkland, Florida brought it to the fore yet again. It is life-taking, heartbreaking and, increasingly, soul-numbing. And depending on whether you live “inside” the gun culture or “outside” it, the responses to mass shootings are becoming rather predictable: gun rights people want more access to firearms and greater freedom to bring them into public spaces; and gun safety people want to restrict their access, limit their presence and monitor their use.
As one who has always lived outside the gun culture, I support actions and marches, lamentations and legislation that reduces the potential for gun violence. Since the Sandy Hook murders over five years ago, I have been passionate about reducing gun violence. I have helped to organize Bishops United Against Gun Violence, now 75 strong. I have witnessed. I have prayed. I wear orange, which has become the color of gun safety. I have repeatedly tried to make the case that restricting the use of guns is not about the second amendment, but is primarily a public health issue. I will continue to do all these things.
But with this growing commitment to reduce gun violence, which for the moment is being led, thank God, by fired-up high school students, there is the temptation to let anger and indignation grow into arrogance, which then self-righteously shames the gun culture. I certainly have felt that in myself. That attitude won’t work, because it only serves to deepen the divide, reinforces entrenched positions and solidifies the stalemate on guns.
Lent is a season set aside to confront temptations. This year, during this seemingly endless epidemic of gun violence, on the one hand there is the temptation to sit it out because it is felt that nothing can be done – that we just need to accept the fact that mass shootings are an inescapable part of the American landscape. And on the other hand there is the temptation to claim moral superiority, and to disrespect – if not despise, people who claim an opposing position.
If you say you don’t have these or other temptations about the raging gun debate, think again. Face the temptations. Own them. Denying these temptations just makes them stronger. By confronting them, and working and praying through them, the dynamics of the debate can shift, and we then have a chance to reform our gun culture.