Mandate for Justice: Inside and Outside

Is Gun Ownership a God-Given Right?

A Look at the Second Amendment

By Rev. Rodney Sadler, Ph.D.

It has been difficult to watch the news over the past several months without being deeply disturbed by the rash of mass shootings we have seen. This, added to the rampant gun violence in the community as a whole, suggests that, no matter where we find ourselves on the ideological spectrum, we must acknowledge that we have a problem with guns in America. I might suggest that the problem is not just with guns; it is with morality, it is with ideology, it is with our collective American soul. I might even go further to suggest that the root of our problem can be found in the Constitution itself.

I want to posit that the Second Amendment—an enshrined assertion that gun ownership is a God-given right—may well be instrumental in fostering our problem. I know that, to many, such an assertion is sacrilegious, but think with me for a moment.

In America, we often celebrate the Constitution as part of the reason we consider ourselves exceptional. We often think about it as if it was written by human beings who were channeling someone greater. It is a powerful commonplace and the foundation of our distinctive vision of democracy, so we ascribe to it a sacral value. We overlook the fact that the Constitution is actually a document of human origins, intentionally crafted by its framers so that we would know it is both synthetic (created by human beings, hence limited by our human failings) and necessarily plastic (made to be reimagined and “reformed” as deemed necessary for our changing contexts). It is in part because of these two facts that we have Amendments at all.

Which brings us to consider one of these early Amendments to the Constitution, the Second Amendment. For the sake of this conversation, I will start by asserting that the Second Amendment is not the word of God. It is not “holy.” In fact, it is quite problematic. The text of the Amendment is part of our interpretive problem:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is a horrible sentence formed with poor grammar and failing punctuation. It has been the source of much controversy. It would seem that its original purpose was born of a necessity to ensure that we can arm a militia to protect our “free State.” But is a militia a necessity for our nation in 2022? Do we need a militia anymore, when we have the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—five standing, well funded, and well staffed branches of military service? In addition, we have a plethora of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that more than adequately serve the role presumed for a once “necessary” militia.

Further, the Amendment contains competing ideas. The notion of a “well regulated militia” suggests that there will be a regulatory organization, likely the state, that will govern the nature of the militia. But this sentence ends declaring that the right to bear arms (already premised to be used for the “well regulated militia”) shall “not be infringed.” One statement implies government control, and the other implies an uninfringed right. This Amendment is internally contradictory!

Context

The Second Amendment was written during a different period, with different concerns from those we face today. A good rule for biblical interpretation that I will here apply to the Constitution is that, to understand a text, you have to understand the context in which it was written (you know: the who, what, when, where, and why of the text), for writings are shaped by their contexts. Trying to understand something from a very different context without considering the difference between that context and our own can lead to horrible problems with interpretation. If we think about the context of the Second Amendment, we will see that:

  1. It was written in the year 1791—more than 230 years ago!
  2. When it was written, there were only 3,929,214 people in this nation. (It was a little more than 1/100th the size of our nation today.)
  3. It was written when much of the country was still yet to be stolen from the indigenous Americans and Mexicans. There was active conflict.
  4. It was written when there were many more dangerous wild animals (like bears, mountain lions, wolverines, wolves, bison, coyotes, etc.) actively inhabiting places where people lived.
  5. It was written when muskets and flintlock pistols that could only be fired at a rate of two to three shots a minute were the dominant firearms available to the general population.
  6. It was written when the military branches of the United States were nascent and not as well established as they are today, so they may have needed a “well regulated militia” to supplement them.

Today, we see that not only do we not need a militia to protect our nation, but also that militias are the often source of the problem, perpetuating a white supremacist agenda and imperiling our democracy. We saw this when the Wolverine Watchmen threatened to assassinate Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan in October 2020. We saw it when the Proud Boys tried to overthrow our democracy and assassinate Speaker Pelosi and Vice President Pence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. We saw it when members of the Patriot Front were caught in the back of a U-Haul truck on their way to violently disrupt a Pride parade in Idaho in June of 2022.

Our modern expressions of militias are anything but “well regulated” and pose a problem for the survival of our nation. We don’t really need militias anymore—or an amendment that enshrines them and makes gun ownership seem sacred. Contexts change, and the Second Amendment should, as well.

But this faulty, dated, and, I would argue, now irrelevant amendment has become like holy writ to those enamored with owning guns. If you even speak against this amendment, many folks will argue that gun ownership is a “God-given right.” They will cite “Constitutional authority.” They will accuse you of being “un-American”!

The Authors

Before we grant this Constitutional Amendment “scriptural status,” we need to think carefully about who wrote these words. Perhaps then we will realize that it was written by the same people who gave us the legalized taking of other peoples’ lands and the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the indigenous American population.

Then we will realize that the Second Amendment was given to us by the same people who gave us legalized slavery and turned our Black and Brown ancestors into property who had no rights—who declared them three-fifths of a human being.

Then we will realize that this Amendment was given to us by people who were the source of many other bad ideas that we have grown to reject in our contemporary world. So why do we not question the veracity of these 26 words?

Do Human Rights Include Gun Rights?

It seems as though this Amendment serves as the “scripture” that has shaped a faulty view of human rights. While I could argue the validity of a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that there are other rights we have…is gun ownership really a “God-given” right?

I might believe that:

  • A right to affordable housing, so that no one is forced to raise their family on the street because they can’t afford a place to live, is a God-given right, which is why we should stand for the overturning of the Faircloth Amendment, which limits the amount the federal government can spend on affordable public housing programs.
  • A right to a job at a living wage, so that no one is impoverished and suffering in a nation replete with extraordinary abundance, is a God-given right, which is why we should stand for the passage of HR 1000, the Jobs for All Act, which would ensure every American a job at a living wage.
  • A right to healthcare, so that no one should suffer needlessly or die prematurely in a nation with the most advanced healthcare system in the history of the world, is a God-given right, which is why we should have a Medicare for All, single-payer system that enables everyone to have access to the healthcare they need to live.
  • A right to a quality education, so that no one should be ignorant and unable to participate in our larger government and our society, is a God-given right, which is why we should stand for the Leandro Plan and making sure all of our school systems provide a fair, just, and equitable education for all of our children.
  • A right to a vote that was earned by the shedding of blood of martyrs with names like Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Martin King (many of whom were killed by guns, oddly enough…their right to life less important than their murderers’ right to own a gun) is a God-given right. This right, threatened by a Supreme Court that undid the Voting Rights Act and a feckless Congress that has yet to vote to restore it when our very right to vote is under attack, is something for which we should struggle.

These might be things I could believe to be rights—things that are in line with God’s will for all people.

But is there a God-given right to own, to bear, to carry a gun?

What happens when rights conflict with each other? If there is a God-given right to life, then doesn’t an Amendment granting a right to bear arms, meant only to take human lives, seem to work against this God-given right? Our obsession costs us our very lives and undermines the first right established in our Declaration of Independence. Our worship of guns, bowing to the gun lobby, and kneeling before the NRA puts us all at risk.

What Some Say

I know what the conversation in the public square is. The wrongheaded argument championed by many in our nation is “Guns don’t kill people…people kill people.” Well, I think they are only partially right. “People with guns kill people.”

I also know that some like to say after every instance of mass gun murder that the perpetrator had mental problems, that we have a mental health crisis as a nation, and that people with mental health issues should not own guns. Again, they are partially right, for people with mental health problems should not own guns.

Yes, we should be willing to legislate gun control so that people with mental problems cannot own guns. Further, I wonder if having the power to kill in your hand—having the ability to take the life of another, having access to a gun—offers false bravery that is itself the basis of the “mental health problem” that afflicts all of these mass shooters.

Better put, we do have a mental health problem in America. We are gun crazy.

  • We have a mental health problem that afflicts mostly males and enables them to feel justified in buying weapons of war for use against civilians.
  • We have a mental health problem that afflicts members of Congress and prevents them from voting for sensible gun control legislation as blood is flowing like rivers across our nation.
  • We have a mental health problem that afflicts voters and enables them to keep on voting for the same incompetent elected officials who refuse to do anything to change the laws about guns that are killing us all.
  • We have a mental health problem that enables us to watch as grandmothers are gunned down in churches and at supermarkets, and as children—babies —are gunned down in schools, and we are not up in arms, demanding that our leaders do something about it.

We have a mental health problem, all right. It is a mental health problem borne of a spiritual problem.

Guns Have Become Our Idol

I worry that we also have a god problem—that guns have become false gods, idols in our world today. In Moses’s time, false gods and idols were alternative objects of trust—things that people depended upon to provide benefits, goods, and blessings instead of God.

The people would turn to the idol Baal for rain for their fields.

The people would turn to the idol Asherah for fertility to bear children.

The people would turn to the idol Anat for victories in war.

They trusted in the idols to provide for them, to protect them, to give them strength and courage. In return, they would offer these false gods, these idols, their sacrifices.

Our Sacrifice

The thing is, when you trust in false gods, when you trust in idols, those false gods inevitably demand sacrifices. Look at what we have sacrificed to our false god, our guns:

In an average year, we lose more than 33,000 people to gun violence, including suicides, homicides, and accidents. In 2020 alone—likely the worst year in our nation’s history with gun violence—we lost 45,222 people.

Let that sink in. These numbers are far greater than the 2,977 people who died on 9/11, and we were so up in arms that we started the longest war in American history. These numbers are greater than the 20,220 people who can fit into Charlotte’s Spectrum Center Arena. That’s like killing half of the people who can fit into Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. Imagine how many people that is!

That is more than the 30,146 students at UNC Charlotte. Can you imagine all of them dying in one year? Thirty-three thousand people is far too many people to sacrifice on the altar of the idol of guns. It is far too many people to lose each year as endless rivers of precious human blood sacrifices flow down because we are clinging to a bad idea premised in an outdated Amendment.

Conclusion

It is time that we as Christians begin to stand up, step out, and say in no uncertain terms that the Second Amendment no longer suits our needs. More importantly, we as Christians need to say that it is an anti-Christ Amendment.

Dr. King said that there are unjust laws as there are unjust people. He, like theologian Josiah Royce, and like activist Mohandas Gandhi before him, suggested that it is our moral duty as people of faith to resist such laws. In this case, it is our moral duty as Christian people to overturn the Second Amendment, for it is un-Christian, it is unloving, it is ungodly, it is unholy, and it is demonic. In essence, it is idolatrous, and it kills.

Gone are the days when we could simply offer a national prayer and a moment of silence. No longer should we lower flags to half staff and come together for vigils. We know how this story ends…with more violence, inevitably, predictably, repetitively.

It is time that we as people of faith declare boldly that the God of the Bible who bids us beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks; who tells us to study war no more; who tells us to love our neighbors, aliens, and enemies as we love ourselves; who made each of us in God’s own image requires more from us than vengeance, payback, and retaliation. Perhaps, more importantly, Jesus our Savior and Lord set the example not by taking lives, but by giving his own life on our behalf when we were Gentile enemies of God. Perhaps our response should start not with a “right” to enact violence, but with a requirement to enact God’s grace. Then—just then, perhaps—America will no longer endure the shame of standing alone amid the “civilized” nations of the world annually, sacrificing 33,000 people on the altar of our idolatrous god.


Rodney S. Sadler Jr. is an ordained Baptist minister and is Associate Professor of Bible and Director of the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary. His teaching experience includes courses in biblical languages, Old and New Testament interpretation, wisdom literature in the Bible, the history and religion of ancient Israel, and African American biblical interpretation. His first authored book, Can A Cushite Change His Skin? An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible, was published in 2005. He frequently lectures within the church and the community on Race in the Bible, African American Biblical Interpretation, the Image of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is the managing editor of the African-American Devotional Bible.

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