By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
News of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy echoed across the country like a shot. The final body count – 20 children and six adults – punctuated a long season of violence taking place in increasingly public spheres.
A theater, a house of worship, a mall, a school. Who doesn’t visit these places?
The ensuing debate over gun control seems to be one that will not die down with time, as tides of arguments mount on either side.
What does this mean for Mississippi, the most religious state in the country according to a 2012 Gallup poll? For citizens who keep a gun and a Bible in the same night stand, what do they see when they look at the gun control debate through the microscope of faith?
Responsibility is key
Amory native John Wilson taught history and government classes at Amory High School and Itawamba Community College for a combined 34 years. The son of a World War II soldier, Wilson is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and describes himself as a man of faith. John also raised his children in the church and exposed them to guns at an early age.
“A gun is a tool, like an ax, tied to self-sufficiency and protection,” he said. “They come with a lot of responsibility, but that can only be gained by understanding and using them.”
His son, Seth, agreed responsibility is key.
“Simply owning a firearm without being comfortable with it or knowing how it works only provides a false sense of security,” he said. “It also means keeping it out of the wrong hands,” he said, pointing out that the Newtown shooter stole his weapons from his mother, who should have had them secured.
For the Wilsons, the Constitution of the United States is beyond reproach. John said the founding fathers recognized the dangers of institutionalized religion, but though the Constitution may be a secular document, it is still a moral one.
“It is a human right to defend your own and a Christian obligation to protect the innocent,” Seth said. “I’m not saying everyone should be forced to own a gun, but willing, responsible, capable gun owners encourage peace-keeping. The people who commit these mass killings do so in places where they know no one has guns.”
John said law enforcement does a great service, but cannot prevent crime before it happens. It is the individual who is responsible for his own self-defense and that of his family. Furthermore, God recognizes that right.
“Time and time again in the Old Testament the nation of Israel rises up against aggressors,” he said. “The right to defend yourself is the right of a free man and there is nothing unChristian about that.”
Father Tim Murphy, priest at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Pontotoc, is not as convinced.
“Rights are not absolute, they come with boundaries. Take the freedom of speech. That right exists, but we still have laws against slander and libel,” he said. “It’s tricky to find a balance between our rights as citizens and our responsibilities as Christians.”
Murphy said there is danger in finding safety in violence, and that solving the problem of guns by adding more guns may show a lack of creativity.
“Our initial response to a tragedy like Newtown should be inward. We should consort our faith and our hearts before a political party or a news network,” he said. “When we are polarized by fear, it becomes impossible to foster a society where human life is protected and respected.”
Fear, Murphy said, causes families to live behind many locks, when the gospel calls them to reach outward. Much of the violence in this country has to do with societal conditions, conditions that should be questioned instead of just accepted.
“We aren’t a horrible people, but we’re called to be better people, both individually and collectively,” he said. “Gun violence is a symptom of a cultural problem, and it’s the duty of a Christian to speak to these issues. We are called to constantly reexamine our society and ask ‘could we do this better?’”
The Rev. Gloria McKinney, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church, echoed Murphy on her sentiments about fear.
“If we parade guns, we parade hate,” she said. “We can’t walk around paranoid, so paralyzed that we can’t use what’s in our heads.”
An Amory native, McKinney has been around guns her whole life. Her father was a hunter, and he took her brothers with him on hunting trips when they were 12 years old.
“We needed guns, we hunted to eat,” she said. “We had great respect for what it took to keep us alive. For us to live, another part of God’s creation had to die. It bothered me when I saw animals mounted on the wall or in the back of trucks, like trophies.”
At the same time, McKinney said she understands a need for guns. While attending Mississippi State University in the early ‘80s, her father gave her a small handgun to protect herself while walking home from night class. She prayed she would never need it, but said she would have if she was forced to.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone not to have protection,” she said. “But the callousness with which I see people speak about this issue worries me. If I had been forced to take someone’s life, I shudder to think of the toll it would have taken on my heart. No matter what the situation, taking a life is a heavy burden to carry, and I think that burden is often underestimated.”
Ultimately, she said she would trust the law, but the solution would take collective efforts between both Republicans and Democrats.
Guns on the job
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said his sworn duty and the duty of his officers is to enforce and uphold the law.
“Guns are a necessity, a tool we use every day. We couldn’t do our job without guns,” he said. “Lethal force is an absolute last resort, but officers have to go into every situation with their guard up.”
This duty is not in conflict with the scriptures, Johnson said, citing the 13th chapter of Romans, which says the authorities are servants to God that “[they] do not bear the sword for nothing.”
Where his officers are concerned, Johnson said they are trained to control the situation before it reaches a boiling point. Though they must be on their guard, lethal force is a last resort.
“It’s all in how you treat people. I can teach a monkey to drive a patrol car and use a gun,” he said. “Every call is an opportunity for my men and women to show grace and go above and beyond.”
From his perspective, gun restrictions would do little to stem criminal violence. Criminals often behave well in the controlled environment of a penitentiary, but when they get off on a light sentence, they don’t take their punishment seriously and soon pick up old bad habits.
“I just don’t see how restrictions would help the law-abiding citizen. It’s been against the law to kill for a long time,” he said.
Johnson also said it would be more effective to try and discover what makes a person act out in a violent way. Part of the answer, he said, lies in the structure of the community.
“When I was growing up, the police, the schools, and churches all raised kids the same way,” he said. “Because they were connected, everyone in the community was connected. Because they took care of each other, people took care of each other.”