The United States is awash in guns. Though it accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is home to 42 percent of the world’s firearms—so many, in fact, that guns outnumber people. There are nearly five times more licensed gun dealers in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s restaurants. Guns account for 38,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, more than half of which are suicides. The nation leads the world in gun homicides. It accounts for 80 percent of the gun deaths that occur annually in the 23 nations of the developed world, and 87 percent of children killed by guns globally are killed here. It’s a vicious and intractable problem.
In their new book, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence, authors and Christian activists Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin share figures like these to document the pervasive danger that guns pose to civil society. Through an avalanche of concerning statistics, a variety of disturbing case studies, and their biblical interpretation of interpersonal violence, Claiborne and Martin model a kind-spirited rejoinder to the entrenched violence of American gun culture. As their book tour takes them around the country, they pair prophetic speech with symbolic action, literally hammering guns into garden tools at their events—an allusion to biblical verses about beating swords into plowshares.
The author of nine books, Claiborne is a co-founder of The Simple Way, a Christian collective in Philadelphia, and he is co-director of Red Letter Christians, a non-denominational movement of progressive Christians. Martin is a professional blacksmith and the executive director of RAWTools, an organization committed to transforming weapons of death into implements of life by hammering guns into gardening tools.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Claiborne about the book recently by phone.
R&P: What inspired you to start beating guns into gardening tools?
Shane Claiborne: We just got tired of seeing so much violence and death in the world and, in a very particular sense, in our own neighborhood of Kensington in Philadelphia. As we go through the neighborhood there are many things that we’re proud of, but one of the things that grieves our hearts is that, on just about every corner, we can tell the story of whose life was lost there, in almost every case to a gun. There are memorials sprinkled all over north Philadelphia to lives that were taken too soon. Martin Luther King said that we are all called to be the Good Samaritan and to lift people out of the ditch on the road to Jericho, but after you’ve lifted so many people out of the ditch, you start asking whether we need to rethink the road.
That said, we’re hopeful people. We’re people of faith who believe that life is more powerful than death and love is more powerful than hatred. We try to speak with a prophetic voice and to remember that the prophetic vision is positive. It’s a vision committed to turning tools of death into tools of life. Walter Brueggemann has written that, while we often think of the prophets as trying to predict the future, they were usually trying to change the present. They were trying to name where we’re at and challenge us to imagine something better—the type of future that God would want for us. So that’s what inspired us to start beating guns. We started in Philly about six years ago. Mike founded RAWTools, and we’ve been doing it ever since.
R&P: The statistics in the book are devastating, and they throw the political failure into sharp relief. Did you feel like symbolic action filled the void when there was nothing left to say?
SC: We felt like the political debate on gun control had come to a stand still, and you can only argue about the Second Amendment for so long. In our work, we go deeper. Instead of trying to appeal to the head, we reach out to the heart, and often the head comes along. I don’t know too many people who have been argued into thinking differently, but I’ve met a whole lot just while doing this tour who have found that, when they ground themselves in the reality of gun violence in America, something shifts for them.
I grew up around guns, and many in my family are still gun owners. The fact of gun ownership doesn’t have to divide us. Over 90 percent of Americans want to see stronger gun regulations, and over 80 percent of gun owners agree. There are sensible things we can do, like expanding background checks, preventing domestic abusers from acquiring guns, putting people who are on the no-fly list also on a no-gun list. We can place restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. It’s been very important to us to stress that gun owners are not the enemy. Our events have attracted a lot of hunters who oppose gun violence. One even wore a t-shirt that said, “A good hunter does not need ten rounds to kill a deer.” That’s encouraging.
R&P: You’re very diplomatic in your outreach to gun owners, and very critical of gun makers, dealers, and lobbyists. Can the producers and consumers be so cleanly separated?
SC: In the book, we quote Henry Ford saying, “Tell me who profits from violence and I’ll tell you how to stop it.” From the very beginning, a lot of the major profiteers of violence were not big fans of guns—they were big fans of money, and guns emerged as very profitable products. Winchester started out in the shirt industry. Smith was a carpenter and Wesson was a shoemaker. Colt was a traveling showman. Remington began as a pacifist and a poet. But all found their way into the gun business and created a thriving market.
When the National Rifle Association says that it represents 5 million people, we need to remember that this is a small fraction of American gun owners. Ninety percent of gun owners are not members of the NRA, and most find themselves at odds with the extremism of the gun lobby. The more that people learn about it, the more disturbed they get. For instance, a gun is stolen every single minute in America, and in many states you don’t have to report stolen guns, even though about a third of them are eventually tracked to violent crimes. The gun lobby made that happen. There’s a lot we don’t know about the effects of gun violence because the research has been held hostage, just like when tobacco companies fought to oppose cancer research. And we already have the technology to make smart guns that operate off of a finger print—which would prevent a lot of suicides and accidental deaths—but the industry does not have the will to pursue it.
So it’s not a matter of ability; it’s a matter of will. The gun industry has the power to protect lives, but it would rather protect profits. Too often we have allowed questions of rights to dominate our discourse around guns. Our goal right now is to reframe the conversation from a focus on rights to a focus on conscience, and to stir the public conscience to create change.
R&P: It seems like gun makers are running a pretty foolproof racket. They stoke people’s fears about criminals or about the government, they push guns as the means to safety, and they cite every instance of gun violence as grounds for buying more guns. How do you break that cycle of fear?
SC: Fear plays a major role in all of this. When we’re socialized to live constantly in fear, we end up stockpiling weapons. We were just in Colorado, and there’s a guy there who has 4,000 guns. He’s an extreme case, but there are a lot of people out there who are collecting guns in the event that they need to use them against their own government. The irony is that many call themselves patriots even as they prepare to kill U.S. soldiers or police officers who, in some hypothetical future, come to take their guns.
The idea that we need more guns to protect us from our guns is kind of like an alcoholic saying I need more whiskey to help with my drinking problem. It sounds suspiciously like a message created by folks who just want to sell more guns.
But fear plays a major role, and that’s why we cite the Cato Institute study that shows how irrational many of our fears are. The president and the right-wing media are telling us constantly that we need to fear immigrants and refugees, and yet the Cato study lists a dozen things more likely to kill you than a refugee, including things like swing sets, roller coasters, and a vending machine falling on you. We need to name those irrational fears. And those of us who are people of faith need to stand on the promise that “love casteth out fear.” Right now in our country, fear is casting out love. Fear and love are enemies and they can’t coexist. When our policies are shaped more by fear than by love, we are bound to do some terrible things, especially to the most vulnerable. So we break the cycle by changing people’s hearts.
R&P: You refer to guns as an idol that Americans worship, and note that white evangelical Christians are the most heavily armed demographic in the nation. How does a community dedicated to faith, hope, and love come to worship the tools of violence?
SC: That’s the million-dollar question! Two-thirds of Americans live without guns, and yet 41 percent of white evangelicals own guns. Those who worship the Prince of Peace are packing heat at a rate higher than the general population. That’s very troubling. You’ve got pastors who are encouraging people to bring guns to church, guns with Bible verses inscribed on the barrel, even a Bible case that is made to carry a gun in secret. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that gun worship has become a form of American idolatry. Idolatry is about attributing god-like power to something that is not God. It means holding something with a sacred reverence that should be given to God alone. Idols are things in which we place our trust, and they make us promises in return—power, control, safety, deliverance, self-determination. These are exactly what the gun is promising and, if it kept those promises, it would be God.
Warren Cassidy, a former director of the NRA, once said that you would get a far better understanding of the NRA if you approached it as one of the great religions of the world. And clearly, the message coming out of that organization is that guns are purely virtuous. Since guns are intrinsically good, you can never have a surplus of them—you can only have a lack, and somehow we always do.
It’s been said that we should be careful what we worship, because what we worship we become. True worship of Jesus should make us act more like Jesus, who said we should love our enemies, turn the other cheek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers. Idolatry leads us to resist God’s efforts to change us, replacing them with our own efforts to change God. God created us in his image, and then we decided to return the favor. That’s how you end up with bumper stickers that say things like, “Jesus would still be alive if he’d had a gun.” But no, Jesus carried a cross. The cross and the gun give us very different notions of power and very different perspectives on who God is.
R&P: Despite all of the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last two decades, Congress has been famously inactive in response. In your travels and your research and your writing, do you see any reason to hope that this will change?
SC: There’s definitely a political crisis in our country on a variety of fronts, certainly including guns. We just visited Missouri, which has considered legislation to require all adults to own an AR-15. But though there are some crazy bills in circulation, there are also some positive ones. There’s a background check bill currently before the House, another bill would keep domestic abusers from acquiring guns, and I think there will be more and more of these in the coming years.
A lot of advocacy groups, like Moms Demand Action, are stating very clearly that they are not against guns—they are against gun violence. We can fight gun violence through legislation without stripping citizens of the right to own guns. When the Second Amendment was written, a gun could fire one shot per minute. Now some can fire 100 shots per minute. That’s relevant to this discussion. The text of the amendment specifies provision for a “well-regulated militia,” which is very different from the entirely unregulated market that it is routinely invoked to defend. James Madison said that liberty can be endangered by the abuse of power, but liberty can also be endangered by the abuse of liberty. One person’s liberty can infringe on another’s right to life.
We recognize this in other areas. A lot of people drive cars, and respect car regulations. Unlike guns, cars are not specifically designed to kill. But sometimes they do, so they are subject to all sorts of restrictions from licensing and registration to inspections and checkpoints to seat belts and speed limits. And as the technology advances the regulations keep pace, as with texting bans, for example. But the gun industry, which is responsible for flooding the nation with deadly weapons that have taken countless lives, is also one of the least regulated industries in the country.
All that to say, I’m really optimistic. We need new laws, and in time I think we can get them. But in the book, and on the tour, we insist that ours is not just a gun problem—it’s a heart problem as well, and to fix it we need to change people’s hearts. We could get rid of every gun on earth and violence would still raise its ugly face, if without the same capacity. We’ve seen people turn a pressure cooker into a bomb and drive a car into a crowd. No law can legislate love or criminalize hatred, so we need God to heal racism, bigotry, anger, and fear. He can do that one heart at a time.