Someone, somewhere in America will be the victim of gun violence today. Mass shootings have become part of our routine national experience. What should be done with guns? That, essentially, is the question animating a new book from Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence.
Claiborne and Martin argue that that guns should be destroyed and refashioned. Their argument runs like this: Guns are violent, violence is antithetical to peace, and because Christians must be committed to peace, they should oppose guns. No Christian who cares about peace is energized for violence.
Many readers will be familiar with Claiborne’s previous books on Christian nonviolence. He has been admirably consistent: Christians who take the teachings of Jesus seriously must forsake violence and pursue what makes for peace. In Claiborne’s case, this has meant a recurring emphasis on aiding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and advocacy against capital punishment. Martin, for his part, is the founder and director of RAWtools, Inc., a nonprofit that turns guns into gardening tools. Together, they want to beat guns, figuratively and literally.
Beating Guns offers a useful historical overview of gun markets in the US and an instructive statistical analysis of American gun violence. The book is at its strongest when accounting for the scale of firearm ownership and use in the United States. Many of Claiborne and Martin’s findings are indeed quite alarming. Most people are aware, for example, that Americans own more guns and experience more gun violence than any other nation in the world. But did you know that Americans own half of all firearms globally, even though the US accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population? Did you know that of the 38,000-plus gun-related killings in America each year, more than half are the result of suicide? Even the statistical caveats offered are instructive. For example, 65 percent of guns are owned by 20 percent of gun owners, and of that latter group a mere 3 percent own half of all firearms!
Claiborne and Martin cite other statistics that might come as a surprise to readers. Even among gun owners largely committed to Second Amendment values, there is surprisingly broad consensus favoring specific regulatory policies. Around 85 percent support universal background checks covering private sales and gun shows, and somewhere around 65–68 percent support banning assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines.
In a related chapter on “myth-busting,” Claiborne and Martin helpfully push back against some of the more popular arguments made about the utility and indispensability of guns. The belief that “guns keep us safe” has a certain intuitive logic. Surely they make their owners at least feel safer. But it turns out that “for every one gun used in self-defense, six more are used to commit a crime,” and at least one study has shown that a gun kept in the home is 12 times more likely to be involved in death or injury to a family member than to stop an intruder. Mace is often an equally effective deterrent.
When it comes to the history of the gun in the US, Claiborne and Martin are not interested so much in the technological chronology as they are in the development of the firearm market. They worry (understandably) about the mass production and marketing of firearms, connecting the economic development of munitions to stages of militarization, particularly defense contracts. The history of gun manufacturing, on their telling, is one of war, opportunism, busts, and ultimately commodification. As they put it, “Gun production went from a specialized skill to a corporate enterprise.” To this day guns remain icons of our national self-understanding.
From their statistical and historical insights, Claiborne and Martin build toward the theological argument of the book, one plainly in keeping with the authors’ longstanding commitment to Christian pacifism: Following Jesus means taking him at this word that his kingdom is a kingdom of peace. Guns, therefore, are false idols to be rejected. Christians cannot, as Claiborne and Martin argue, “carry a cross in one hand and a weapon in the other.” Being conformed to the image of the Son must involve rejecting violence, a violence Jesus helps his disciples “unlearn.”
Beating Guns is in many ways an interesting and timely book. It offers an illuminating overview of our contemporary experience with firearms and situates that experience historically. That said, let me offer a few reasons why I’m not convinced that the book achieves its aims.
The chief problem is the authors’ insistence on condemning all firearms categorically. For Claiborne and Martin, the intrinsic purpose of a particular firearm is of little consequence. They are simply evil. The problem with this approach, however, is that proper moral assessment of firearms really does require differentiation by type and purpose. A 12-gauge shotgun, for instance, has an intrinsically different purpose than an AR-15 or a .22-caliber rifle. Some guns are designed for hunting, some for sport shooting, and some for self-defense. Is there really nothing to be said for the responsible hunter or sport shooter?
Taking a more realist approach to firearm regulation and to the church’s practices would have strengthened the moral force of the book considerably. Everyone is weary of violence, but a significant percentage of the weary do not find their shotguns or hunting rifles particularly threatening to themselves or to others. They are unlikely to catch the vision for how beating their rifles into gardening hoes makes the world less violent. One reason is that Claiborne and Martin never establish a firm Christian ethical argument for why firearms are inherently evil. Instead, the claim is implicit in their larger commitment to pacifism—a commitment that not every believer will share. Which means that a strength of the book—its emphasis on peacemaking—is also a weakness, in that its constructive proposals are unlikely to convince Christians who aren’t already pacifists.
As a result, the segments of the population that most need persuading are also the segments least likely to engage the book. Gun owners interested in discrete, measurable firearm regulations will be put off by its abolitionist spirit, since they are made out to be complicit in wrongdoing simply by owning firearms. That is the posture Claiborne and Martin believe necessary. A better method, I think, would have been to show how gun enthusiasts of different stripes could begin to understand peacemaking as limiting the violence guns can inflict. Help readers see clearly how specific firearms make our world more violent, and you’ll stand a better chance of drawing them to a moral vision of a more peaceful existence.
In articulating their goal of seeing all firearms repurposed as garden tools, Claiborne and Martin, of course, lean heavily on Isaiah 2:4, one of the Bible’s best-known prophetic passages, which speaks of a time when people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” If God has promised this reality, the authors say, then we should be doing our utmost to live into it today.
But there’s no escaping the deeply eschatological nature of this passage, which also speaks of how God “will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.” The reign of peace that God promises depends upon his final triumph over every form of sin and injustice. That triumph was announced and achieved at the cross, but in this period before Christ returns, we still await its full consummation.
Of course, none of this forces us into some fatalist resignation toward gun violence. Nor does it preclude taking prudent measures in the arena of public policy. But it does emphasize that our deepest hope for peace is not rooted in restricting or even abolishing weapons. We put our ultimate trust, instead, in the One who appoints those who bear the sword (Rom. 13), who has defeated death, and who reigns forever as the Prince of Peace, “having disarmed the powers and authorities” and “triumph[ed] over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). As Christ’s servants, we participate in his redemptive work, bringing the gospel of peace wherever we go.
Claiborne and Martin’s vision for how to beat guns may not be compelling in every respect, but their vivid portrayal of how guns are beating us makes the book well worth reading.
Matthew Arbo is assistant professor of theological studies and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Oklahoma Baptist University.