Ben Witherington is a Biblical scholar whom I highly respect. While I've not read any of his books, I have heard him interviewed several times, and recently read his critique of Frank Viola & George Barna's book Pagan Christianity. When it comes to New Testament data, you'd be hard pressed to get a better or more thorough commentator.
However, in perusing his site, I ran across a post he wrote (just after the 2011 Tucson shooting in which Rep. Gabby Giffords was gravely wounded and 6 other people killed) regarding firearms and gun ownership in general. Suffice it to say that he is less than enthusiastic about the manner with which the 2nd Amendment is exercised in 21st century America. While he is entitled to his opinion, I must say that I consider his arguments to be weak and without substantial basis.
In Guns and Religion - Enough is Quite Enough, Witherington lists the following pro-gun arguments which, as he puts it, are actually "myths".
Myth # 1: "Guns don't kill people"
Myth # 2: "If we ban guns, only criminals will have guns"
Myth # 3: "The Constitution and the Bill of Rights gives the private citizen the right to own whatever gun his heart desires"
Myth # 4: "Hunting Animals (e.g. Deer) is a Sport"
Myth # 5: "The Best Way to Protect Yourself and Your Family is to Buy Guns"
Rather than actually address these "myths" properly, however, he resorts to erecting straw men, following illogical paths, tossing out red herrings, and presenting false or misleading information. Let me address what I believe to be the problems with his arguments.
Myth # 1: "Guns don't kill people", from his post,
Really? Go to morgue after a homicide and ask the mortician the cause of death in a fatal shooting. The medical answer is simple— a bullet entered the person’s brain (or elsewhere). How did the bullet get there? It was fired by a gun! Ah, but a person fired the gun so, the gun is not a fault. This too is not entirely true. A person who merely hand tossed bullets at people could not kill them that way. No, the gun was a necessity, especially in Tucson if you wanted to do as much damage as you could. Had the young maniac merely tried to strangle someone to death he could have been subdued very quickly, and the same if even he had wielded a knife. No, guns are indeed a huge part of the problem, especially guns that can shoot more bullets than my grandfather’s old one shot derringer. It’s time to own up to the fact that guns, and the ready access to guns, are a huge problem in a culture full of sick people. At a minimum certain kinds of guns should be banned altogether, oh let’s start with assault rifles.
First off, the saying he quotes is incomplete. It should read, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." This is important because we really need to understand that it is not the device that is evil in and of itself, but the person (or, the intent of the person). I've had several guns in my house for several years now and I can truthfully state that none of them have, on their own accord, fired themselves at anyone. What Witherington is skirting around with his argument is the fact that a person equipped with a handgun and a large capacity magazine, as was used in the Tucson shooting, can kill or injure many people in a short period of time. Hence, someone trying to kill a lot of people quickly he will have a more difficult time accomplishing such an act by means of strangulation than if he were using, say, a submachine gun.
But does anyone disagree on that point, and is it really the issue at hand? Witherington seems to think that because multiple people can be killed quickly with a handgun then handguns should be banned. Yet I wonder at what point he considers the casualty count to be acceptable? In other words, if we must ban handguns because they allow a madman to kill 6 (as in the Tucson shooting) in just a few minutes, must we also ban knife ownership because a knife-wielding madman can kill 4 (over a weekend)? Or is 4 dead over a weekend spree acceptable carnage? If not, then maybe we should go whole-hog and ban kitchen knives as well? Or perhaps we should only allow Kentucky long rifles because they require individual loads of ammunition and gunpowder (i.e., one shot) and then take about a minute to reload?
For the moment, let's set aside the fact that if one or more people in the crowd surrounding Rep. Giffords had themselves been armed, then the shooter would have not succeeded in the carnage he eventually committed. Does Witherington know how many people can be killed, and how fast, by someone skilled with an edged weapon? It may surprise you to find out that someone who knows how to use an edged weapon can kill you or me faster than if they had a handgun. But let's assume that Witherington's world is actualized and we had no handguns (or assault rifles - if one can truly define what those are) or knives to deal with at the constituent meeting Rep. Giffords was holding. Let me ask you: How many people could be killed if the madman was armed not with a Glock 19, but with a Chevy Suburban? Yeah, picture about 6,000 pounds of SUV jumping the curb and plowing over that constituent meeting.
My point is that a human mind bent on evil will find a way to execute such desires, and that the notion of banning weapons does nothing to address this. But I also think that Witherington misses another very important point - that of the law-abiding nature of gun owners in general. Consider that if, on the day of the Tucson shooting, one thousandth of one percent (i.e., 0.001%) of the gun owners in America had shot and killed 6 people, then we'd have had 4,800 people murdered! Isn't it clear that the issue is not with the laws restricting gun control but with the criminal?
Myth # 2: "If we ban guns, only criminals will have guns", from his post,
No, law enforcement people will also have guns as well. Not to mention the National guard and the various branches of the military. The issue is private guns, and that brings us to the next myth.
In a perfect world, such a hope would be so. Alas, we don't live in a perfect world.
First question for Witherington is: What about criminals? Does he think that most bad guys purchase their weapons down at Bud's Gun Shop? If the government were to ban guns how, exactly, would they enforce such an edict among criminals who, by definition, are lawbreakers? When law-abiding citizens purchase firearms they follow the rules (due to the fact they are law-abiding) and register such purchases. Criminals typically get their firearms through theft or the black market. Hence, the government knows who has legally purchased weapons but is woefully ignorant of who is in illegal possession of firearms.
Alas, Witherington's argument relies on the hope that law enforcement (and the government) remains honorable, sufficiently present and, not to mention, competent. But reality tells us something different.
Remember the L.A. RIots of 1992, after the Rodney King trial decision? There remains an indelible image of Korean shop owners, in downtown Los Angeles, armed to the teeth - ready to protect their shops, their livelihood, themselves, and their families from rioting looters bent on destroying anything and anyone in their path. Oh, and the cops - you know, the ones with the guns? - they were nowhere to be found. I still recall seeing news footage (because it seemed that the news reporters were brave enough to venture where law enforcement wouldn't) of Korean shop owners, in broad daylight, engaged in a gun battle with gang-banging looters. Those same news reporters camped out with the Korean shop owners that night, many of them on the roofs of their shops, waiting for any looting rioters who ventured back. Yet the looters failed to return - ostensibly because they didn't want another experience of bullets being shot in their direction. After all, they may have been criminals, but they weren't stupid.
Well, how about Hurricane Katrina and the brave police force of New Orleans? Yeah, they're the ones who went into neighborhoods and disarmed law-abiding citizens (because, as mentioned above, they had gun registration records of the law-abiding citizens), thereby violating their right to self-defense from roving looters. Yet, it's funny how the neighborhoods who banded together, armed, were able to protect themselves. Oh, and let's not forget that some of those in the New Orleans Police Department were eventually arrested and convicted of murdering innocent (and unarmed) civilians.
And just recently, during the Occupy Wall Street nonsense, we saw an example of a private citizen protecting himself from rioters by presenting his pump-action shotgun and demonstrating how the pump action operates. Where was law enforcement when this man needed them?
As far as competence goes, people may be surprised to find out how many times law enforcement officers misfire their weapons, sometimes hitting themselves or another person. The famous "I'm the only one in this room professional enough that I know of to carry this Glock .40" video of a DEA agent shooting himself in the foot (see below), in the midst of a school presentation, is but the tip of the iceberg. And if they aren't accidentally shooting their weapons, they're losing them, or leaving them on top of the trunk of their squad cars, or letting them walk into Mexico, or falsely claiming to be shot at.
Additionally, anyone with a bit of shop knowledge can form a crude device which can fire an ammunition cartridge. Again, counting on the determination of man, how difficult is it to imagine such a device being used on someone in law enforcement (the only ones who would, presumably, have access to firearms after a complete ban) thereby relieving said officer of possession of his firearm?
Lastly, it's interesting to note which governments, current and in the past, have instituted or attempted to institute complete bans on firearms. A sampling:
Myth # 3: "The Constitution and the Bill of Rights gives the private citizen the right to own whatever gun his heart desires", from his post,
In the first place, the law was originally set up allowing each of the colonies to have militias. It was not set up to protect a right of private citizens to have any and all sorts of guns. It simply wasn’t. Besides all this, a cannon is a gun. A howitizer is a gun. And guess what? Private citizens already do not have a right to own and operate such things. We need to ban a few more weapons that can do huge damage. It’s way past time for such legislation.
This is a common misunderstanding of the 2nd Amendment. Militias, as it turns out, were not instituted until after the Bill of Rights. Also, the 2nd Amendment clearly states that the right of the people is being referred to. Additionally, it is clear from comments by various founding fathers that the notion of private firearm ownership was the intent and understanding at the time. Where I would probably side with Witherington is on the issue of private citizens owning something like a howitzer. However, using such an argument to argue that, hence, we must ban all guns is not logical (besides being a red herring).
Another point that Witherington seems to miss is that the entire Bill of RIghts was written to outline restrictions on the government with respect to its interference with the citizens. Get that? The intent of the Bill of Rights was to limit the government, not the people. And despite the contentions of that "wise Latina" Justice Sonya Sotomayor, human beings do have the right to self defense. As Suzanna Hupp so eloquently put it in her testimony to the Texas State Legislature, "The 2nd Amendment is not about duck hunting... but it's about all of our rights to be able to protect ourselves [the people] from all of you guys [the government] up there."
Myth # 4: "Hunting Animals (e.g. Deer) is a Sport", from his post,
It would only be a sport if two teams could play, which is to say, it would only be a sport if the deer were armed and allowed to fire back! As it is, it is much too one sided to ever deserve the title ‘sport’. BTW, the weapon which shot Congresswoman Gifford was bought at the euphemistically named store— the American Sportsman. Sportsmen play games like basketball. Buying and using a gun doesn’t make you a sportsman. It makes you a killer of animals or human beings.
I really don't know what to say to the first part of this argument. Really. What does whether or not one considers hunting to be a sport have to do with the 2nd Amendment and mass shootings?
Regardless, being armed while outside of the suburban environment is, indeed, a smart thing to do. Consider that Governor Rick Perry used a small pistol he was carrying to dispatch a coyote that was threatening his dog while he was on a run. And anyone who has fished in a place like Alaska is aware of the fact that they may come across a grizzly bear. Would Witherington wish to deprive these people a means to protect themselves in such situations?
And the statement that "buying and using a gun... makes you a killer or animals or human beings"? Wow. I've owned and used guns for several years now and have not killed an animal or a human being, nor do I intend to.
Myth # 5: "The Best Way to Protect Yourself and Your Family is to Buy Guns", from his post,
The statistics are in on this one. Unless it was a law that you had to be trained first how to properly use a gun before you could buy one, and then pass a test to do so (like you have to be trained to drive a car and tested before you can legally drive one), then we shouldn’t be surprised that arming yourself is not the safest way to go. Why not? Because on average, private citizens are more likely to shoot themselves, their own loved ones, the dog, the cat, quite by accident, than they are likely to shoot an intruder who comes into their home, and startles them. What you do under those fearful circumstances you do under duress, and often in panic mode. The results are not usually what you’d hoped. That’s a fact.
The statistics are in and they're being misused.
The comparison to being trained to drive a car is interesting, especially considering the fact that driving a car is typically held to be a privilege while owning a firearm is considered to be a right (Remember? It's the Bill of Rights?).
Yet, in one sense, I agree that Myth # 5 is, indeed, a myth. To relieve it of its "myth" status I would write is as such: The best way to protect yourself and your family is to own a firearm, know how it works, know how to use it, and to train extensively in the various aspects of self-defense with a firearm. To put it another way: Anyone who buys a gun and thinks they are now "safe" is stupid.
As for the more likely to shoot themselves or a loved one "statistic," it's a tired myth of the gun-control lobby, which is based on a study that misused statistics. Consider that it is estimated that 100 million people in the United States own guns. That's 100,000,000. If it was truly more likely for these people to shoot themselves or a loved one then don't you think we'd be hearing about it in the news more often?
If Witherington is interested in statistics, he should check on crime rates in cities or locales that have effectively banned guns vs. those in more gun-friendly areas. What you'll find is that crime goes down when gun ownership goes up. Another way of putting it is that an armed society is a polite society (think about it). From Massad Ayoob,
Called “Constitutional carry” by some, such a law allows any law-abiding citizen with a clean criminal record to carry loaded and concealed in public. It will entail only a cost-free vote and a stroke of the Governor’s pen. That model has worked for Vermont for as long as any living citizen can remember, and every year Vermont is one of our lowest crime states per capita, some years THE lowest. It has worked for years in Alaska. It is working in Arizona, and will undoubtedly work in Wyoming, which just became the fourth state to pass permitless carry.
For those truly interested in the real story about how firearm ownership impacts public safety, consider the statistics regarding how the use, or mere presentation, of a firearm reduces the commission of crime. Even some in law enforcement are vocal in their support for the notion of citizens arming themselves for protection. From The Unconcealed Truth About Carrying Guns,
What the gun control groups don't tabulate is how many homicides have been averted by a licensed, concealed handgun. Kleck, who has done extensive research on the topic, says it is "quite reasonable to expect that thousands of lives are saved by defensive gun use by persons who carried guns in public places." Even if he's wrong, it would take only a handful of such incidents to offset the homicides "caused" by concealed-carry laws.
Perhaps Witherington should consult with women to find out their attitudes towards the idea of being able to protect themselves - in fact - to equalize themselves when faced with the prospect of being raped and / or murdered.
For the remainder of his post Witherington laments about how it is incongruous that Christians could actually use guns in self-defense situations. Rather than address those concerns here, I will refer you to the excellent set of posts on the issue of Self-Defense and Christianity, at Biblical Framework.
If one thought that the events in Tucson would garner support for the banning of handguns, they must surely be dissapointed, for such support is now at an all time low.
To be honest, I expected better from Witherington. The arguments he presented are tired, error-laced, and poorly constructed. While he is entitled to remain unarmed in his lifestyle, I find it disconcerting that he advocates such extreme measures, especially for Christians.