To Own a Gun or not to Own a Gun, That is the Question

                   A Conversation in Connecticut   

            "Guns don't kill people. People kill people!

            Remember that and you will be safe," they tell.

            "But what if he didn't have a gun? What then?"​


            "We just don't know. We cannot even guess.

            All we know is what our parents told us:

            'Guns don't kill people. People kill people!'


            We believe that nothing happens without

            a reason. Only God knows why he shot."

            "But what if he didn't have a gun? What then


            would he have done? And why would God allow

            my friend Kevin to be killed? I know now

            'Guns kill people. People don't kill people!'


            I still can hear him crying out, 'Don't shoot!

            I'm hurt.'" "Thank God, my child, it wasn't you."

            "But what if he didn't have a gun? What then?"


            "He would have found another way to hurt.

            You must remember what we've always said:

            'Guns don't kill people. People kill people!'"

            "But what if he didn't have a gun? What then?"


The current context


[1] The presence and ownership of guns in the US is a given. It is estimated that there are between 280 and 300 million guns in the US.[1] The impact of these guns is present in the news every day and in most every community. The debate over ‘gun control’ and ‘gun ownership’ is long and jacobs 250.jpgarduous and, if at all possible, ignored. In a recent lengthy interview with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza, the shooter in the Connecticut school shooting in December of 2012, the presence of guns in his home was hardly mentioned.[2]


[2] “According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 47 percent of American adults keep at least one gun at home or on their property, and many of these gun owners are absolutists opposed to any government regulation of firearms. According to the same poll, only 26 percent of Americans support a ban on handguns.[3]

[3] According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence:

·         Guns were used in 11,078 homicides in the U.S. in 2010, comprising almost 35% of all gun deaths, and over 68% of all homicides.

·         Firearms were used in 19,392 suicides in the U.S. in 2010, constituting almost 62% of all gun deaths.[4]

The cause-and-effect link between the plethora of guns and violent crime is argued on both sides:

·         More guns means more violent crimes

·         More guns mean safer streets and homes and businesses

Equally as dramatic is the data on guns and suicide. 85% of attempted suicides using guns are ‘successful.’  “In the United States, suicides outnumber homicides almost two to one. . . Research shows that whether [suicide] attempters live or die depends in large part on the ready availability of highly lethal means, especially firearms. . . A study by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) of all 50 U.S. states reveals a powerful link between rates of firearm ownership and suicides. Based on a survey of American households conducted in 2002, HSPH Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management Matthew Miller, Research Associate Deborah Azrael, and colleagues at the School’s Injury Control Research Center (ICRC), found that in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower.”[5]

Thesis for non-ownership of guns

[4] This article favors non-ownership of guns. It is not an argument in opposition to the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, and ‘the right to bear arms.’ It is an argument that Christians are bound to an evangelical and social ethic that places primacy on the needs of the neighbor and the church and the community over one’s own freedom. It is a recontextualization of Paul’s advice on eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10:

·         ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.  (I Cor. 6:12)

·         ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things build up. (1 Cor. 10:23)

 I also base my argument on Luther’s proposal in “The Freedom of the Christian”:[6]

·        A Christian is a free lord of all, completely free of everything

 ·        A Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all.

For Luther, this ‘freedom’ is primarily relational, not tied to laws or regulations. It is first a relationship with ​​Christ that establishes grace as the foundation of life and action. Secondly, it is a relationship with the world and the neighbor that establishes the cross as the paradigm for service. Luther states: “From faith there flows a love and joy in the Lord. From love there proceeds a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves the neighbor and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss. We do not serve others with an eye toward making them obligated to us. Nor do we distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or ingratitude. Rather we freely and willingly spend ourselves and all that we have . . . [7]

The dilemma at Corinth

[5] Corinth in the mid-first century C.E. was less than 100 years old and a model Roman city. It was a prosperous trade center and boasted many temples and a boisterous, multicultural atmosphere. It also had a reputation that it could not escape. When a Greek city, prior to its destruction by the Romans in 146 B.C.E., it was renowned for its wild and loose morals that gave rise to a word in the Greek lexicon: “korinthiazesthai,” which meant to practice fornication. It was the ancient form of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Social and public life centered on the temples of the Greek gods and goddesses. Members of the newly formed Christian community were no doubt active members of this social life, even as they struggled to find their way as newly baptized Christians and citizens of the Roman Empire.[8]

[6] One of the many questions put to Paul by this fledging congregation had to do with their participation in the life of the community: “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…” (1 Cor. 8:1a). The concern was a very practical one that also had far reaching theological and pastoral ramifications: Was it acceptable for a Christian to eat food (presumably meat) that had been sacrificed to an idol? The question becomes more complex when we realize that this was not just about buying meat in the market place, but included participation in public dinners and parties in homes and temples of non-believers.

Paul was aware that there were at Corinth, as in Galatia, both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ members of the church. There were some whose grasp of Christian freedom enabled them to live with integrity and authenticity without jeopardizing or compromising their faith. He was equally aware that there were others who were vulnerable and insecure, whose faith needed constant building up and mentoring by the ‘strong.’ Thus, his response is first to uphold freedom in asserting that “All things are lawful for me:” since idols have no reality and thus no power, I am free to eat whatever is placed before me or sold in the market place. Having said that, he then warns the community that not all Christians have that ‘knowledge,’ that is, that depth of understanding and strength of character.

[7] Paul surely places himself among the ‘strong,’ and thus asserts his freedom to eat whatever is placed before him in the clear knowledge that idols have no existence and thus no power. Paul also reminds the ‘strong’ in Corinth that they have power that can influence the ‘weak.’ and need to use it for the sake of the neighbor and the community. Imagining an argument put forth by the strong of Corinth, C. K. Barrett comments: “If I set a good example by publicly taking part in an idolatrous feast, knowing that the food is just food and nothing more, our less advanced Christian brothers will be encouraged, built up, edified, to do the same thing. True, Paul comments; but unlike you they will be acting against their consciences, and therefore sinning, since whatsoever is not of faith is of sin…This will be their destruction, whatever the theological truth about idolatry may be.”[9]

Church and community

[8] Paul’s argument is not just about individual rights and freedom. He is also very concerned about the church and especially the unity of the church in the face of threats from the culture and the ever-present ‘pride’ that results in ‘boasting.’ (kauchasthai, I Cor. 1: 29,et al). This concern is reflected in Paul’s reminder in chapter 10: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things build up” (I Cor. 8:1, 10:23). The use of this verb, oikodomei, has special reference to the church as the body of Christ (Chapters 12 and 14 are an extensive commentary on ‘building up’ the Body of Christ).

[9] In his exhortation, Paul also includes the Christian’s witness in the larger community, the so-called culture of the “unbeliever” (I Cor. 10: 25- 33). Paul quotes Psalm 24:1, “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (I Cor. 10:26) as a reminder to the Corinthians that the effect of their attitudes and actions is cosmic, not just ecclesial or personal. In this broad sense, the issue is still that we act out of concern for the other person’s “conscience.” Hans Conzelmann comments, “Paul’s concept of conscience must be distinguished from the modern subjectivistic conceptions. Paul does not ask whether the conscience is free: he presupposes that is free, but for that very reason open toward our neighbor and bound by him. Once again, the question is: Who is the neighbor?”[10] In this final passage of chapter 10, Paul asserts both his liberty to eat and his liberty to not eat. The deciding factor again is the care for the neighbor.

[10] To insist on my personal freedom as a sign of my integrity is granted, so long as it does not cause another to fall. Later in I Corinthians, Paul lifts up the principle of ‘love rather than integrity’ as the ‘better way’ (I Cor. 13). Krister Stendahl reflects: “(L)ove allows for not insisting on one’s own integrity at the expense of the unity of the community. Love, as Paul understands it, urges us to fully respect the integrity of those who think and feel otherwise … Love allows for the full respect of the integrity of the other, and overcomes the divisiveness of my zeal for having it my way in the name of my own integrity.”[11]


[11] As a law-abiding citizen of the US, I have the constitutional right to own a gun, or not. As a Christian, I have the freedom to choose to own a gun, or not. With the Corinthians, I, too, can say, “All things are lawful for me,” for instance gun ownership. However, I also need to hear Paul’s caveat, “but not all things are helpful…‘All things are lawful for me’ but I will not be dominated by anything.’” When I decide to own a gun, I take on a huge responsibility. I now have in my possession a weapon that can kill someone. I have become part of the culture of violence that says it is okay to use violence to solve problems and to repel threats. And I also assume and assert that everyone else who wants to, and chooses to, can legally buy a gun, and has the same sense of right and wrong that I do about gun ownership. Which brings me back to Paul: love always trumps integrity – concern for others and the community always comes before my individual rights.

[12] If I buy a gun and a weaker member of my community sees that I have purchased a weapon, and he or she also buys a gun, then I am an accomplice in that purchase. I now have a responsibility for the consequences of the use of that weapon. I may have the knowledge that this is a purely defensive weapon. But my weaker brother or sister may not have the same knowledge and use the gun in an aggressive or irresponsible way. What have I accomplished with my freedom but to add to the gun violence of the community? Therefore, if my gun ownership is the cause of their falling, I will never own a gun, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Alexander M. “Sandy” Jacobs is an ELCA pastor who teaches New Testament studies in retirement.

[1]The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control), by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, December 2012,, March 25, 2014.

[2]  Annals of Psychology, THE RECKONING: The father of the Sandy Hook killer searches for answers, by Andrew Solomon The New Yorker, March 17, 2014, pages 37-45.

[3]The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)

[4] The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence,, March 25, 2014.  See also,

[5]Guns and Suicide: a fatal link, Spring 2008, Harvard School of Public Health,  See also , March 25, 2014.

[6] The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther, Translated and introduced by Mark D. Tranvik, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2008. Page 50.

[7] Ibid., page 83.

[8]I Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle of Corinthians, by Hans Conzelmann, translated by James W. Leitch, Fortress Press, Philadelphia: 1975. Pages 11f. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, by C. K. Barrett, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York: 1968. Pages 1ff.

[9]  Barrett, page 196

[10]  Conzelmann, page 178.

[11] Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles, by Krister Stendahl, Fortress Press, Philadelphia: 1976. Page 67.

© May 2014
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 14, Issue 5