By Rev. David A. Kaden
I was six years old when I first shot a gun. It was a handgun, owned by my friend’s dad who lived down the street. I was only in first grade, so I don’t remember all the details well.
We must have ended up at an outdoor shooting range, because I remember my friend’s dad saying to me, “Do you want to try?”
He stood behind me and cupped his hands over mine to cushion the kick, but I pulled the trigger. It was deafeningly loud, so loud that my ears rang.
My parents were outraged later that day when they found out their six-year-old had shot a gun without their permission. That was my first encounter with a firearm in America.
As of Friday, October 6, according to the website GunViolenceArchive.org, which tracks gun violence in America, 552 children between the ages of 0 and 11 had been killed or injured by guns in our country. As of October 7 morning, that number had risen to 554. As of this writing, it rose to 556. That’s almost 28 Newtowns in about nine months. According to that same website, as of 1 p.m. on Friday there have been 47,266 gun incidents since January 1st – a gun “incident” is a shooting or a crime that involves a gun. I refreshed that page on Sunday, October 8, and the number of incidents had risen to 47,294; and as of this writing the number of gun incidents this year stands at 47,533.
Almost 2,500 teenagers have been killed or injured by guns this year; nearly 12,000 people have been killed by guns; and there have been 277 mass shootings – shootings that kill or wound 4 or more people. There have been four mass shootings since Las Vegas on October 1, the most recent of which was in Phoenix, Arizona on October 21.
More Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 than have died in all the wars we have ever fought in since the founding of our country. A total of 1.4 million Americans have died in all of our nation’s wars. 1.5 million have died since 1968 because of guns.
Mass shootings have become so routine that news of two dozen casualties doesn’t shock like it should. I suppose the numbness has given way to hopelessness or even cynicism for many.
I was struck by one picture this week of a man with a “We The People” tattoo on his arm, the same arm that cradled his AR-15. Guns-in-America implicates issues of race, poverty, mental illness, gun shows, bump stocks, private sales, the 2nd Amendment, freedom from state tyranny, the list goes on.
I think John Dorhauer, the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ captured the human side of guns well when he wrote this week: “Every lost life [from a gun, in Las Vegas and everywhere else] is a name, a history, a hope, a story – an unfulfilled future. I cannot reach deep enough into my soul to express fully the pain, the anger, the rage, the confusion, the anxiety, the emptiness. When will it end?”
Dorhauer’s words are the words of a person of faith – one who feels compassion and is touched by pain.
The Bible speaks prophetically with the ancient, but artistic language of visioning – of painting a possible future for humanity. In the wake of Las Vegas – and in the wake of the 277 other mass shootings in America this year – words from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah come to mind for me.
Isaiah imagines a world where implements of war – guns, bombs, weapons of mass destruction – are transformed into implements of creativity. Speaking of a possible future, Isaiah imagines a day when people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;” when nations and individuals “shall not lift up [theirs] sword[s]” against each other, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Isaiah goes on to invite humanity to “walk in the light of God” – to live differently, to live in the ways of peace, where instead of conflict there is harmony; instead of hate there is love; instead of weapons there are farming tools that provide food for the hungry – a day when steel doesn’t become the frame for a gun that can kill, or that a six year old can shoot on an outing with family friends, but when the steel becomes a plow to – to modify words from a Bob Dylan song – create instead of destroy.
I was six when I first shot a gun. My daughter was six when Adam Lanza murdered six- and seven-year-olds in Newtown with a gun he should never have had. When it comes to guns in America, policy – changing laws – will only go so far. Policy changes are necessary but not sufficient.
We need new visions like those ancient ones from Isaiah about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And we need the moral language of “thou shalt not murder,” but even more, we need those great words of Jesus that pierce our hearts: Don’t let anger control you. Instead, love your neighbor and love your enemy.
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Rev. David A. Kaden is the pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Ithaca.