Evil and Ill? Yes but…

There is evil afoot as well as some kind of mental illness regarding gun violence in the U.S. On those points I agree with those who attribute America’s excessive gun violence to evil and mental illness. But I see very differently where the evil and mental illness are located.

Americans kill each other with guns more than any other nation. Are Americans more evil than other peoples? Are we more mentally ill than other nations? If one believes the argument that gun violence in the U.S. is because of evil and mental illness, one might be required to answer affirmatively. However, since church-going Christians continue to be a much higher percentage of the population in the U.S. than in other nations where gun violence is lower and where mass shootings are rare, one wonders from whence the excessively evil and sick people come.

Must be from all the atheists and liberals… except that the latter group is less likely to own guns than their conservative neighbors. So, scratch that possibility.

Surely, one understands naming an action or an actor “evil” or “sick” when that person plans and executes a massacre of children and adults they never met. What kind of degraded human being could look into the eyes of children and pull a trigger? I understand labeling such an act or actor “evil” or “an abomination.” And surely there is illness, deeply distorted thinking, involved when a man opens fire on his doctor and anyone who got in the way.

America has always been possessed by a gun culture. At the time of the Constitution’s adoption, it was assumed individuals owned guns for hunting and for self-protection. Guns are us and are likely to be us for a long time.

The 2nd Amendment referred to something different from individual gun ownership. It was written regarding state militias. The “right to bear arms” is a clause which, in the language of the day, was used only to refer to the military (see the articles to which I link below).

Gun ownership is not an evil in itself.

I appreciate the Jewish perspective that human beings have two inclinations: toward good and toward evil. By the way we are treated and by the way we treat ourselves and others, we strengthen one inclination or the other. Policies and practices, morals and mores, should strengthen the inclination to do good.

In terms of owning guns, the last four decades have strengthened the opposite inclination.

The National Rifle Association was founded for the purposes of promoting responsible gun ownership among sporting enthusiasts and hunters, safety, and marksmanship. Fine. Sounds very reasonable and not at all evil.

But within my lifetime, the NRA became a pre-eminent power broker in American elections at all levels. The mission of promoting responsible gun ownership morphed into fear-and-danger mongering to sell more and more guns, with abandon. The legitimate desires for safety and the right to self-defense were twisted into a culture of constant fear and danger where “the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good buy with a gun.”

White reactions to the civil rights movement, to Black Power, and to the biggest influx of immigrants in two generations were hijacked to stoke more fear and sell more guns.

With an estimated 1.2 to 1.4 guns per every person in the U.S., America is awash with guns, including an unprecedented number of guns designed for war available to civilians.

And the solution to our “gun problem” is always more guns. Arm the teachers. Arm an usher. Arm the pastor—there is a lot of room under those robes to conceal. Arm a secret shopper (okay, I’ve not heard that one… yet). And, give kids bullet-proof backpacks. Wall up all doors but one. “Harden the targets.”

So, an industry and its elected backers amp up a culture of fear and danger. They effectively move the culture and the needle on how the Constitution is interpreted so that even elected officials, who should know better, profess the 2nd Amendment is “sacred” and must be interpreted “purely.” Heck, that “well-regulated militia” clause has been severed from “the right to bear arms.” They meet the cries of at least 60 and sometimes 90 percent of the population for common sense gun laws with a very undemocratic “no.” They squeeze out nothing but “thoughts and prayers” when innocents of all ages are massacred by persons wielding weapons of war.

In short, they offer guns as the solution to a problem they fed and fed and fed. And they blame evil actors or mental illness for an irresponsible monstrosity they created and from which the industry and its elected backers wash their hands.

That deception is evil. This deception, this lie is fed repeatedly to the American people by a minority of the population and ensconced in law and culture.

If the solution to the gun problem they brought upon us is more guns, and if we the people accept that solution, that acceptance may not be mentally ill according to some DSM-5 definition. But it sure is evidence that our culture-and-policy-fed inclination to evil is winning over our inclination to good.

And for any person who professes to believe that human beings are created in the image of God, that acceptance is also evidence that we really believe something else.


Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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