Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke to the press on the afternoon of May 24 in the wake of the latest U.S. school shooting.
“He shot and killed horrifically and incomprehensively 14 students and killed a teacher,” Abbott said. “When parents drop their kids off at school, they have every expectation to know that they’re going to be able to pick their child up when that school day ends.”
By the end of the day, the toll stood at 19 students and two teachers.
The claim that the shooter killed “horrifically and incomprehensibly” does not stand up to scrutiny.
The “horrific” is all too commonly featured in daily news cycles and the “incomprehensible” seems all too predictable – even banal – in the light of both our history and our present circumstances
The North American continent was settled, and the Native Americans were rounded up and eliminated, or confined to reservations, at the barrel of a gun. The Old West gunslinger image lives on in popular culture law enforcement dramas, which front load gun fights and gloss over the daily hard work of investigation and conflict resolution.
We are awash in guns, with an estimated 393 million firearms, more than 120 firearms per 100 residents in the U.S., according to a BBC report. No other major nation comes close.
Sourcing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the BBC provided several more data points related to U.S. firearm deaths.
There were 24,292 gun suicides and 19,384 gun homicides in the United States in 2020, with 79% of all homicides in the U.S. being gun-related. By comparison, 4% of U.K., 13% of Australia and 37% of Canadian total homicides were gun-related.
A crushing depression or a moment of rage can be much more easily actualized when there’s a gun handy. In 2020, in the continuing economic and psychological grip of the pandemic, we saw gun deaths, including accidental deaths, climb to 45,222.
With the introduction of common-sense regulations – seat belts, anyone? – which were widely resisted at the time, stricter enforcement of DUI laws and safer automobiles and highways, auto fatalities per mile driven have declined for decades until a recent uptick in the pressure cooker of COVID-19.
One ironic result: gun deaths have replaced auto accidents as the leading cause of childhood deaths. Our nation’s children are dying not only in school, but also at home, and in the parks and public streets, due to guns.
The American experience with the automobile, including universal training and licensing of drivers, and universal registration and insuring of vehicles, provides a clear blueprint for dealing with guns. And yet, year after year, mass shooting after mass shooting, nothing is done.
“Horrific?” Yes, for the parents, siblings, loved ones and friends of the victims who will never forget, for the wounded who bear lifelong scars and for the communities violated by these events. But the rest of us, soon enough, are merely numb.
“Incomprehensible?” Given our history, our fetishizing of guns and the absolutizing of the Second Amendment in a way that would be incomprehensible to the Founding Fathers, “inevitable” seems more like it.
Let’s call the roll for the past two months.
- April 3: Six dead and 12 wounded among nightclub revelers in downtown Sacramento.
- April 12: 10 wounded in a Brooklyn subway station.
- April 27: Four dead in a carjacking from a motel parking lot in Biloxi.
- May 13: Three shootings injured 21 people in a crowd of Bucks fans in downtown Milwaukee.
- May 14: 10 killed and three wounded at a Buffalo supermarket that is a vital center of the Black community.
- May 15: two dead and three wounded in a flea market in Houston, and one dead and four wounded in a church shooting in Laguna Woods, California.
- May 24: the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, with 21 dead.
Demonstrating that biblical language and prophetic fervor are not the exclusive province of only one of the two major political parties, a somber President Biden responded to the tragedy by quoting Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
He added that “Jill and I have talked about this in a different context,” and he asked for prayer for the grieving parents. Then, his voice rising, he said, “When in God´s name will we stand up to the gun lobby? … Why are we willing to live with this carnage? … Where in God´s name is our backbone?”
Many Christians of various persuasions commonly refer to the United States as a “Christian nation.” This essay is not the place to deconstruct the problematic nature of this claim, but to the extent that this image informs public discourse we must ask, “What kind of Christianity are they invoking?”
Is it the Christianity of Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, posing before the Christmas tree with her four children, each of them holding a rifle?
Or is it the faith placed in the one who admonished his disciples in Gethsemane “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52), who commanded his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), and whose proclamation of the reign of God overturned the powers and structures of this present age, presented innocent children as models of faith, and contradicted the expectations of the cynical?
Dare we embrace his vision?
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”