How will we cross the great divide?
A former evangelical on gun culture in the Bible Belt
He broke his infant son’s skull, was convicted of cruelty to animals, and was discharged from the Air Force for bad conduct. In 2012, he snuck guns onto an Air Force base and threatened to kill his superiors. Beginning in 2014, he passed a series of background checks and legally purchased four guns, including a Ruger AR-556, similar to assault weapons used by the military. Last Sunday, he walked into a church and fired 450 shots in a matter of minutes, killing at least twelve children, including a 17-month old baby. Survivors describe how he walked row to row, shooting crying babies and children point blank.
Despite his long history of violence and mental instability, Congressional Republicans have fought long and hard for the right of Devin Kelley and others like him to purchase assault weapons and high capacity magazines. While some argue he wouldn’t have had the guns if the Air Force had properly informed law enforcement of Kelley’s crimes, there is no question current background check policies — notably the private sale loophole — make it easy for anyone of any character and criminal record who wants to buy any kind of gun to do exactly that. If Kelley had been turned down at the sporting good store where he bought the AR-556, he could have easily bought one from any unlicensed private dealer, no background check needed.
Congressional Republicans across the board have insisted this so-called “loophole” is non-negotiable: private sale equals no background check, just as they have insisted that being on the no-fly list for suspected terrorism should not preclude a person from buying guns. Strangely, their most ardent allies in this fight, alongside the NRA, have been evangelical voters.
I grew up in evangelical churches in Alabama. Our pastors preached sermons against gays, against women who had sex before marriage, against girls who had babies out of wedlock. There were even sermons against bestiality, as if that was a thing anyone other than the preachers themselves ever thought about. I never heard a sermon targeting angry white men with guns. Not once, in all my Sunday mornings and Sunday nights and Wednesday nights at First Baptist Church of Tillman’s Corner, or the enormous, slick church my family later attended in Mobile (Fort God, the locals called it), did anyone question the morality of white men who murdered their wives and children and friends and co-workers and acquaintances and neighbors with guns. Of course, in those days, not many civilians were publicly touting their right to own military grade weapons.
The senseless elevation of the right to bear all manner of arms no matter your crimes has become an irrational and tone-deaf cornerstone of the NRA, Congressional Republicans, and, sadly, evangelical doctrine in an age when it is impossible to untangle religion from politics. The NRA, which rakes in enormous donations every time school children are slaughtered by a gunman, has raised the false alarm of “they’re taking away our guns” to such a fever pitch that law-abiding citizens who simply want to own a gun “for self-protection” vociferously defend the rights of terrorists and violent offenders to own guns too. Congressional Republicans know they can count on the evangelical vote as long as they don’t take away anyone’s guns.
I believe in the Second Amendment, but like the majority of Americans, I believe in common-sense measures like background checks for everyone. I don’t believe people on the no-fly list (suspected terrorists) should be able to purchase guns. I believe that severe mental illness should raise a red flag, and that none of us needs high capacity magazines that can kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds. Do the representatives who insist on unfettered access to weapons truly believe gun rights are more sacred than the rights of children to be safe in their churches and their schools?
Every time, people say, “How could this happen?” but it’s so tragically obvious how this could happen. When a mourner standing outside the church less than an hour after the slaughter wears a shirt emblazoned with gun rights slogans while she prays, I can’t help thinking this is hopeless. I can grieve with her, because I see that her grief is visceral, real, and heartbreaking. I can try to understand her, but I don’t know that I ever will.
I am not some “east coast liberal” or “west coast hippie” or out-of-touch “elite” who views the gun lovers from a distance. I grew up in Alabama, in a family constantly beset by financial insecurity. I grew up among gun-lovers, although my immediate family did not own or cherish guns for the majority of my childhood. (When my father was serving in the Vietnam War and my mother was living alone in a trailer in the woods of rural Mississippi with a baby and a toddler, she did have a gun, but she got rid of it after she found my sister, the toddler, playing with the loaded gun in the bedroom). I grew up among evangelicals who believed that Jesus would have hated food stamps (despite all of his exhortations to feed the poor). I went to lock-ins where we watched Left Behind movies. I believed the Rapture would definitely take my parents and sisters and might take me, if I was lucky. I believed the Rapture would leave the sinners behind, and I had a 50/50 chance of being among them and sticking around for the hellish Tribulation.
What I mean to say is: while I now view evangelical gun culture from a distance, I grew up in the heart of it.
Our president wasted no time in insisting that the Sutherland Springs shooting wasn’t about guns. He said it was about mental illness, as though the two can never go hand in hand. He said this as Americans were trying not to think about babies and their mothers riddled with bullet holes, eight members of a single family who were alive in church on Sunday morning suddenly gone. In February, Trump signed a bill revoking a 2013 measure that blocked people with severe mental illness from buying guns — because our president believes that severe mental illness should not disqualify a person from owning weapons that can spray dozens of dozens of bullets in seconds.
What I know is this: the second amendment was NEVER intended to insure the rights of criminals, domestic abusers, and the mentally ill to own every kind of weapon imaginable.
When three-fourths of the states ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, including the Second Amendment, the kinds of weapons we have now were as unfathomable to the representatives as the internet would have been.
We cannot legitimately ask “Why?” We know why. We can’t say, “How can this happen?” We know how this can happen. It happens again and again and again.
Red state voters could change all of this by sending a clear message to their elected representatives. Red state voters have the power to stop the bloodshed. They do not have to turn a blind eye every single time children are slaughtered in a church or a school, every single time concert-goers or moviegoers are gunned down en masse. They can hold their Congressional representatives accountable. Responsible Republicans can elect members of their own party who have the courage to stand up to the NRA and to do the will of the people.
One of the most oft-quoted Bible verses in the Baptist church, a verse I remember from Sunday School and Bible drills, begins, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” As a child, I couldn’t understand why Jesus wanted the children to suffer. Later, I realized that “suffer” in this context means “permit.” Permit the little children to come unto me… It was a statement of love, an embrace of the most vulnerable.
After these mass shootings, many people seek comfort by telling themselves that the victims, including the children, are “in a better place.” But you will never convince me that there is a better place for children to be than in the arms of a loving family. When we create a system that guarantees that so many children will leave us and leave this earth far too young, we are failing them. When we permit their frequent and horrifically violent and painful deaths as the price for an extraordinarily misguided interpretation of the Second Amendment, we are failing to protect them. We fail to give them the security of knowing that a church or a school is a safe place. Kindergartners should not know the phrase “active shooter,” but they do, because active shooter drills are as much a part of school routines today as the Pledge of Allegiance was twenty years ago.
I can try to understand, but I don’t think I ever will. Just as those who believe that gun rights are godly rights and mass murder is a small price to pay for an unfettered Second Amendment will likely never understand me. It is so hard to cross the divide. I do not believe I’m the only one who thinks, “I just don’t want to live here anymore. I hardly recognize this place.”
Thank you for reading and sharing. If you enjoyed this article, please hit follow beside my profile. -Michelle
Bio: Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two award-winning story collections. Her novels have been published in 29 languages. Her essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Salon, 7x7, The Telegraph, and Elsewhere.
images courtesy of Thomas Tucker (gun), Aaron Burden (Bible), and neon brand (church) via unsplash