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I dropped my daughter off at her first day of kindergarten in Australia. I biked to a café on Military Road and sat down to work on this article about gun violence. I ended up on the Wikipedia page for the Sandy Hook Massacre in 2012. How has it been 11 years? A broken 20-year-old boy murdered 20 six and seven-year-olds with a gun capable of killing grown men at 600 yards. I felt nauseous scrolling through the horrific details. I closed the screen of my laptop and shut my eyes, tears welled up.
I thanked God I had dropped my daughter off at school in a country where school shootings are simply not a thing. Since moving here, some people have asked my wife and me if we moved to Australia because of how violent America has become. Violence did not factor into our decision at all. But the fact that people have asked us that question is both understandable and astonishing.
In April of 1996 Martin Bryant murdered 35 people with an AR-15 rifle followed by a semi-automatic .308 FN rifle. The killing spree took place at a Bed and Breakfast and café of a historic site in Port Arthur1 on the island of Tasmania. Tasmania is an island state of Australia south of the main continent. It is mainly coast and farmland with blue collar folk who make fun of themselves for being a bit redneck.
Twelve days after the horrific murder that stole the lives of 35 people (including kids) and injured another 232, the right leaning Prime Minister of Australia passed legislation banning automatic, semi-automatic, pump-action and self-loading firearms. In less than 2 weeks, transformative gun legislation was proposed and passed. During the next 12 months a gun buyback program saw more than 700,000 guns purchased and destroyed by the Australian government. There have been attacks (arson, knife, and gun) since 1996. But there have been no mass shootings in Australia since Port Arthur.
Australia is different than the United States. What worked in Australia won’t work in the United States. There isn’t anything in the Australian constitution about gun ownership3. The gun culture is also different. There are 393 million guns in the United States by one estimate. The 700,000 guns bought during the buyback program in 1996 represented 1/3 of all such guns. Despite these obvious differences, living in a country where gun violence is not a daily reality has helped me believe that gun deaths don’t have to be a ubiquitous part of our existence.
“But the gift of living somewhere different is that it enables you to imagine a different world than the one whose answers you’ve given up questioning.”
Do you remember going all the way up to the gate of an airport terminal to greet someone stepping off an airplane? I have a vivid memory of peeking down the jet bridge, trying to catch the first glimpse of my brother, deplaning after living abroad. Those fond memories belong to another world. I assumed the days of walking straight to the gate to greet someone were gone. Recently, however, I took my first domestic flight in Australia and my mind was absolutely blown when I saw family members saying goodbye at the gate. It hit me like a bucket of cold nostalgia. I thought back on the security process that I had just gone through. Advanced x-ray machines, but no boarding pass check. Anybody could have walked through the terminal like it was 1996!
It’s a bit trite, but this anecdote is representative of a hope spurred by living in a new place. I had never considered the possibility that changing circumstances and technologies might create a world in which families could say goodbye at the gate. I had assumed that the trajectory of increasingly complex and scrupulous TSA checks would continue forever. But perhaps that doesn’t have to be the case.
Of course, the circumstances at a domestic terminal in Australia are different than the circumstances in the United States. 9/11 didn’t happen in Sydney. What works for homeland security in Australia doesn’t work in America. But the gift of living somewhere different is that it enables you to imagine a different world than the one whose answers you’ve given up questioning.
So it is with gun violence.
There is a genuine fascination with American culture here in Sydney (as in other parts of the world). In many instances, it is fair to even characterize the fascination as admiration. But on the topic of guns, outside observers are horrified and confused. An Australian pastor I’ve gotten to know asked me recently, “Do Christians you know actually support the right to own AKs?” “Oh, yes,” I said. “How?” he responded.
I was reading recently about the Bondage of the Will. It is a reformed idea relating to how dependent human beings are on God in order to have faith or to act in obedience to God. We can’t conjure up faith or goodness within ourselves. Luther and Calvin both write about it, and Philippians 2:13 captures the heart of the idea: It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
“It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
It’s an idea that, in the hands of a callous pastor, could be used in ugly ways to demean the image of God in others. It can be misconstrued as the bad news that everyone is terribly evil in every way.
Taken constructively, it reframes how we think about our freedom. Referencing Calvin, Todd Billings notes that bondage of the will speaks to how “grace restores the good human nature that was united to God rather than destroying it.”4 Bondage of the Will insists that apart from our communion with God, we are lost and utterly in sin. In other words, on our own, independent and free, we are in trouble and we are not, actually, free at all. We are slaves to sin. But, bound to Christ (slaves to righteousness as Romans 6 puts it) we are free indeed.
What does this have to do with guns?
The uniquely American position on the rights of civilians to own military grade firearms often rests on a conception of individual freedom that is antithetical to Christianity. The mantra Don’t Tread On Me has captured the ethos of American freedom since the revolutionary war. The phrase has been used by various political groups throughout American history, all asserting, in one way or another an autonomy without strings. Some think it sounds “unchristian” to place limits on freedom and liberty.
But the “right” to do something isn’t a Christian justification for anything, even if it is a right in the constitution. If you and I both call Christ Lord and are slaves to righteousness, then we understand that freedom is not absolute autonomy. Freedom is submission to Christ and communion with God.
“Freedom is submission to Christ and communion with God.“
Freedom in Christ sounds different than freedom as the world sells it. It doesn’t sound much like freedom at all. Wash Each Other’s Feet; Lay Your Lives Down For One another; They will know you by your love. Any Christian argument promoting the ownership of military firearms has to be able to justify that ownership, not simply as a right, but as an act of love of God and love of neighbor flowing from their union with Christ. Only in the confines of that union are we truly free.
Guns are tools. Some guns are tools created to shoot geese out of the sky or defend livestock from a predator. Some guns are tools created specifically to kill people quickly. In response to a mass shooting in 1996, Australia made the decision to ban guns created to kill humans quickly.
When it comes to school and mass shootings, America stands alone. We have a problem that is absolutely unique to our country. Gun violence is complicated. We would all like to see less gun homicides and suicides. The solutions have to be comprehensive. Spending time in a country with a much healthier relationship with guns has made me hopeful for a future with less school and mass shootings and fewer gun deaths. A different world is possible, not just in the age to come but in this age.