The New York Times did something extraordinary this Saturday—it ran an editorial on the front page.
This was extraordinary in both senses of the word. On the one hand it was unusual in that this is the first time since 1920 that the Times ran an editorial on the front page. And on the other hand, it was also impressive because it took on one of our most pressing social issues of our day—the prevalence of gun violence in our country.
In the wake of this most recent mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, the Times called for renewed attention to and, more importantly, action against the ease by which guns can be obtained in this country. The Times writes, “It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency… America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing….”
This is a call that resonates. As a citizen, I find the statistics of gun violence to be staggering, both the numbers of victims and the number of incidents. I find it shameful that our government has even prevented research into the epidemic of gun violence, to examine it as we would any other public health issue.
And at the same time, as a member of the clergy, I feel the “moral outrage” when we allow such violence to continue, when we don’t act on our power to take reasonable measures to protect human life, when we maintain conditions that makes it easier for people to violently act on their impulses, or cause self-harm, or create situations for accidental mayhem.
I do believe it is the religious response to want to implement meaningful gun legislation in our country. And in examining my sacred textual tradition, there is only one biblical verse to which we need to turn to find a basis for meaningful action regarding guns.
No, it is not “thou shall not kill,” famously part of the Ten Commandments. And no, it is not even “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” found in Leviticus, which teaches about the need to act on behalf of our neighbors, especially when they are suffering.
Rather, we need to look to Deuteronomy 22:8: “When you build a new house, you must build a parapet on the roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any person falls from there.”
In other words, we must do what we can to mitigate risk. It does not mean we need to ban completely certain activities that carry risk. But if we don’t take rational steps to minimize injury, then we are guilty of any harm that comes because of our neglect. No one is saying don’t build a house. But when you do, build a railing so someone doesn’t fall off the roof.
This ancient verse speaks to our contemporary gun situation. It may not be possible or desirable to completely get rid of guns. But we must do what we can to minimize risk. We must “build the parapet” of gun legislation in our country.
Research has shown that gun safety measures can lower gun deaths. We must, as a nation, think creatively, rationally and spiritually to implement means to reduce the harm caused by guns.
The other day I sat with my oldest son in the orientation for his driver’s education class. Having turned 15 and now eligible for his learner’s permit in Washington State, we learned about the requirements he would need to fulfill in order to become a licensed driver: A course of education with supervised driving time. A minimum of 50 hours driving practice. Written and practical exams. Insurance requirements. Here, then, measures taken to minimize risk and increase protection for a necessary yet potentially dangerous act—driving. Will accidents happen? Of course. Will deaths occur? Unfortunately, yes. These are the risks that come with living. But just because we can not eliminate all risk does not mean we do not do what we can to eliminate some.
The New York Times has lent its voice to the growing chorus calling for more reasonable gun laws. It is a position that all people of faith should support, for the original call came thousands of years ago, in a verse of Scripture.