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How the Church Should Lead America’s Gun Conversation

How the Church Should Lead America’s Gun Conversation

Over the weekend, a rash of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Laguna Woods, California; and Houston, Texas, left 13 dead and seven wounded.

In New York, the gunman’s widely circulated online manifesto outlined his belief in “Replacement Theory” — a belief mainstreamed by prominent cable news pundits like Tucker Carlson — and other racist, anti-immigrant and antisemitic beliefs. The shooter was taken into custody.

Authorities still don’t know why a man in his 60s opened fire in a predominantly Taiwanese church in Southern California. The shooter killed one and wounded four others before he was disarmed and hogtied by parishioners.

And in Houston, two were killed and three others injured during a flea market “altercation,” according to authorities.

All this reignited America’s long conversation on comprehensive gun law reform. It’s a conversation that has only gotten more heated over the last few years, with the scourge of mass shootings proving to be a uniquely American blight — one that corresponds to this country’s uniquely lax laws around owning firearms. The conversation has tended to be battered around by headlines, mostly a series of reactions to awful tragedies that lead to a lot of loud debate but very little change.

The Church, which has every reason to be at the forefront of conversations around peacemaking and just laws, has not taken any serious lead in helping provide wisdom, clarity and comfort to one of the most contentious issues in the nation. And that’s something Taylor Schumann wants to change. A few years ago, Schumann survived getting shot, and the experience started her a on a long journey of reconsidering her own thoughts about guns and gun control. Her book Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough attempts to chart a new path forward for how the Church can be proactive instead of reactive on the gun violence debate. Schumann sat down with RELEVANT to talk about her own experience and what she hopes for the future of this American debate.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about yourself and your experience with firearms. 

I grew up in Southwest Virginia and lived my life there. After college, I took a job as a social worker, and then I moved into a role at a community college, helping out with their distance education program. That’s where I was working when a student came to school one day with a shotgun. I was working at the front desk and he pointed the gun in the back of my head and tried to fire, and was unable to get the safety off the gun. And I had time to run into a supply closet.

He shot through the door and the bullet went through my hand. He shot one other girl, a student. She also survived, thankfully. He was apprehended without incident. And thankfully, no one else was hurt. I had about four surgeries and a year of therapy and I was able to regain about 20% use of my hand. Dealt with a lot of PTSD and anxiety, and some survivor’s guilt, all the things that come along with surviving something like this.

I used to be extremely pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment. I grew up in the South, in a conservative area where guns are very much part of the culture. This was my introduction into what gun violence does to people and to communities. 

Walk me through the evolution of your views. How did things change and why did it change?

What was always told to me was that shootings are politicized and survivors are used to push agendas. I most certainly said those things myself before it happened to me. But what really stuck out to me and to my husband  was the response or lack of response we got from the church around us.

We were supported by our church, but there were no conversations about gun violence and why this was so terrible. I really started paying attention to that. I saw this tendency to totally gloss over the survivors and this horrific pain and harm that was done to them, and just move even closer to the guns. When the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened in 2016, I remember I woke up that morning, it was a Sunday, and heard about this horrific shooting that had taken place. And we were getting ready to go to church.

I said to my husband, “Well, I hope we pray for them. I hope this is brought up in our church. It has to be.” I kept waiting and waiting, and it wasn’t brought up. Fifty-something people were just murdered in this horrific act of gun violence. It was just a symbol for what I was witnessing happening. That’s when the switch really just completely flipped.

What would you say to those of us who want to have these conversations with our family or our friends who are more unreservedly pro-Second Amendment, but we just don’t know how to even begin?

I think one thing I really try to do is to bring up that unifying goal or vision for the world. “Well, you’re someone I love and I care about. I assume you would also like to see less people die from gun violence. Do we agree on that?” Start from a place of agreement. It’s also important to remember, not every conversation is a worthy one. You might know it’s not going to be fruitful, it’s going to cause more harm than good. It’s okay to step away from that.

Your one conversation with your uncle or your coworker is not going to end gun violence. So if it goes poorly and it’s very discouraging, that’s OK. You didn’t ruin it. That wasn’t our only shot at meaningful gun reform.

What are some of the most common Christian rebuttals you get to where you’re coming from?

The most common thing I get is this idea of self-defense and people who want to protect their loved ones, protect their home and see that as almost mandated by their Christian beliefs. Protect the defenseless or their property, their belongings.

I certainly understand that. I think a lot of that comes from this idea of fear that we’ve all been sold. There’s one study done about self-defensive gun use in the ’90s, and it was very soon after, widely discredited. It was almost a complete fraud. The statistics were impossible and we don’t cite that study anymore because we know it wasn’t true. But the idea was already out. And what people heard was, “I don’t need a gun in case I have to use it for self-defense. I need a gun for when I have to use it for self-defense.”

When in actuality, those events are not very common. It just became this justifying force for using a gun in acts of self-defense and living in this idea of fear of the unknown, the people around us who we don’t know, people who look different from us. 

I rarely hear many actual connections to any biblical truths about why we should own guns. It’s just this very enmeshed idea that it’s our right and it was constitutionally given to us. And to hold something written down by men many years ago, almost in one hand, at the same level, we’re holding a Bible in another hand, it’s quite baffling to me.

I’m wondering if you can provide some insight for me here. I struggle to empathize with that argument because I don’t care that it’s in the Constitution. We have so much precedent for amending constitutional rights that I struggle to see the relevance.

There’s a lot of stuff in the Constitution, in our founding documents, that was not good stuff. It was written by humans, and humans do bad things and unwise things. We aren’t all knowing, divinely-inspired people. That’s why we have Amendments. We have to add things. 

I think this is where some of the Christian Nationalism comes into play. Because at the end of the day, as believers, our identity as Americans is way down on the list. We’re followers of Jesus, first.

So what is Jesus asking us to do? It has very little with what we want to do as Americans. Paul talks in the Bible about how we have all sorts of freedom to do things, but is that good for my neighbor? Is that good for my brother? Should I exercise these rights that I’ve been given if they are hurtful to other people, if they’re causing suffering, if they are keeping someone else from being able to live an abundant life?

I don’t think that we can hold the Second Amendment to be as valuable as we have been, if our goal is to love and care for our neighbors, and to bring God’s vision of abundant life and His Kingdom to this place that we occupy now. We really just have to untangle these identities as Americans and Christians. 

We’re called to sacrificial love, and that means sometimes we have to give up things that we care about and that we like, because it’s better for the collective good. And we see a lot of that right now with COVID, too. I think this idea of personal freedom, personal enjoyment rights births is what’s good for your neighbor, what’s good for all of us.

Are you hopeful for change in your lifetime?

Absolutely, I have to be. I was thinking of it this week, because a lot of people will say, “How do you not get discouraged and just don’t want to give up?”

Some days I would like to give up. But I’ve got a two and a half year-old and I think about having to send them off to school. He doesn’t know it yet, but his life has already been impacted by gun violence because his mom got shot at work.

But since Parkland, we have actually gotten a lot done in this country. A lot of states have passed red flag laws. We have extended background check periods. Some cities have their own version of assault weapons bans. We are seeing lives saved because someone was aware of something they were struggling with and had their guns taken away so they couldn’t have the opportunity to end their own life with a gun.

As long as we keep trying and we keep working, there’s always hope. There’s always a possibility for change.

If you had somebody like one of the political leaders who are oftentimes tripping up this progress, what would you say to them?

I would ask them to step outside of the space they occupy and try to listen to people’s stories, listen to how gun violence affects people and their stay in their community and ask themselves if these ideas they’re pushing, that more guns save lives, if it’s really true, or if it’s just something they think they have to keep believing because they have always believed it.

We need brave people to say, “I don’t need the money. People are dying and I’m willing to figure out what we can do about that.” We got to stop pushing this fear-based narrative that anyone who wants gun reform is just out to take everyone’s guns because they’re evil people. We all just want to see less lives lost and less lives affected by gun violence. And we should all be able to talk about that and work together to make that happen.

Order Taylor Schumann’s When Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough: A Shooting Survivor’s Journey into the Realities of Gun Violence here.

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