The advocacy in God and Guns in America consistently overwhelms the fairness

What Michael Austin aims to do in his recent book is important, but his strong claims are not matched by strong arguments.

(Images: Flag: Ben Mater/Unsplash; bullets: Velizar Ivanov/Unsplash.com)

This is going to be a negative review. I regret that, because I think there is a great need for books like this. It is a book by a professional philosopher, on a topic of general interest, written for the general public. The role of public intellectual is likely difficult to take on, and I don’t like criticizing someone trying in good faith to make that step. I applaud Michael Austin for his intentions and for his courage in taking on this project, and hope he will continue writing and thinking about these matters, for I think work of this kind is sorely needed.

But I can’t recommend his book.

Austin tells us at the outset that he has two goals in the book. First, to argue that US Christians need to rethink their views on guns. Second, to argue that we need better gun laws. That is: more restrictive gun laws. This book is by a Christian and intended primarily for evangelical Christians. It is fair to say it presents a Christian argument for more gun control in the US.

Still, Austin denies being anti-gun, “…I have been around guns my whole life…. I grew up as a gun guy in a gun family…. I am not afraid of guns. I am not antigun, whatever that means.” So he comes to the conversation as a friend of guns. More, he comes to the conversation as a voice of reason and a model of intellectual integrity. He seeks to “elevate our conversation.” He seeks to be fair. He hopes to “improve our collective thoughts” on these matters. He wants the reader to “sense [Austin’s] own integrity.” He intends to be “an honest broker of information.” For what it’s worth, nothing I say in what follows should be taken to raise any doubts about his honesty.

This means Austin has two kinds of goals, laid out in those first two paragraphs. First, he wants to achieve some significant results in terms of establishing conclusions and changing hearts. But, second, he wants to do it via a very fair and balanced method of presentation. So the second goal means that he can’t rest satisfied in a rhetorically effective but rationally sub-par line of argument that nevertheless helps him achieve the first goal.

But the first goal means that he has to make strong claims. I contend that the dual goal wasn’t met, and possibly couldn’t have been met in a book this length. Something had to give, and what gave was careful and balanced presentations of the relevant material. The advocacy consistently overwhelms the fairness.

The upshot is that despite Austin’s efforts, we still have a long way to go in getting these conversations to a place where we’re sufficiently attentive to the details and sufficiently fair to all sides. I have no objection to polemics or one-sidedness as such. It’s not Austin’s advocacy that I object to—it’s that his readers are getting advocacy in the guise of—and instead of—accuracy. Let me give some details now to try to support this contention.

The book has seven chapters. The first is largely a rough history of guns in the US (see note 2 above for a brief assessment of that material. Chapter 2 is a quick study of the “right” to own a gun, in which Austin grants that there is such a right, and that it can be significantly restricted on the basis of other rights, such as a right not to be shot. Chapter 3 is a quick survey of some bad arguments in the public discussion of guns. In Chapter 4, Austin introduces his “peace building” approach to violence, which he contends is a kind of third way between a Just War (or “justified violence”) view and a pacifist view. The fifth chapter studies some relevant biblical passages, and the sixth connects violence with virtue ethics, and assesses the connection between guns and character. The final chapter presents Austin’s proposals for various new forms of gun control, which happen to line up well with what Democrat candidates might suggest.

I cannot, of course, go into any kind of adequate detail regarding all this material. A few brief hints of my objections will have to suffice. For one example, Austin writes, “they [Stand-Your-Ground laws] are also intended to allow individuals to use such force [viz. lethal force] in defense of their property.” Now, this claim is demonstrably false: and the demonstration requires no real effort. To pick one Stand-Your-Ground state, my home of North Carolina: nobody is permitted to use lethal force in defense of property, ever, period. You are permitted to use lethal force only in the face of an imminent threat of death, great bodily harm or sexual assault.1 If we’re seeking to elevate the conversation, improve our thoughts and be honest brokers of information, we’d better take care not to make such manifestly erroneous claims.

As I mentioned, Austin’s peace building view is supposed to be an alternative to a kind of traditional just war approach to violence. But he doesn’t adequately specify how it actually differs from Just War, apart from saying his view “is distinct from defense of or participation in just war in that it takes seriously the use of violence as a last resort, an idea endorsed by rarely followed by defenders of just war.” There is no citation here providing evidence for this bold claim. What does it mean to say that just war theorists don’t take seriously the notion of violence as a last resort?

Another attempt at drawing a contrast between his theory and Just War: “peace building endorses the belief that there may be times when a Christian should allow his own life, and even the lives of those he loves, to be taken.” But Just War theorists can certainly say the same. St. Thomas surely does.

One last example. Austin writes, “Some who carry guns even refer to themselves as ‘sheepdogs,’ heroic protectors of the cowardly sheep who refuse to protect themselves from the evil wolves.” The word to focus on there is ‘cowardly.’ Later, Austin claims that according to the sheepdog imagery, “the idea is not merely that criminals are less moral than others. It is that they are less valuable, even though they are fellow human beings.”

The sheepdog imagery is closely tied to LTC Dave Grossman, who wrote:

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath–a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path…. Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be… In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision.2

You see here no reference to cowardice: indeed there is an explicit claim that the sheep are not morally worse than the sheepdogs. Grossman does not, to my knowledge, ever call sheep cowards: surely, anyway, there would be something odd about saying the sheepdogs have deep love for the ‘sheep’ but hold them in contempt at the same time! Nor is there any ontological claim such as that the ‘wolves’ are less valuable. The point he makes is that they are less moral—the very thing Austin (implicitly) criticizes him for not saying. Austin makes no distinctions, offers no nuance, says nothing to explain the sheepdog imagery or show why a decent person might use the imagery.

What Austin aims to do is important. I have been saddened more than once, in talking with Christian friends, by hearing them echo some of the worst rhetoric from the “pro-gun” side, or by hearing them support the 2nd Amendment with a near-religious zeal. Austin speaks of guns becoming idols, and this can be all too true. Christians called to be salt and light can’t just slide into a place in the secular culture and call it home, and I think Austin is right to challenge us on this point.

But even here, I must offer a caution. For while we don’t want to find ourselves too much at home with the pro-gun side, neither do we wish to find ourselves too much at home with the anti-gun side. And I do think Austin falls into that trap.

God and Guns in America
By Michael W. Austin
Eerdmans, 2020
Paperback, 200 pages

Endnotes:

1 The NC jury instructions on lethal force in self-defense read “A citizen is legally justified in using deadly force against another if and only if: (a) The citizen actually believes deadly force is necessary to prevent an imminent threat of death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault [my emphasis] and (b) The facts and circumstances prompting that belief would cause a person of ordinary firmness to believe deadly force was necessary to prevent an imminent threat of death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault…” Note the if and only if. There is no “or” anywhere that allows for killing in defense of property. Concealed Carry Handgun Training (Salemburg/Edneyville, NC: North Carolina Justice Academy, 2020).


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About Dr. Patrick Toner 7 Articles
Dr. Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas...and Norman Rockwell. He earned his master's in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

14 Comments

  1. One must be aware of the Laws of Self Defense that include defense of innocents and the defense of property that are generally applicable in all states though laws of property vary widely. The Laws of Self Defense are patterned after Just War Theory (reference Edward Feser, not Pope Francis). To claim a self defense argument one my clear 5-substantial hurdles while the state only need to prove to failed to meet any one to the satisfaction of the jury. Recently a white 51-year old killed a black 37-year old man who entered the shop at the request of his wife who was rejected for attempting to use welfare dollars to buy chips that by the law the black man was the aggressor with no claim to innocence. The age difference supports the claim of self defense given a reasonable man would be in fear of his life or great bodily harm by a younger, stronger, larger & angry 37-year old that came behind the corned pinning the man against the shelves with no opportunity to retreat. The 51-year old successfully stop the threat of bodily harm or murder but unfortunately the altercation lead to the death of the 37-year old.

  2. Men better sort this out or women will without you.
    Step up, and defend your right in the 2nd Amendment, to defend women, and children, and secure freedom from dysfunctional Government.

    • And (sarcasm alert) let’s not forget that the anti-abortion movement is also fully white nationalist (sarcasm off). At least that’s what many MSM outlets have been saying for a while now. Funny how any sort of stance or belief contrary to the progressive mono-narrative is immediately labeled as “racist”, “white nationalist”, or “white supremacist”. It’s almost as though they would rather paint with a crude, wide brush than deal with facts and arguments.

      • The truth hurts. In your reaction you’re guided more by your beliefs and biases rather than the facts, the history, presented in the interview linked above.

    • Oh, yes, it totally slipped my mind: blacks have virtually no guns and certainly do not know how to use them. Thank you and the author referred to for that information and insight.

  3. The use of the sheep, wolf, and sheepdog imagery is very telling. Wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing have been peddling ‘Gun Control’, i.e., the disarming of Americans, for over 60 years. It’s the lefts foremost means to oppressive control of our people. Unfortunately some have had the ‘wool’ pulled over their eyes by the tactics of using a ‘good’ cause for the purposes of deception. Don’t buy it. The 2nd Amendment right is a right of God given Natural Law. We are meant to be free.

  4. I agree. Because there are wolves and there are sheep, sheepdogs are necessary. We have policemen for this reason. But the same is true of our leaders, whether inside the Church or outside. They protect the vineyard of the Lord spiritually, intellectually, socially, economically… Thank Dr. Toner for bringing philosophy to inform our thinking.

  5. Individual confrontations aside, from the review I get the impression that the recurring gun debate examined at book length also bypassed discussing the cultural moral nihilism at the heart of wonton violence.

  6. In the old west, to steal a person’s horse could be tantamount to killing him because a horse was necessary to life as it was then lived, that is why they hung horse thieves. During the riots of 2020, BLM complained that some people cared more about the destruction of property than they did about George Floyd, but the reality is that those shops that were destroyed were some person’s livelihood, i.e. his or her means to eat and have a roof over their head. I offer these examples to say that the difference between using deadly force to save one’s own life and using deadly force to protect one’s property is not always a yawning moral gulf that part of this discussion implies. There is certainly a difference between using a gunshot to stop one’s business from being burnt down and using the same to stop some thief from stealing a lawn chair in your backyard. The first I would argue is defensible, the latter not.
    The fact that the North Carolina law discussed allows deadly force to prevent rape is a sign that the legislators considered at least one thing short of imminent death to justify deadly force.

  7. I am not an NRA supporter. But I support the second amendment.In spite of the gun hysteria which follows every mass shooting, this is not as simple as confiscating people’s guns. Folks with mental illness can kill in a variety of ways, and will likely do so even if guns become unavailable. You cannot outlaw knives, for example. Chicago has strict LEGAL gun laws but has a high murder rate.I do think a standard national gun licensing law could be helpful.

  8. Part of the nub of the issue is whether, in the words of Bishop Flores of Texas who asserts, “there is a legitimate right of the state to exercise a vigilant and reasonable stewardship and control over the access to weapons or things which could potentially cause great damage to the good of the whole.”

    What if the state is (or becomes in the future) the threat to the good of the whole? What if the exercise of second amendment rights is not about gun idolatry but taken in the context of 2nd Amendment?

    Violent defense against government state tyranny is either legitimate or not in the Catholic view and I think the problem is we can’t really figure that one out. It’s so difficult to draw lines.

    The general snark, of course, is you can’t defeat the mighty U.S. government with your little toy guns, even AK-47s. True you’re not going to “defeat” the state any more than Jews armed in the 1930s Germany would’ve been able to “defeat” the Germans. But would it have been better had they not been disarmed?

    I think maybe the subtext is the Catholic debate on guns is between folks who think we have solved the problem of Catholicism and the state and those who know better. Catholicism has always wanted to see the unity of the Body of Christ lived out on the ground…i.e no nation states, hence the appeal of the Roman empire and later the Holy Roman one. The universal nature of Catholicism innately pictures a kingdom of Catholics irrespective of nationality, so that’s likely a reason bishops across the world are so supportive of the EU & UN & other transnationals.

    Origen said that the kingdom of Heaven should be mirrored on earth as well as possible. It’s been said Catholics didn’t even evangelize outside the Roman empire in the early centuries, equating Christendom with an earthly empire in which Christianity can be lived out more seamlessly, while the Arians evangelized “beyond the pale” to Germanic tribes and thus therein lies much of their early success. I’m guessing nobody knows the proper relationship between Catholicism and state, and to talk about gun control is to indirectly talk about the right to defend against the state, and that is to talk about Catholicism and state.

    • +J.M.J. Please see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Life in Christ section under 4th and fifth Commandment sections for information on what the Church teaches on the issues you raised (edition has update to #2267 by Pope Francis on working to eliminate death penalty), there still is not enough attention paid to underlying social and psychiatric aspects of shooter situations. While newer generation meds can help people to get vastly more functional and able to attend school and work, meds also can cause aggressive behavior and insomnia, favoring development of psychosis, and some meds for heartburn can lead to key nutritional deficiencies that favor mental illness. Also, if I recall correctly from the late 1970s, juveniles who tortured animals had automatic inpatient psychiatric care, as it was anticipated that they probably would proceed to harming humans. Social conditions such parental abandonment due to drug use, suppression of Church teaching,and suppression of education in general do not help this situation. Thanks.
      C.A.

  9. One thing that the recent murder of Japan’s Shinzo Abe should make very clear to all people who continue to call for more and more gun regulation is the fact that making deadly guns is not the proverbial rocket science, especially today with 3D printing, etc. Various restrictions on gun access via purchase make sense, but if more and more restrictions eventually make it very difficult or impossible to legally obtain guns from a producer or seller, then we will see more and more homemade and/or underground varieties like the one that ended Abe’s life, and these will continue to get deadlier and deadlier as more and more people learn how to make such weapons and improve their technological skill in doing so.

    Ultimately, gun control will never prevent or significantly reduce gun or other kinds of violence. If it did, then how come in those places like Chicago with the strictest of gun laws do we have record-breaking gun violence year after year?

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