Guest Essay

The Myth of the ‘Good Guy With a Gun’ Has Religious Roots

Credit...Sammy Harkham

Mr. Manseau is the author of 10 books on religion and history.

Is our gun problem a God problem?

The AR-15-style rifle used in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last month was made by an arms manufacturer that regards selling weapons as part of its Christian mission. In a state where Gov. Greg Abbott declared, six months after an earlier massacre, “The problem is not guns; it’s hearts without God,” the gun’s provenance challenged pious suggestions that declining religiosity might bear some of the blame.

Daniel Defense, the Georgia company whose gun enabled the slaughter at Robb Elementary School, presents its corporate identity in explicitly religious terms. At the time of the shooting, the company’s social media presence included an image of a toddler with a rifle in his lap above the text of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it”). For Easter, it posted a photograph of a gun and a cross resting on scriptural passages recounting the Resurrection.

Its weapons have now been found at the scenes of two mass shootings — Uvalde and Las Vegas — that left a total of 81 people dead.

While some might suggest a Christian firearms company is a contradiction in terms, Daniel Defense is hardly alone. According to a Public Religion Research Institute study, evangelicals have a higher rate of gun ownership than other religious groups. Across the country, they account for a significant share not only of the demand but of the supply.

In Florida, Spike’s Tactical (“the finest AR-15s on the planet”) makes a line of Crusader weapons adorned with a quote from the Psalms. Missouri-based CMMG (“the leading manufacturer of AR15 rifles, components and small parts”) advertises its employees’ “commitment to meet each and every morning to pray for God’s wisdom in managing the enormous responsibility that comes with this business.” And in Colorado, Cornerstone Arms explains that it is so named because “Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our business, our family and our lives” and the “Second Amendment to our Constitution is the cornerstone of the freedom we enjoy as American citizens.”

For many American Christians, Jesus, guns and the Constitution are stitched together as durably as a Kevlar vest.

“We are in business, we believe, to be a supporter of the Gospel,” Daniel Defense’s founder, Marty Daniel, told Breitbart News in 2017. “And, therefore, a supporter of the Second Amendment.”

Entwining faith and firearms this way has a long history. It encompasses the so-called muscular Christianity movement that began in England in the 19th century with a focus on physical fitness as a path to spiritual strength and that in America made exemplars of pastors roaming the frontier armed with Bibles and six-shooters.

More than a hundred years ago, this trope was already so well established that a popular silent western from 1912, “The Two Gun Sermon,” told the story of a minister assigned to a rough-and-tumble outpost; when ruffians menace him, he holds them at gunpoint until they listen to him preach. The film’s message is one with which 21st-century Christian gun enthusiasts would probably agree: Sometimes guns are necessary for the Lord’s work.

It is easy to miss, but this melding of evangelism and the right to bear arms is a step beyond the “natural rights” argument for gun ownership, which holds that self-defense is a law of nature required to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are often said to be God-given in the sense of being taken for granted, and they are enshrined as such in the Declaration of Independence. As interpreted by many evangelicals, the distant deistic “creator” Thomas Jefferson credited with endowing such rights has become a specific, biblical deity who apparently takes an active interest in the availability of assault rifles.

Why does this subtle shift in the meaning of “God given” matter? It’s important to understand that for the manufacturer of the Uvalde killer’s rifle, and many others in the business, selling weapons is at once a patriotic and a religious act. For those who hold them to be sacred in this way, the meaning of firearms proceeds from their place at the intersection of American and Christian identities. Proposing limits on what kinds of guns they should be able to buy — or how, when, where and why they can carry them — is akin to proposing limits on who they are and what they should revere.

To be sure, there are gun owners for whom a gun is just a gun. But many of our fellow citizens don’t just own guns, they believe in them. They believe the stories told about guns’ power, their necessity, their righteousness.

We can see the implications of this even in ostensibly nonreligious aspects of our current gun debate, which are influenced by theological assumptions in surprising ways. The insistence that guns are used constantly and successfully for self-defense and protecting the community found its most infamous expression in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre said, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Since then, despite being debunked by data showing that firearms are more likely to injure their owners or their owners’ families than safeguard them, the protection offered by good guys with guns has emerged as an article of faith, supported with anecdotal evidence passed around like legends of the saints.

One of the most repeated of these tales recounts the story of a man who truly did halt a mass shooting, albeit only after 26 people were dead. On Nov. 5, 2017, when a gunman attacked the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, a soft-spoken plumber and former firearms instructor named Stephen Willeford shot him with his AR-15. Contributing to the N.R.A.’s effort to spread the Gospel of the Good Guy With a Gun, Mr. Willeford spoke to the group’s Leadership Forum six months later.

“We are the people that stand between the people that would do evil to our neighbors,” he told the assembled gun owners. “I responded for what God told me to do. The Holy Spirit took care of me. … Each one of you would have done the same thing.” Invoking the name of Jesus, he added, “What happened in Sutherland Springs was all him and it’s his glory.”

As the thunderous applause that greeted this testimony made clear, gun culture is largely Christian culture. To imagine yourself as a Good Guy With a Gun, as Mr. Willeford invited N.R.A. members to do, may inspire action-movie day dreams, but it is ultimately a religious vision of a world in which good and evil are at war, where God and firepower make all the difference.

The Good Guy With a Gun is a religious myth so powerful it has begun to transform the tradition that bore it. When Representative Lauren Boebert recently quipped, “A lot of the little Twitter trolls, they like to say ‘Oh, Jesus didn’t need an AR-15. How many AR-15s do you think Jesus would have had?’ Well, he didn’t have enough to keep his government from killing him,” it was a joke meant to deride and dismiss charges of hypocrisy against followers of a man sometimes called the Prince of Peace arming themselves to the hilt. Yet it was also a view into a fascinating religious development currently underway, one shaped by an understanding that bullets could have prevented the sacrifice at the heart of the Christian faith.

It would be a mistake to paint the connection between firearms and religiosity with too broad a brush. The evangelical influence on the sale, use and marketing of firearms in the United States does not mean Christianity is at fault for the recent spate of shootings. After all, in Buffalo, in Uvalde, in Tulsa, and this month at a church supper in Vestavia Hills, Ala., Christians have been among the victims. Christian clergy members have rushed to every scene to comfort the survivors. Friends and families have gathered at Christian funerals to mourn the dead.

As the historian Daniel K. Williams has noted, “Gun rights advocacy is not an intrinsic feature of every brand of evangelicalism.” While recent surveys find that four in 10 white evangelicals own guns, the majority do not, and other denominational affiliations offer examples of religious participation discouraging a fixation on firearms. It is possible that the less one sees oneself as an itinerant loner in a hostile world, like the armed preacher in a silent western, the less one is likely to look to guns as a source of salvation.

Nonetheless, the ways Christian ideas may be contributing to a gun culture that abets our epidemic of mass shootings by helping to keep the nation well armed should inspire reflection. None of the recent mass shootings had explicitly religious motivations, but the religious contexts of our seemingly eternal problem with gun violence — its history, its theology, its myths — are too important to ignore.

Mass shootings are, in a way, assaults on the idea of community itself. They occur where there are people gathered — for entertainment, for learning, for shopping, for worship — in the spaces we create together. Some believe that such attacks are the fault of armed individuals alone and can be addressed only through armed individual response. Others believe they occur within the framework of what we collectively allow and must have communal solutions.

That these two positions each have beliefs at their core is one reason our disagreements over guns remain so intractable. We are arguing not just over policy or public health, bans or background checks. Without quite realizing it, we are also arguing over the theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of faith: a matter of “ultimate concern.”

Peter Manseau (@plmanseau) is the author of 10 books on religion and history, including “One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History.”

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