Beating Guns – A Conversation with Shane Claiborne

gunsShane Claiborne is the author of nine books; a co-founder of The Simple Way, a Christian collective in Philadelphia; and co-director of Red Letter Christians, a non-denominational progressive movement. His new book, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence, is co-authored with Michael Martin, a professional blacksmith and the executive director of RAWTools, an organization committed to transforming weapons of death into implements of life.

ECM: What inspired you to start beating guns into gardening tools?

SC: We just got tired of seeing so much violence and death in the world and, in a very particular sense, in our own neighborhood of Kensington in Philadelphia. As we go through the neighborhood there are many things that we’re proud of, but one of the things that grieves our hearts is that, on just about every corner, we can tell the story of whose life was lost there, in almost every case to a gun. There are memorials sprinkled all over north Philadelphia to lives that were taken too soon. Martin Luther King said that we are all called to be the Good Samaritan and to lift people out of the ditch on the road to Jericho, but after you’ve lifted so many people out of the ditch, you start asking whether we need to rethink the road.

That said, we’re hopeful people. We’re people of faith who believe that life is more powerful than death and love is more powerful than hatred. We try to speak with a prophetic voice and to remember that the prophetic vision is positive. It’s a vision committed to turning tools of death into tools of life. Walter Brueggemann has written that, while we often think of the prophets as trying to predict the future, they were usually trying to change the present. They were trying to name where we’re at and challenge us to imagine something better—the type of future that God would want for us. So that’s what inspired us to start beating guns. We started in Philly about six years ago. Mike founded RAWTools, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

ECM: The statistics in the book are devastating, and they throw the political failure into sharp relief. Did you feel like symbolic action filled the void when there was nothing left to say?

SC: We felt like the political debate on gun control had come to a stand still, and you can only argue about the Second Amendment for so long. In our work, we go deeper. Instead of trying to appeal to the head, we reach out to the heart, and often the head comes along. I don’t know too many people who have been argued into thinking differently, but I’ve met a whole lot just while doing this tour who have found that, when they ground themselves in the reality of gun violence in America, something shifts for them.

I grew up around guns, and many in my family are still gun owners. The fact of gun ownership doesn’t have to divide us. Over 90 percent of Americans want to see stronger gun regulations, and over 80 percent of gun owners agree. There are sensible things we can do, like expanding background checks, preventing domestic abusers from acquiring guns, putting people who are on the no-fly list also on a no-gun list. We can place restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. It’s been very important to us to stress that gun owners are not the enemy. Our events have attracted a lot of hunters who oppose gun violence. One even wore a t-shirt that said, “A good hunter does not need ten rounds to kill a deer.” That’s encouraging.

ECM: You’re very diplomatic in your outreach to gun owners, and very critical of gun makers, dealers, and lobbyists. Can the producers and consumers be so cleanly separated?

SC: In the book, we quote Henry Ford saying, “Tell me who profits from violence and I’ll tell you how to stop it.” From the very beginning, a lot of the major profiteers of violence were not big fans of guns—they were big fans of money, and guns emerged as very profitable products. Winchester started out in the shirt industry. Smith was a carpenter and Wesson was a shoemaker. Colt was a traveling showman. Remington began as a pacifist and a poet. But all found their way into the gun business and created a thriving market.

When the National Rifle Association says that it represents 5 million people, we need to remember that this is a small fraction of American gun owners. Ninety percent of gun owners are not members of the NRA, and most find themselves at odds with the extremism of the gun lobby. The more that people learn about it, the more disturbed they get. For instance, a gun is stolen every single minute in America, and in many states you don’t have to report stolen guns, even though about a third of them are eventually tracked to violent crimes. The gun lobby made that happen. There’s a lot we don’t know about the effects of gun violence because the research has been held hostage, just like when tobacco companies fought to oppose cancer research. And we already have the technology to make smart guns that operate off of a finger print—which would prevent a lot of suicides and accidental deaths—but the industry does not have the will to pursue it.

So it’s not a matter of ability; it’s a matter of will. The gun industry has the power to protect lives, but it would rather protect profits. Too often we have allowed questions of rights to dominate our discourse around guns. Our goal right now is to reframe the conversation from a focus on rights to a focus on conscience, and to stir the public conscience to create change.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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