I remember, at one point during one of Aaron Sorkin’s genius bits of West Wing dialogue, a representative from a sister Nation informing the President of the United States that it is difficult to hear moral instruction about the possession and use of nuclear weapons from the only nation to ever use one. I’ve always thought there was a powerful truth to that critique, but that it also illuminates a horrible kind of wisdom for the United States; perhaps someone who has wielded such devastating power and seen its effects can more fully and wisely speak of (or against) its use.
I remember watching Tyler Wigg-Stephenson engage a room full of leaders around the topic of nuclear de-proliferation. At the time, North Korea was threatening to develop and possess a bomb and the same was beginning to be true of Iran. The argument in the room was that those nations could not be trusted with those weapons because of their violent tendencies, their track record of ill intent and what basically amounted to the absence of wise leadership in their ranks.
I remember killing an animal for the first time, feeling the shotgun kick against my shoulder as I stumbled backwards. Looking up from one knee, I saw how thoroughly the steel pellets tore that bird apart. As I righted myself, I thought about the gun I held and knew for the first time what gun owners had called “respect for the weapon.” Part of that respect meant honestly wondering if I could handle this thing. I was with men I trusted and who knew what they were doing. I was on land set aside for this particular use and, of course, I am given the right to carry the weapon. Yet, in light of all these precautions and truths, I still gripped the weapon more surely and paid far more attention to the instructions I was given. Doing this wrong wouldn’t just be a mistake – it could be tragically devastating.
When it comes to the conversation about gun ownership and gun violence among us, what if it’s not entirely about rights. What if we make it about wisdom? In other words, does a wise and loving culture voluntarily move beyond its ideologies, preferences and privileges in the face of overwhelming evidence that we, collectively, have not handled those privileges wisely and well?
Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece highlights another disheartening collection of statistics about our mishandling of guns. You may already be familiar with the sad, sad statistics about gun violence. And if statistics like those Kristof references are accurate, then it can’t it be said that, though we inarguably have the right to bare arms, we are not doing it wisely and well?
My concern is less with the politics and protocol of things as it is with the hearts of people effected by the politics and protocol. I’m concerned with our willingness to do what is necessary to live wisely and well together. As Kristof notes about safety regulations in other areas of American life…
“The lesson from the ongoing carnage is not that we need a modern prohibition (that would raise constitutional issues and be impossible politically), but that we should address gun deaths as a public health crisis. To protect the public, we regulate toys and mutual funds, ladders and swimming pools. Shouldn’t we regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys?”
What if my neighbor’s road to wisdom comes at the cost of my limitations? Am I willing to live with limitation so that my neighbor (and their neighbor and so on) can live more safely and well?
During Lent this past year, I shared a short prayer that read “May my pursuit of happiness never come at the cost of someone else’s freedom to do the same.” And learning to live this has meant living with limitations on things I have every right to possess and do. The facts seem to make it clear that we are hurting each other. And I don’t think it’s enough to say it’s “that guy over there” who misuses and mishandles his weapon or “that guy over there” who stole his gun. I think wisdom would dictate that I am my brother’s keeper and that living together wisely and well will require sacrifice and limitation on my part as well.