Gun Violence/Gun Safety (concluded)

          Even if we knew more about the warning signs for shootings, authorities can only take action if they are legally authorized to do so. That is where red flag laws (they go by different names in different places) come into play. These provisions allow police, family members, and others to petition a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from people whose behavior and statements indicate they present a danger to others or themselves. Although opinion polls indicate strong support for such laws, only about a dozen states have them. Perhaps surprisingly, Florida is one of them. Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has opposed such laws as an infringement of the Second Amendment, although I am aware of no court agreeing with them.

In a sensible world–unlike the U.S.–all would be trying to figure out the best possible red flag laws. The details of such provisions do matter, such as the standard of proof and the duration of the firearms’ removal. We should be studying the red flag laws that exist to see what insights they offer for future or amended laws, and we would also be seeing what we can learn from orders of protection in domestic disputes, which bear many similarities to red flag laws.

          Studies have shown that red flag laws have a positive effect on gun violence especially when it comes to suicides, but this aspect of the laws is important. The largest number of deaths by guns is not from mass shootings, other homicides, accidents, and certainly not from self-defense; they are from suicides. Red flag laws do not prevent all suicides or even most of them. Nevertheless, we should understand that no single reform can be expected to have a huge effect. Instead, we need many reforms each bringing an incremental decline in gun violence.

          Red flag laws highlight how much more we need to know about gun violence and gun safety. We are far behind where we could be in our knowledge because of the Dickey Amendment. A study funded by the Centers for Disease Control published in the early 1990s found that having a gun in the home was correlated with an increased risk of homicide. Those conclusions, of course, undermined the NRA message and the conclusion of the Supreme Court that guns are needed for protection and the defense of liberty. In response to that study, the NRA pushed what became known as the Dickey Amendment. Passed by Congress in 1996, it stated that CDC funds available for “injury prevention and control” could not be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” Of course, while the offending study may have led reasonable people to think about gun control, the study did not advocate it. Even so, Congress not only passed the Dickey Amendment, it also reduced the CDC budget by the exact amount that the guns-in-the-home study had cost. The message became clear: no studies of guns by federal agencies if the agencies did not want their budgets slashed by Congress. (The Dickey Amendment was expanded to other government funding agencies in 2012.) However, in 2018, Congress accepted the interpretation of the Dickey Amendment by a Health and Human Services secretary; it voted to allow the government to fund and conduct research into gun violence that does not specifically advocate for gun control. The government now funds some of that research, but only at modest levels. Of course, in a sensible government, this research would have a high priority. The first defense of weak minds is to remain ignorant, and that has been the official stance of our government about gun violence. Perhaps that can be changed, but I am willing to bet few conservatives will stand against ignorance.

          Many of our politicians have lived in fear of the NRA. For example, the Colorado legislature a while ago passed gun safety measures. The NRA went to work and got recall elections against some of the supporters of the legislation. Stories like that scare politicians about the consequences of opposing the NRA. Even if the power of the NRA is waning because of its internal problems, many politicians pledge fealty to the Second Amendment and are concerned that they could lose in a primary to someone who is even more opposed to gun safety.

          The fear of that power needs to be broken if we are ever to advance towards sensible gun measures. Here’s my suggestion: Gun safety organizations should identify five or six legislative districts in each state that might be swing districts where the incumbent unthinkingly follows the NRA line. Time, money, and effort should be concentrated by the reformers on these relatively small number of elections. Gun safety advocates would not have to win all these elections to have an impact. If thirty or forty state legislative incumbents around the country lost their positions at least partly because they were allied with the NRA, the NRA would start to look less invincible. Only when legislators begin to think that they could lose their seats because of their opposition to gun safety measures supported by most American will the NRA’s hold on this country start to weaken.

          Mass shootings are (generally mistakenly) seen as an opportunity for gun safety reform, but there are other possibilities. As I have been working on this post, a man was arrested near the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He was exercising what many would see as his Second Amendment right to carry a pistol, but when he saw federal marshals outside the Justice’s house, he called a Maryland county emergency number and said that he was having suicidal thoughts, planned to kill a Justice, and had a firearm in his suitcase. While he was still on the phone, the police arrived and arrested him.

          This is, of course, akin to a red flag situation and highlights the need for such laws.

          Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said about the incident: “I call on leaders in both parties in Washington to strongly condemn these actions. It is vital to our constitutional system that the justices be able to carry out their duties without fear of violence against them and their families.”

          Of course, but it also should be vital to our society that schoolchildren, worshippers, shoppers, subway riders–all of us–be able to go about our lives without fear of violence against ourselves or our families. Condemning such potential violence is easy. Taking steps to try to prevent more of it seems to be beyond the ability of our elected representatives.

Conscience of a Baptist (concluded)

          In the days when I attended the church, Baptists seldom mentioned abortion. That may have been because then there was little public discussion of it, although I have learned since that there were many private discussions of the practice as many people sought one. The lack of a Baptist discussion, however, may also have been due to Baptists’ reverence for the Bible and for liberty of conscience. The last time I checked a biblical concordance—admittedly quite some time ago, but surely this has not changed—“abortion” was not in it. One has to interpret or extrapolate from verses and contexts to conclude that the Bible condemns abortion. Biblical passages can be construed to say that life begins at conception, but what “conception” meant in biblical times is not clear. I doubt to ancient Israelites it meant a sperm fertilizing an egg. Other biblical passages, however, indicate life begins with the first breath. But even though the Bible does not explicitly, and may not implicitly, condemn abortion, it is also hard to suggest that it supports the view that abortion should be the choice of the woman and her doctor.

          A Baptist, however, might extrapolate from Baptist principles and conclude that because there are ambiguities in the Bible on the matter, whether an abortion is sinful must remain a matter of conscience. The opinion would hold that the state cannot dictate what is sinful and should not dictate that a woman cannot have an abortion. In fact, when some states began to change their absolute proscriptions of abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, many Southern Baptist leaders held quite liberal views on the subject. For example, a poll in 1970 found that 70% of Southern Baptist ministers supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman; 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity; and 71% supported abortion in cases of rape. The next year the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution stating, “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such circumstances as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

          This liberal viewpoint, however, soon vanished. Since Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention has passed many resolutions about abortion that are much different from the 1971 pronouncement. On the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Convention stated that that Supreme Court “decision was an act of injustice against unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations. . . . We lament and renounce statements and actions by previous conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture. . . . We pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the action of abortion will be not only illegal but unthinkable.”

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, then, Southern Baptist shifted away from dogmatic opposition to school prayer and aid to religious school and towards dogmatic opposition to abortion. These moves have had more than a religious impact because they are all opinions that affect how people vote. Southern Baptists, for example, now want their elected officials to be strongly against abortion and generally friendly, at least, to public support of religion, or at least some forms of religion. This certainly has had importance for the country since the Southern Baptists are the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Over the last generation or two Southern Baptists seem to have moved even further to the political right than they were before. Perhaps people who are better historians, sociologists, or theologians than I can explain why, but I do point out that the Southern Baptists were not alone in the rightward lurch during this period. Something similar also occurred with the National Rifle Association, which had been largely an apolitical group interested mainly in marksmanship and gun safety, but was captured by an element that began the NRA’s move to become one of the most important conservative organizations in the country. Both Baptists and the NRA moved to the right at the same time. Is there a connection?

          Baptists, and other evangelicals, have become a major political force. Baptists are at the core of the modern conservative movement even though these Baptists no longer seek the traditional principles that defined Baptism. They now advocate the intermingling of church and state. Toleration of private consciences no longer seems a defining principle

Nevertheless, when I see one of those white frame New England Baptist churches, I still hope that their congregants believe that religion should not be founded on ritual or coercion or enforced rules. Instead, it should be founded on the consciences of individuals, persuasion, reason, and toleration. I want those bedrock principles of Baptism, and of the country, to remain.