[Ed. note: This guest blog post is part of the Center’s Mini-Symposium on papers presented at the 2020 Firearms Law Works-in-Progress Workshop.]
Is it morally permissible for faithful Christians to carry firearms? My paper argues that the answer is “yes.” I argue that Jesus’s instruction to sell one’s cloak and buy a sword in Luke 22:36 should be interpreted as endorsing the carrying of weapons for personal protection. I then give a philosophical argument showing that a strong moral right to gun ownership can be derived from the right to life.
I. Sell Your Cloak and Buy a Sword
In Luke 22, Jesus addresses his disciples during the last supper, shortly before his arrest, trial, and eventual crucifixion. He reminds them of how their earthly needs were providentially met when he sent them out to do ministry work (Luke 9:1-6). However, Jesus warns that he will soon no longer be with them, and that in his absence they cannot expect the same level of protection and provision they received when he was physically present with them. Thus, Jesus instructs the disciples to take appropriate measures to be ready to provide for themselves. Purchasing a sword is explicitly mentioned as one of these measures. Here’s the relevant passage:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-37, ESV)
Jesus refers to the fulfillment of scripture (Isaiah 53:12) in order to explain to the disciples why they must be prepared to be self-reliant. Up until this point, their needs were providentially taken care of, such that they did not “lack anything.” For Jesus to say that they must now prepare to be self-reliant would likely have been surprising to them, so he reminds them of his mission on earth. He is essentially saying: “Remember when I sent you out and you didn’t have to worry about these things? Well, scripture is soon going to be fulfilled, and after that happens, I will no longer be physically with you. In my absence, you will need to do these things to make sure that your needs are met.” His reference to being “numbered with the transgressors” is referring to his impending crucifixion between two thieves.
Jesus refers to the heavy outer garment worn by Jews, known as the simlāh. It provided protection from the elements and was for that reason regarded as one of an individual’s most important possessions. We are told in Exodus 22:26-27 that if one takes another’s cloak as collateral for a loan, that it must be returned to its owner before sunset. Otherwise, the owner has nothing to cover himself with as he sleeps.
Clearly, one’s cloak was an item of significant value. That Jesus would instruct his disciples to sell such a valuable item to buy a sword speaks volumes about the tremendous importance of guarding one’s life. One might be able to get by if he loses his outer garment, but the same cannot be said if he loses his life. Hence, it would make sense to prioritize a means of self-defense over an article of clothing. In telling his disciples to prepare to defend themselves, Jesus is implying that self-defense against physical threats is a proper object of concern.
Some argue that Jesus is referring to the fulfillment of prophecy, and not self-defense. I give a lengthy response to this objection in the paper and in this article.
But isn’t relying on earthly weapons a sign of spiritual weakness? Not anymore than providing for our own food and water are signs of spiritual weakness. God of course does provide, but many times he provides through earthly means. The residents of Jerusalem during the rebuilding of the wall understood this when they both prayed to God and set up an armed guard as a means of protection (Nehemiah 4:7-9). It is not wrong to trust in earthly means, provided we recognize that it is ultimately God who works through them (Proverbs 21:31).
What about the command to “turn the other cheek”? The “slap” that Jesus refers to is a kind of demeaning insult, not a physical blow meant to cause physical harm or injury. Jesus was saying that we should not attempt to “get even” with those who insult or demean us. His comments are directed against the desire to address a bruised ego. He was not ruling out forceful responses to threats of serious bodily harm.
II. The Moral Case for Gun Ownership
The core philosophical argument for a moral right to own a gun can be summarized as follows: we possess the right to life, which entails the right to self-defense, which in turn entails the right to a reasonable means of self-defense. Since firearms are a reasonable means of self-defense (for reasons just considered), it follows that there is a strong moral right to own and carry firearms for self-protection.
In response to this argument, some argue that the alleged right to own a gun must be balanced against other rights, such as the rights to physical security and the right not to be shot. Since guns are meant to protect our security, the merits of gun ownership depend solely on the empirical question of whether guns actually make us safer. Thus, if gun ownership causes higher rates of crime, suicide, or injury, then gun ownership ought to be restricted or forbidden. Any right to own guns would be overridden by the harms they cause.
This is a misleading way of framing the issue. To see why, it is helpful to see just how the moral right to own a gun is derived from the right to life. There are two faces to this right: the positive right to life and the negative right to life. The former is the right to be given (by another person) the basic necessities of life, while the latter is simply the right to stay alive. Now in order to stay alive, you must have the right to keep yourself alive. This sometimes requires that we forcefully repel attempts at causing wrongful harm (i.e. self-defense). On that point, gun ownership is morally significant because it provides an individual with the ability to reliably and effectively resist attacks on his life. Hence, the right to own a gun is grounded in the right to resist wrongful harm (self-defense), which flows directly from the right to life.
This point is crucial, because it means that the moral right to own a gun is not justified on the basis that guns will increase our average safety (even if that is the case), but on the basis that we have a right to be our own last line of defense. This right cannot be discharged by any good or service, such as a police force. I may have the right to be kept safe, but I also have the right to keep myself safe, and I retain this right even if I live in an extremely safe environment where my chances of victimization are low. Any violation of the right to life is irreversible and non-recoverable, and so the right to be our own last line of defense cannot be something that is contingent on statistical averages, nor can it be overridden by the (alleged) safety benefits provided to others by denying me this right. The right to live in a reasonably safe environment therefore cannot trump my right to a reasonable means of self-defense.
Those who argue that gun rights must be balanced against the right to physical security fail to distinguish between the right to be afforded a certain threshold of security (the positive right to life) and the right to resist when we come under attack (the negative right to life). These are distinct rights that are not in competition with each other.
Consider the right not to be shot, which some cite as an example of a right that counterbalances the right to own a gun. The right not to be shot places a requirement on others that they refrain from (wrongfully) shooting you. But this does not at all conflict with the right to forcefully resist with a gun when someone wrongfully threatens your life. These rights actually complement each other: we have a right against interference and a right to fight back when threatened.
It is therefore a mistake to think of the gun control debate as involving a balancing test of consequences. Even if restrictive gun control makes us on average safer (which is far from obvious), this does not negate the right to a reasonable and effective means of fighting back when we come under attack. As long as there is a non-zero probability of wrongful victimization, we retain our right to defend ourselves (and therefore our right to a reasonable means of defending ourselves). The question of whether there is a right to own a gun is therefore chiefly a matter of the intrinsic fitness of firearms for fighting back, and not whether firearms increase or decrease our average safety. And on that question, there is little room for doubt.