Bury Your Weapons: the Mormon Case Against Gun Violence
When I was little my dad used to come home from work with blood on his shoes.
At the time, he was a young medical student completing his ER rotation at a busy hospital in downtown Houston. It was gory work, and when he got home he left his shoes by the door so he wouldn’t track blood in the house.
My dad treated hundreds, maybe thousands of gunshot wounds as he worked his ER shifts. (One night, he says, they treated 27 separate people.) Gunshot victims weren’t his only patients, of course, but they were among the bloodiest, particularly in that part of the US. In fact, the hospital where my dad worked served as a training hospital for military medics before they were shipped overseas to conflict zones.
My dad treated gunshot wounds on all types of patients. Men and women, people of all races, old and young. Some children. One patient he treated was 13 year-old boy. He came in with a gunshot wound to the leg. As my dad stitched the boy up, he asked the family what happened. The boy’s mother replied,
“Never you mind what happened,” she said. “There ain’t no one in this town who ain’t been shot.”
Sometimes, after my dad came home, I glimpsed his bloodstained shoes sitting outside on the steps. I can still picture them, a pair of black and white lace-up sneakers, smeared and spattered with deep, dried-up brown.
My two boys, who are both quite young, are still in the process of learning all the scripture stories. This Monday night for family home evening my husband took my oldest son on his lap and flipped through a large illustrated copy of the Book of Mormon. Each time they came to an unfamiliar illustration, he stopped and told my son the story behind the picture.
He came to this image of the people of Ammon burying their swords. The corresponding scriptures are found in Alma 24:
“They took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man’s blood, and they did bury them deep in the earth.
And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood.”
My husband told my son the story, and he stared hard at the picture for a few moments.
“They buried their swords so they wouldn’t kill any more people?” he said.
“That’s the idea,” said my husband.
Two days later, as I took my son to school, we drove behind a large pickup truck. This truck had a fat white BYU sticker in the window. We came to a stop light and I noticed that the truck had a custom license plate cover. The plate cover read:
“Fight crime. Shoot back.”
It was then that I noticed the sticker that sat in the opposite corner of the window, this one hanging on the glass like a coat of arms. It was a simple white image: two shotguns laid one over the other like deadly crossbones.
Like many Americans, I was overcome when I read about the Las Vegas shooting. I was horrified that something so barbaric could happen on such a scale, and not for the first time.
After the initial shock wore off, I wanted desperately to understand how this could have happened. Again. I pawed through scads of data, scrolled through scattered charts, pinned dozens of studies to read and scrutinize in the days that followed.
The more I studied, the more I realized that the problem was not necessarily a lack of information. Numbers on gun violence are had easily enough. As Harvard professor David Hemenway says, “What you find is that where there’s more guns, there’s more death.”
And yet, Americans continue to cultivate a culture of gun worship. As it turns out, statistics matter very little to those who want to own guns. This is because gun owners don’t rely on data while purchasing a firearm. Instead, they’re motivated by strong emotions—emotions like fear.
One image in particular is imminently frightening:
The image of a deranged shooter killing us or those we love.
We easily imagine such a person because we’ve seen him—in the news, in movies, and on television. As disturbing as he is, most of us can easily picture this crazed shooter pointing a gun at ourselves, at our children, at our closest loved ones.
The thought is both terrifying and incredibly persuasive. It’s no wonder a majority of gun owners say they own a gun chiefly for protection, and the NRA continually capitalizes on this fear in their public arguments. (They also make the somewhat last-ditch argument that we need guns to protect ourselves from a violent government takeover, but we lost that arms race decades ago with the invention of tanks, nukes, and battle drones.)
Sadly, those who base their decision to purchase a gun on this frightening image (a mental shortcut which psychologists refer to as the availability heuristic) are actually putting themselves and their loved ones at greater risk. That’s because people who bring guns into their homes are much less likely to imagine suicide than they are to imagine defending themselves from shooters, intruders, and those who would wish them harm.
And yet, when you purchase a gun, you’re 180 times more likely to use it on yourself than to use it to defend your home, your family, even yourself.
The reality is, gun ownership has a devastating effect on suicide rates across the board. In states where gun ownership is high, suicide rates (even by other methods) are higher. And the risk seems to be even more astronomical for suicidal teens. Recent data shows that teens who live in states with higher gun ownership are four times more likely to commit suicide than teens who live in states with low gun ownership. In Utah, a state where teens commit suicide at a rate well above the national average, more than half of those suicides are committed using firearms.
It’s time to rewrite the script on gun ownership, and Mormons should be at the forefront of creating anti-gun, anti-violence legislation. Utah has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. Nearly 1 in 3 Utahns own a gun, and because there’s no statewide gun licensure or registry, the number may actually be much higher. Utah has several loopholes to the universal background check law, and if Utahns want to carry guns around in plain sight, they’re allowed to do so without so much as a permit, so long as the gun is a step or two away from firing. Currently there are also no provisions in place for preventing someone with mental health issues from obtaining a firearm, even if they’ve attempted suicide in the past.
Meanwhile, the number of teen suicides in Utah (and subsequently, gun-related suicides) has tripled since 2009.
As Mormons, we’ve sat at the altar of gun worship for far too long. Our reluctance to bury our weapons of war has cost us so many lives. It’s time to put ourselves on the right side of history and end our reliance on fear and violence. As Christ said to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52.) So it is with us.