12 September 2008

I'm a Quaker. I Own a Gun

I’m a Quaker. I own a gun. I see no contradiction there.

I don’t normally read newspapers, but a headline caught my eye at the grocery store the other day: U.S. Supreme Court rules it’s a right to own a firearm. As it turns out, in something over 200 years, the constitutional amendment permitting American citizens to keep a gun in their possession has never been explicitly defined. Shorn of the legalese, the new decision states that citizens have a right to keep a firearm in their home for self-protection, without government interference. Plain and simple.

Personally, I applaud this decision. I’ve grown up around firearms. My rural grandparents kept a loaded 12-gauge in the corner next to the telephone. My uncle kept a lever-action .22 rifle under the seat of the pickup. Other aunts and uncles kept hunting rifles, pistols, and old nostalgic military weapons in their homes and vehicles. They were all country people, who lived close to a nature that didn't always welcome their presence. My grandmother used a rifle to kill the rabid dogs that visited. Coyotes killed the stock. Skunks, possums, and raccoons ran off with the chickens. The firearms encouraged these neighbors to keep their distance, and dispatched the ones that wouldn’t. And of course, the guns were used to hunt animals for food and during butchering. The rural Quakers in my meeting often own guns today for the same reasons my non-Quaker ancestors did.

But urban Quaker culture these days sometimes looks askance at private ownership of firearms. A gun is a weapon, after all, and has no real purpose other than to dispense death. On one internet forum a while back, the attitude of some Quakers towards firearms was expressed to me clearly, in a conversation regarding the murder of some young people on a college campus:

I really feel that we're just living the logical consequences of our lack of gun control in general. To change things would require a national push for a saner interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and then a long process of cleaning up the guns that are already in circulation.

I’m afraid I would respond with non-violent resistance to anybody wanting to “clean up the guns that are already in circulation.” And many people besides me don't want to be "cleaned up."

The justification for Quaker involvement in gun control is often tied into an expression of the Peace Testimony. Because guns can be used to kill people, the reasoning goes, their ownership contradicts this testimony. Therefore, gun control is something that Quakers should support.

I don’t buy that argument. Peaceable early Friends here in America used long guns—the assault rifles of their day—as tools for protecting their livestock and providing food for their families. In the event of political difficulties, various Quaker histories describe how they would send their guns into town with friends, so that they could remain unarmed should hostile soldiers or Indians visit. Quaker Pennsylvania became a national leader in flintlock rifle design and manufacture (usually by the non-Quaker Scotch-Irish), and different counties of the colony were famous for the different styles of firearms manufactured there.

These Quakers saw no contradiction between owning a gun and maintaining a testimony of peace and Christian love towards their neighbors, and neither do I. They owned guns in the same way that they owned a shovel or an axe. They used the gun to control wildlife or to provide food. Where I live, coyotes eat my cats, feral dogs run wild and bring down deer (among other things), and rare but occasional black bears move through my woods. Raccoons kill my beehives—many of them. I support peace, but that's not the same thing as shooting a rabid raccoon in my children's playhouse.

My own weapon is a Colt Government Model .45, a semi-automatic handgun used by the American military as the standard-issue sidearm for around 80 years. It’s rugged, simple, reliable, and serves the purposes for which I use it. I keep it locked and unloaded, but all my older kids know where it is and how to use it. My three-year old has had carefully supervised shooting practice. It’s part of our household inventory of tools. Not the most accurate or the cheapest gun, but it’s what I have.

Some Quakers propose gun control today in the same spirit that an earlier generation of Friends used to introduce Prohibition, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States. The most lasting result of Prohibition in America was the jump-starting of organized crime, which began by bootlegging alcohol. That Quaker experiment proved a failure, with many decades of repercussions. I object to Quaker support of intrusive government practices like this.

But my main objection to gun control is that it violates the basic Friends testimony of following the Inward Light. This is the most important Quaker foundation—much more basic than an interest in peace. As Friends, we are to follow the Inward Light in our actions. The organ used to perceive our measure of this Light is our conscience, and when we are faithful to it, we are faithful to our measure. As we are obedient, our measure is increased, and so on. But if we do not see the Inward Light pointing to a certain path, then we do not live by our own experience if we make a pretence of obedience. And we are not to impose our personal leadings upon the consciences of others, for to do so means that we encourage them to be unfaithful to their own measure, and to follow ours instead.

The old story of George Fox and William Penn’s sword is instructive. When Penn asked whether he should continue wearing his sidearm now that he was a Friend, Fox supposedly replied, “William, wear it as long as thou canst!” William at first demurred, but after a while he left the sword at home. Before he had been convicted by the L:ight, Penn would have been disobedient to set the sword aside. After, he would have been disobedient to have left it on. In both cases, Penn was faithful to the Light that had been granted him. And in this instance, Penn chose to leave his sidearm at home, where I leave mine.

To coerce people into obedience to someone else’s leading where unity does not exist contradicts the fundamental Quaker testimony that we should listen to our Guide first, and the discoveries of other Friends next. It also throws in the common mistake of taking a secular issue and wrapping it in religion for added support. Where I live, this simply doesn't fly. In my own rural meeting community, we have no inclination to seek unity on restricting gun ownership. The situation is obvious—it’s a non-issue in the country.

And to claim that the Peace Testimony requires me to give up the gun I use to protect my beehives from a marauding raccoon is a connection that I don’t understand. Were I using my weapon on people, or even storing it to keep that option available, then of course it would be a different matter. But I don't, and without an explicit connection, the Peace Testimony argument simply falls down, leaving gun control as just another secular concern like fair wages or low-sulfur diesel fuel.

So Friends, until I am led otherwise, I shall keep my firearms in my house, with the understanding that by doing so I act in consistency with my religious values as a Friend. And I encourage you to do the same, if you are so led, should you live in an area where gun ownership makes sense.

As a Quaker, I merely suggest that you be careful with them.


Daniel said...

Thank you for sharing your convictions on this matter.

I profess myself to be Quaker, but as much as I value peace as an ideal, I also affirm that true peace is impossible in the absence of the freedom and the dignity of the individual. And if owning firearms is the only way to insure that our freedom and dignity are preserved, then so be it.

I appreciate how Mary Lou Leavitt once approached reconciling the Peace Testimony with gun ownership by Friends: "To accept as a certainty the spiritual conviction which underlies the peace testimony is not to be certain of the outcome. We cannot guarantee that we will never kill, far less that we will never do violence to those with whom we share the earth. Nor can we, by refusing to do harm and seeking always for a creative response in conflict ensure our own personal safety or the triumph of the causes we support. We can only choose to live day by day as if it were possible always to defend what we value and to resolve conflict without deliberate harm—in such a way that if damage does occur, healing is possible."

Violence must always be considered the last resort, but that does not mean that we should not be adequately prepared if the most greivous evil were to be force upon us.

Anonymous said...

I have tried to explain this to a European... who is shocked that so many Americas own guns... and that rural states tend to oppose gun control. Seems its hard to get the concept that rural people live with dangerous wildlife. When asked if I plan to buy a gun... I point out, I live in a city, and was never trained to use one safely.

Anonymous said...

Are you really going to use .45 hollow points on a raccoon? Walter

Anonymous said...

As someone who is currently considering becoming a Friend. I cannot give a peace testimony, only a war testimony.

Whenever someone kills another, it takes a part of your humanity away. It took a part of mine, even under "honorable" conditions. It is something I must live with, forever.

In that scenario it was kill or be killed. I would give anything to have never been there to know how it feels today.

Danny from Tacoma

Ken Schroeder said...

Is this a joke??? I'm a Quaker who walked from Portugal to Istanbul, then hitchhiked through Turkey, then walked from Port Said to Cairo, Egypt, often sleeping in a tent by the road, committed to non-violence in a violent country, without a gun, without a weapon, all in the name of peace, and I struggled with being a Quaker because I got angry once in a while, as I am now, but you're a Quaker who's okay with owning a handgun in case of... of what? someone else with a handgun? A rabid weasel? There's the intent to kill, owning one of those, yeah? What do you want to kill, Quaker? You're one more reason I think I'll quit being a Quaker.

Benjamin Yoder said...


It is good that you travelled, felt safe and emerged unharmed from the middle east. If Daniel wants to protect his family that is his right. There is a difference between supporting war where innocents are killed over land, oil, and ideology and defending oneself and family against a sociopathic home invader bent on killing your family. The Swiss who are neutral, peaceful, non-violent, and are very heavily armed - yet they do not go to war. You are naive to believe you can hold vigils, have peach marches through war torn countries and that will remove evil from the hearts of some men. You live you life as you wish and don't judge others and we won't judge you. I have never seen doctrine that states being a Quaker requires you to lay your family down before a violent intruder and do nothing while he has his way with them. I consider myself a pacifist but I also own a gun and know how to use it. I will not be performing a peace vigil if a violent person breaks into my house and tries to harm my family!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this and to the commenters who quoted other Quakers. I am new to Quaker gatherings. I have been attending for about a year now and the only thing I really understood for a while was the freedom to follow one's light and conscience.

It is only recently that I've come to know about the testimonies and what they mean to some. So, I came home today from meeting and specifically Googled "are Quakers allowed to have guns?". I personally believe in the right to gun ownership and having read legal opinions written closer to the time of the framers of the Constitution, I am convinced that the 2nd Amendment was put in place to guarantee a right that was already understood to exist. I really enjoy the meetings and was concerned that this issue might be a deal breaker for me.

The point of a gun for protection, to me, isn't necessarily to kill. It's also the quickest most generally indefensible mechanism of disabling a violent advance that I know of. Shooting to kill is not the only option. If someone's intent is to do me violence, I hardly see what they or anyone else would learn by my allowing them to do so. Having grown up in a family with a grandfather who was a career criminal,I learned far too much about just how little they care about anyone who happens to be perceived as even potentially being between them and what they want, even if it's not legally or morally theirs to have.

Aside from that, I am a meat eater and personally believe in certain "circles of life". I've never really understood the idea of wearing a synthetic to keep from shooting an animal to eat and wear when the factory making the synthetic pollutes the environment of the animal and harms and kills it anyway. I would never hunt for sport but I will for food and clothing. It seems a far less destructive process to me than those of the modern world we live in. I used to spend a lot of time primitive camping/living and it taught me a lot about living in symbiosis with my planet and it's inhabitants from flora to fauna.

Anyway, thanks again for the article and the re-assurance that this issue doesn't have to be a deal breaker for me.

NBodhi said...

Very good way of putting it!

In my opinion as a Quaker and also a gun owner, I see a fundamental difference between Violence and Self Defense.

Violence is the deliberate intent to Harm or Kill whereas Self Defense is the intent to STOP harm or killing from happening to yourself or another.

-Rescuing a baby from a burning building is defense.
-Talking someone out of suicide is defense.
-Joint-locking someone who is trying to punch you is defense.
-Shooting someone to stop them from stabbing a victim is defense.

People who confuse Defense and Violence have a lot of trouble with the idea of somebody "needing a gun", because guns represent violence, period, in their minds.

Defense is the counter to violence. Defense is not always about physical force (i.e. conflict resolution and negotiation, but can include force if necessary.

Most systems of morality condemn violence, as in the Peace Testimony, but allow for self defense. Defense is anti-violence IMO.

Anonymous said...

I think that owning a gun with the remote possibility even that it would be used on a human is the antithesis of being a Quaker.

Amy and Ava said...

Sounds like there's some very confused gun owners calling themselves Quakers in the USA..

Nicole Pyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nic P said...

I truly love your blog. I am a Single mom, Quaker and Gun Owner. This is what I love about Quakers. We should love and except everyone for the way they are.
If anyone broke into my house I will not be standing alone or running out the door. I will stand up and protect what is mine. Just like my family did when they started the Quakers in Pennsylvania back in 1600's and of course in England as well.
So thank you for this blog. Truly!!

Pamela Pettyjohn said...

I am not a Quaker. My ancestors in Ireland were and immigrated to Pennsylvania in the early 1700's. In doing genealogy research on my family I learned they were Quakers and decided to do some research on what Quakers believe. I found this blog in my research and I found some of the responses concerning. In my research I learned that Quakers take great pride in practicing tolerance, in following their individual light and encouraging others to do the same. It seems to me that some of the responses to this blog are posted by people who do not practice Quaker teachings. Saying someone isn't a Quaker simply because they don't bieve what you believe doesn't sound like he is encouraging others to follow their own light. Calling Quakers with beliefs different from yours confused doesn't sound like someone practicing tolerance either. It seems the Quaker faith is just as full of egocentrics as any other faith.