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.