In her essay “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion,” Marilynne Robinson states, “It is consensus that conceals from us what is objectively true.”
On both the left and the right, consensus keeps us from regarding the evidence, analyzing the data and simply wondering: What is the best thing to do?
The data tell us that 10 times more Americans die from gun-related violence every year than died from foreign-born terrorist attacks in the 40 years between 1975 and 2015. But that may tell us more about our ability to deter terrorism than it does about our need to further regulate guns. And those who support unfettered gun ownership now argue that more guns will further reduce terrorism not only from abroad but from within our own society.
Is that the reason Utah ranks first among states with the most lenient gun laws? Do we really believe our best hope for survival is our firearms? Or is it more likely evidence why, according to the Violence Policy Center, Utah is one of 10 states that suffer more deaths from guns than from automobile accidents?
We ask such questions from the perspective of our own progressive bias: We believe guns need to be better regulated as to type and access and better disciplined as to distribution. However, there are statistics available that promote the opinion of the National Rifle Association — which began as a club for hunters but is now a lobby for guns — and Wayne LaPierre never responds with wonder to statistics that do not support his predisposition for every “good guy” in America having a gun. Or 30 of them.
As a result, we find ourselves divided as much by region and culture as by information and argument; a lot of folks in Utah still “ride for this brand,” as Secretary of State Tillerson recently defended one of his own prejudices.
The mythology that drives so many Mormons and Utahns to believe that nearly any restriction of gun ownership is a violation of the Second Amendment and constitutional rights is seldom challenged among those who hold the opinion. And no amount of evidence or argument seems likely to sway advocates of a laissez faire gun proliferation.
Mormons take the Lord’s warning about “designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men [and women] in the last days (D&C 89:4)” when it comes to tobacco and alcohol, but seem not to consider it possible that such designs might also apply to guns and violence. Thus, many Mormons support the NRA and the manufacturers of guns without ever questioning their motives or the results of their power and influence in shaping our gun laws and regulations.
This tyranny of petty coercion isolates us in the tribal silos of “received wisdom,” preventing the passage of even the most commonsense measures. Granted, as proponents of liberal gun laws argue, such measures would not totally eliminate gun violence or deaths. But how many fewer would have been murdered in Las Vegas had there been a ban on bump stocks? How many more teens might still be alive in Florida had there been a 21-year-old requirement to purchase a gun? Or background checks on people known to be mentally unstable and dangerous?
Should the lack of absolute answers to such questions cause us to abandon safeguards, or to be more cautious? Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the largest sports retailers in the U.S., doesn’t have an answer to those questions, but it does have a response: Beginning last week, its stores no longer carry assault rifles and will require gun buyers to be at least 21.
President Russell M. Nelson, representing the LDS Church, recently counseled similar caution: “Men have passed laws that allow guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them.”
Will that be sufficient to cause Utahns and Mormons to recalibrate our love of guns? Or will we continue to regard with greater respect the false prophecies of Wayne LaPierre and the NRA that our only defense is in the caliber and number of our weaponry?
Robert Rees teaches religion at Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif., where he is director of Mormon Studies.
Clifton Jolley is a writer and president of Advent Communications in Ogden.