What if LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson said: Put away your guns?

Latter-day Saint scholars examine gun violence and whether the Utah-based faith should speak out more powerfully on this “moral issue.”

(Photo by Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of the many handguns, shown in 2017, stored in the gun vault at the Utah State Crime Lab. A 2020 survey found that 47% of Latter-day Saint households in the U.S. have a gun.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has seen multiple mass shootings, including one in Buffalo, N.Y., and another in Uvalde, Texas. Though President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made at least one comment suggesting that gun laws are too lax, the Utah-based faith has made no official statements about gun violence.

It is clear that many Latter-day Saints care about guns. A 2020 survey shows that nearly half the nation’s Mormon households (47%) have a gun (the second highest, after white evangelicals, of any faith group studied).

Is gun violence a moral issue for Latter-day Saints? Should it be? Or is it strictly political?

Here are excerpts from last week’s “Mormon Land” podcast in which two Latter-day Saint historians — Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University and co-author of “Proclaim Peace: The Restoration’s Answer to an Age of Conflict,” and Janiece Johnson, historian of American religion and author of the forthcoming “American Punishment: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Mormon Transgressions,” — tackled the topic.

Is it a moral issue?

Johnson • I cannot see how it can’t be a moral issue when we see this kind of proliferation [of killings]. Now, how we think that we’re going to deal with it, what we think in terms of gun ownership and responsibilities of gun owners, are definitely up for debate from lots of different viewpoints. But, morally, if we think about the perpetuation of violence, LDS scripture gives us a pervasive message of seeking, “suing” for peace, and doing what we need to do to find that peace, even at times when violence seems justified.

Mason • Throughout Latter-day Saint scriptures, there is a consistent preference for life. Life is a moral issue. Period. In Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites, “Set before you life and death, therefore choose life.” As followers of God, followers of Jesus, we are repeatedly and insistently told to choose life. And so, yeah, it is a moral issue.

Why don’t church leaders make a stronger connection between scriptures and what is happening in this county?

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) President Henry B. Eyring of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowers his head while speaking at the Mountain Meadows Massacre Memorial site on Sept. 11, 2007.

Johnson • We do have the instance in 2007, on the 150-year anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre when President [Henry B.] Eyring went down to this memorial and specifically talked about the church’s response. … I actually have his words right here. “The truth as we have come to know it saddens us deeply. The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse abhors the coldblooded killing of men, women and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct. We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here.” It’s easier to say, “Oh, they’re nothing like me. These Mormon men who were involved in the killing of 120 men, women and children are nothing like me.” It is a much more difficult thing to say, “How are they like me? How do I have that kind of capacity?” Those are much harder questions.

Mason • Why do we not see more clear and consistent teaching on this? I think one reason (and there could be lots of reasons) is because Latter-day Saint scripture and history have a violence problem, just like they have a patriarchy problem. The scriptures, when you read them on their face, actually give mixed messages about violence. There are heroes. There are righteous warriors. There are stories where it looks like God is commanding people to kill people. You’ve got to do some serious theological work to take account of those passages, because if you just read them on their face, it looks like righteous people are killing people and God is commanding them to do that. And so, then it means that the moral and ethical questions around violence are more muddled than they are maybe around certain other issues.

…[Still], members profess to be Christians, to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. And Jesus in his teachings and in his interactions with other people was completely nonviolent. Now, people will raise the question of the clearing of the temple. There’s no violence against human beings, even in that instance. And so Jesus is entirely and consistently nonviolent. And if you’re a Christian, then one of the ways you read scripture is through the life and teachings of Jesus. So then, Jesus becomes the lens through which we read all of these other stories. So, it’s not the Church of Captain Moroni or the Church of Joshua of Latter-day Saints. It’s the Church of Jesus Christ. Now, there are other strategies that you can use to bring to bear on scripture, but I think that’s the most potent one. You know, it’s the old question, what would Jesus do?

Do you think that one of the reasons why the church is hesitant to make any big statement is fear of alienating members who own guns and strenuously point to the Second Amendment?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Captain Moroni — a famed warrior in the Book of Mormon — is portrayed with the Title of Liberty in Manti's Mormon Miracle Pageant in 2019.

Mason • I can never speculate as to what’s in the minds of senior church leaders, but, you know, just do a thought experiment. What if, in the next General Conference, President Nelson got up and said that guns are the problem in the United States. Say that he cited Jesus in the garden where Jesus told Peter to put away his sword. The early church father, Tertullian, said that when Jesus gave Peter that command, he told all Christians to put away the sword. So, what if President Nelson said in making that statement Jesus was telling us all to put away our guns? The Anti-Nephi-Lehies are supposed to be our example. We should bury our weapons in the ground. So all of you who are on the covenant path, that includes burying your weapons of war. If he made that statement, I can guarantee you there would be a whole lot of people whom we would never see in church again.

Johnson • The pandemic gives us an example of church leadership not being fearful of members’ response. If you read any of the social media posts from the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] during the pandemic … any time they talked about those public health measures that have become very politicized in the United States, there was significant public backlash, yet they did not back down, and they continued with it. So, I do think that, yes, there would definitely be those who would react in that way. … I’m not sure if there’s a point to having a prophet who always tells you what you want to hear.

If you were tasked with writing a general theological statement about violence for the church, what would you say and how would you draw on scriptures to get there?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson addresses young adults at a fireside in Las Vegas in 2018. During his speech, Nelson lamented that U.S. laws allow "guns to go to people who shouldn’t have them."

Johnson • As I’ve already repeated multiple times, [I would use] that phraseology “sue for peace,” that if we choose to be disciples of Christ, the peacemaker, then that is our responsibility. And in my mind, that means taking steps — whether it is something legislative, something legal, or those steps that we need in our personal life — that place that peace as a central goal and being willing to do what is necessary to achieve that.

Mason • I would say that for Latter-day Saints, humanity’s original sin is not eating the fruit, because we believe in a fortunate fall. The original sin of humanity is violence. It’s Cain killing Abel. And we see this specifically in some of [church founder] Joseph Smith’s revisions to the Bible. What tears God apart, what just breaks his heart and causes him to weep, is not sin in general, it’s violence specifically, the ways that humans hate one another. We hate our own blood, and then we do violence to one another. That is the cause of the greatest grief to God….The Gospels tell us that what a humanity consumed with violence results in is God on the cross. And what does the Book of Mormon tell us? Humanity consumed with violence results in the annihilation of not one but two civilizations. So, the scriptures tell us over and over and over again, that if you worship at the altar of violence, this is what you will get. And therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace. Follow the Prince of Peace.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a full transcript and receive other exclusive “Mormon Land” content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.