At this point, it would be nearly impossible for someone to look honestly at the events taking place in our country and not come to the conclusion that we have a serious problem when it comes to gun violence. Some say it’s a gun problem; others say it’s a people problem. Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin argue that it’s both, and they address both aspects of the issue in their new book, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence, which I had privilege of reading ahead of its release today.
Before we get too far into the review, I’d like to make a note that this book is not meant as an attack on gun rights or gun owners. Shane himself shares fond memories of hunting with his grandfather in the book. Some of the research for this book was done while one of the authors was shopping with his wife at gun shows. The opening line says, “If you own guns and want to see fewer people killed, this book is for you.” I think we can all agree that we want to see fewer people killed, so this book is not looking to exclude anyone, regardless of their political leanings when it comes to this issue.
The title is a bit of a double entendre. Of course, the authors’ goal is to help us overcome gun violence, but that’s not all they’re trying to do. Inspired by Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s people would one day beat their swords into plowshares, Claiborne and Martin have made a habit of literally welding guns into farming tools, and even the occasional work of art. In this way, they are “beating guns” both literally and figuratively.
It isn’t just for show, though. Through their work, Claiborne and Martin are seeking to transform not only bits of metal and wood, but the hearts of people. When they look at the violence plaguing our world, they see it for what it is, but they also see the potential for it to be changed into something beautiful. And they share that vision in their book.
I’ve been a fan of Shane for a very long time, ever since I read his first book, The Irresistible Revolution. Shane is an author and public speaker, but his day job is at The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community he helped found in Philadelphia. There, he and his team minister to their impoverished community and work to improve living conditions in the name of Christ. He’s also the co-creator of Red Letter Christians, a movement of evangelicals committed to truly living out the words of Jesus in their daily lives.
I wasn’t familiar with Michael Martin before reading this book, but he’s got an impressive resume as well. From his Mennonite background, Michael inherited a commitment to nonviolence that has come to define his career. He founded RAWtools, a ministry that travels the country turning guns into gardening tools and, as they say, “other lovely things.” Michael also teaches seminars on nonviolent confrontation and deescalation, skills that most people simply don’t know enough—if anything—about.
Both Claiborne and Martin write from the worldview of the Christian faith, which they use a lens for understanding and dealing with the problem of gun violence. Unfortunately, public debate on this issue often doesn’t make room for the faith that so many of those debating claim to hold. But this book does a good job of integrating public discourse with theology in a way that affirms the truths of scripture and calls believers to live up to them.
The book is truly comprehensive, despite its manageable length. (I read it in just a few sittings.) In addition to taking a theological approach to combatting gun violence, it also covers the history of gun violence in the US, analyzes the economics of the gun industry, addresses the Second Amendment and its interpretations, and touches on important issues like the intersection of gun violence with age, race, and gender. Spread throughout are graphics, photos, and statistics that go along with the author’s points. While reading, I got the impression that this book was very thoroughly researched, not just the byproduct of another echo chamber.
Most importantly, the book shares the stories of real people impacted by gun violence and what we can learn from them. The authors recognize that while statistics are important, it’s stories that can truly transform the way people think. Nearly every chapter includes a memorial to the victims of a mass shooting, including a brief summary of the story and the names of each and every person killed. It’s jarring, humbling, and heartbreaking to read these stories, many of which I haven’t thought about since they were in the news. But if we’re going to make a difference, it’s important that we not allow ourselves to become desensitized to the violence, and reading these stories helps prevents that.
The part of the book that impacted me the most was the chapter on suicide. While most of the news coverage on gun violence centers on mass shootings, a significant number of those affected are actually victims of suicide, not homicide. I had no idea. In the book, the authors spell out intelligently the ways that we can prevent many, many deaths by creating a few simple barriers to access for those who are most at risk. I know many in our day and age shudder at any mention of limitations on gun access, but if we can save the lives of those who’ve lost the ability to save themselves, I think it’s at least worth considering. Seriously, this chapter alone is worth the cost of the book.
At the center of the gun debate in our country is the tension between personal liberty and public safety. Claiborne and Martin address that tension in a way that is sensical, practical, and faithful both to their Christian beliefs and to the American ideal of freedom for all. They include several suggestions for commonsense reforms that they believe would reduce gun violence significantly, many of which have already proven popular among the American people.
But ultimately, their book isn’t about laws. While they recognize the importance of the legal system in addressing the gun problem, Claiborne and Martin are interested in changing something much more fundamental: the human heart. Their book is a call for Christians to choose love over fear, to stop seeing the world through the lens of persistent self-defense, and to choose what they call the “third way” of Jesus in the face of violence. We don’t have to be either perpetrators or victims. There’s a better way that Jesus shows us, and while it may not be the most comfortable, it is the way we’re called to follow.
It’s the only way that will lead us to the future that Isaiah saw for God’s people, where violence is defeated and weapons are beat into farming tools. And we can only get there by committing ourselves to living out the way of Christ even when the world says it won’t work. Even when we’re laughed at or subject to scare tactics or even taken advantage of, we must choose to emulate Christ and refuse to participate in the world’s violent ways.
We can end the epidemic of gun violence in our country, but not by continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them. We have to choose a new way forward: the way of Christ. Otherwise, the cycle of violence will only continue. As Claiborne and Martin say in their book, “One of the greatest mysteries of our faith is that, for some strange reason, God does not want to change the world without us.”
Beating Guns is a faithful attempt to imagine what that way could look like, and we would do well to listen. If enough Christ-followers would heed the words of this book, we might actually see things start to change in our communities and then across the country. That’s my hope, at least, and the hope of Shane and Michael in writing this book. So give it a read, and maybe you can become a part of the movement that beats gun violence once and for all.
Beating Guns is available today wherever books are sold. I highly recommend you pick up a copy. (Or you can borrow mine.) If you get a chance to check it out, I’d love to hear what you think!