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Mark Osler Headshot

God and Guns at Walmart

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This past Sunday, a man named Michael Bradshaw reportedly tried to leave a Walmart store in College Station, Texas with a shopping cart full of goods he hadn't paid for. He was approached by security officers, and a scuffle ensued. One of the security guards fired a gun and shot Bradshaw, who later died. According to a report of the incident from KWTX.com, it appears that Bradshaw had been carrying the gun that killed him, before a security guard grabbed it away.

Reading the report on all this mayhem, what struck me was the response of a woman who was in the store at the time: "'...I heard the shot and called 911,' witness Kristen Davis said. 'I wasn't too afraid. I have pretty strong faith and I knew that whatever happened, the Lord is always in control and I prayed for whomever might have been shot.'"

There is something beautiful, practical and deep in this response. Ms. Davis first called for help. Second, she prayed for the person who was shot -- without knowing who it was, or what the circumstances might be. There is a wonderful sense of grace in that, and a delicate balance of the spiritual and the practical.

For 10 years, I lived in Central Texas, not too far from where the shooting occurred. I know that area well enough to know how wonderfully typical Ms. Davis's response is of people there, many of whom highly value the integration of faith and action. People in New York or San Francisco might scoff at a person who stops to pray when there is shooting at the Walmart, but taking faith seriously is deeply engrained in the culture of central Texas. Faith walks out the doors of church with the parishioners on Sunday and follows them to work, to sporting events, to school and, yes, to the Walmart.

I think Ms. Davis got the first two steps very right. But what comes next? Is there a Christian duty to address the underlying issues that lead to such random violence and death?

My own sense is that loving our neighbor also requires that third step, in which we seek systemic answers to the conditions that lead to that moment of violence. We are awash in guns, which find the wrong hands (such as those of Michael Bradshaw) too often.

The third step, compelled by faith, equally loving, is to act to stop the next tragedy.

Sadly, the parts of our country where people like Ms. Davis feel free to pray with such grace are also largely those areas with the highest murder rates (and most murders are committed with guns). In 2010, these were the top 10 states for murder per capita: Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, Nevada, Georgia and Alabama. (Texas is tied for No. 18.) Meanwhile, the lowest murder rates are found primarily in states we less identify with religion, such as Maine, Hawaii, Minnesota, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire (which has the lowest rate of all, with 1/10th the murder rate of Louisiana).

We should be cautious in drawing firm conclusions from this seeming correlation between public faith and gun violence, as many other factors are in play -- it is not fair to say that faith causes violence. But shouldn't faith direct us to try to stem the violence?

I don't pretend to have the right answer on the best way to do that, but I do think it is the right question. We should be compelled by our beliefs to not only seek help and pray for the hurt, but ask the hard questions of our society as Christ himself did, and does now through people of faith.