12/20/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Moral and Spiritual Questions We Need to Ask in Wake of Gun Violence

There are many sensible legal steps we can take as a nation to limit access to deadly weapons. But there is one thing the laws of the country cannot adequately do and that is to unpack the reasons why people seem to inordinately desire access to guns in the first place. Exploring this "why" should be the work of religious communities which, along with mental health professionals, claim to have some insight into the depths of the human psyche. It's extraordinary that in our country we have linked a desire to own something whose primary purpose is to kill or harm to a fundamental right. Some of us want guns and we then elevate that want into a right that is inviolable. But what is the moral justification for demanding that if we want guns we should have a moral right to them? And what are the spiritual consequences of this mania to protect our right to have them?

There are many reasons why some people want guns: some claim that it's just fun to shoot at non-living targets for the pleasure it brings. This reason for having guns poses few moral problems. No harm is involved in the pleasure of shooting at a non-living target. This is a "want" that we can pursue without harm to others and therefore there is no need to regulate or constrain it. Weapons used for these harmless purposes can be stored in places outside the home to which legally entitled people would have access.

Others would argue that they want and have a right to hunt animals. This begins to pose some moral problems since one could hardly argue such killing is necessary to provide us food unavailable in any other way. We could also ask what spiritual need is being met by killing God's non-human creatures. But the most serious moral and spiritual questions arise when we want to possess weapons with the primary purpose of taking or threatening to take human life. Why should we elevate that "want" with a "right"? It would be absurd to identify every act we take to satisfy a personal want as a right. Rights enter the picture when the acts we undertake to satisfy a want are based in a "need" that is essential to our well-being or safety. It is essential to our well-being that we want to kill animals or threaten to take human life?

The only moral justification for owning deadly weapons would be if there are no other ways by which we could defend ourselves or those closest to us from imminent lethal harm. The second amendment believed this justified the need for a "well-regulated" militia to defend the community and, as a condition of having a militia, granting its citizens the right to own the guns that would arm it. Certainly self-defense or the defense of those who would otherwise be unprotected against violence rises to the minimal level of moral justification. But we already have a well-regulated militia today in every community: it's called the police, and at the national level the armed services. So the moral and spiritual question remains basically this: if our defense against violence is through those we authorize to carry weapons (the police or military) why would we "want" to own guns ourselves? (It's not at all clear that having a gun in one's home is a reliable form of protection given the lack of training most people have in using a deadly weapon, the lack of consistently used tamper-proof locks that keep these weapons out of the hands of the unskilled or the unwell, and the too-frequent accidental misuse of home-stored guns.)

What the religious communities should ask their members to examine is the likelihood that if you start down the road of relying on your own deadly means of defense you will eventually reach the point of believing that the only way to live is by constantly posing the threat of death to anyone who threatens you. Many gun-rights advocates have now reached the insane logical endpoint of their position: give every teacher and principal, literally every adult American (and maybe now children as well) a right to carry the weapons of death and we will somehow create such a culture of fear that no one with evil intent would dare shoot his weapons (despite the fact that many people initiating mass killings want to die in a bloody and memorable wasy). Maybe they would argue that if Jesus had an AK-47 he would never have been crucified. But this is truly insane: it bespeaks a complete perversion of the human spirit and violates every religious principle that insists that the only way to a sane society and a spiritually healthy life is through love, compassion and forgiveness, not through fear and mutually assured destruction. Until people are willing to confront their love-affair with the weapons of death, no laws or restrictions, as necessary as they are, will be able to get at the deep psychological damage we are doing to ourselves by our frenzied desire to protect the right to own and be willing to use weapons of mass destruction (and if the deaths of 20 children do not qualify as "mass destruction," then nothing does).