I grew up hunting and fishing in Washington State. My parents had five children, and not a lot of money, so during my childhood we caught or shot much of our food.
My father, a World War II Marine infantry officer, taught me to shoot. He had trained Marines on the firing range as an expert marksman and cared deeply about gun safety. He raised me, the oldest of his children, to know and understand the power of weapons, to use them extremely carefully and to respect the grave danger they represented.
When I came home from school my mother would often ask me to go get dinner. I didn’t go to the store. Instead, I took my 16-gauge shotgun and my hunting dog Jinx and tromped into the nearby farm fields looking for a pheasant or a duck or a goose we could eat that night.
We didn’t go hungry. My brothers and sisters and I even played a game at the dinner table – while eating the birds my father or I had shot we would see who could bite down on and then retrieve the largest number of lead pellets from the shotgun shell. We lined them up on our plates and counted them. Whoever had the most got dessert first.
When I turned 12, the time came for a standard rite of passage in the life of a young boy in rural America – hunting my first deer. My father, who brought enough venison home every year to feed us through the winter, took me hunting. After a cold day in the forest we spotted a big buck. I took aim. Then I suddenly realized, looking at that beautiful animal through the scope on my father’s Winchester, that I couldn’t pull the trigger. I knew the buck represented food for my family — but for some unknown reason I made the decision not to shoot. I felt terrible, but my father, to his credit, understood. Looking back on it now I believe that moment represented the dawning of something spiritual in me.
That day I put down guns forever.
Six years later, at 18, I made two important decisions. I became a Baha’i, and I registered for the military draft as a conscientious objector. The Baha’i teachings clearly taught me that I should forfeit my own life rather than take another’s:
Let none contend with another, and let no soul slay another; this, verily, is that which was forbidden you…. What! Would ye kill him whom God hath quickened, whom He hath endowed with spirit through a breath from Him? Grievous then would be your trespass before His throne! – Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 45.
When I read that passage from Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book, I knew immediately that I could not kill another human being. So with the support of the Baha’is and my new Faith I applied for and finally received my C.O. status, which allowed me to be drafted into the Army, but meant I would carry no weapon or be trained to kill.
In July of the following year the Army sent me to Vietnam, and for a year I saw what guns do to human beings. Yes, they kill people, but not only with bullets. They kill the spirit of the killer, too. The carnage and death all around me made me understand the wisdom of Baha’u’llah’s command.
Forty years later, sadly, our repeated wars have helped turn America into a gun culture. We have more deadly weapons in our country than we have people. Guns have become easy to get and easy to use, and in the U.S. more people die from gun deaths than in any other industrialized nation.
So what do the Baha’is believe about guns? First, since Baha’u’llah said it is better to be killed than to kill, Baha’is do not take the lives of others. Also, Baha’u’llah called for disarmament of every type of weapon, not only by nations but by individuals. Accordingly, Baha’i law only sanctions owning and carrying weapons if absolutely necessary:
Baha’u’llah confirms an injunction which makes it unlawful to carry arms, unless it is necessary to do so. With regard to circumstances under which the bearing of arms might be “essential” for an individual, Abdu’l-Baha gives permission to a believer for self-protection in a dangerous environment. There are a number of other situations in which weapons are needed and can be legitimately used; for instance, in countries where people hunt for their food and clothing, and in such sports as archery, marksmanship, and fencing. – The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 240.
Baha’u’llah said, describing the Baha’is:
Gracious God! This people need no weapons of destruction, inasmuch as they have girded themselves to reconstruct the world. Their hosts are the hosts of goodly deeds, and their arms the arms of upright conduct…. – Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p. 170.