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On September 1, while my wife and I watched the morning news, we learned that one more mass shooting had erupted in an American city. Odessa, Texas: twenty-two victims, eight dead.
Carried out by another lone gunman, this one enraged at being fired from his job, the assassin had hijacked a US Postal Service vehicle from which he randomly shot bystanders in the Odessa-Midland area before being taken down by law enforcement. Upon receiving the news, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement said: “I am horrified to see such a senseless act terrorize the fine people of the Permian Basin.”
By now the frequency of armed violence in American cities, schools and churches has witnessed predictably similar official reactions ranging from horror, protest and numbness. After our elected representatives offer prayers and condolences for anyone impacted by the latest act of random killings, not enough happens on either a political or spiritual level to deter the growing violence. Apart from the intractable issues of curbing gun violence versus preserving the Second Amendment right to carry arms, public outrage over the latest murderous rampage gradually subsides as Americans, paralyzed by a growing sense of fatality yet anxious for solutions, return to the business of their daily lives.
So does religion have a role in preventing these tragedies? As a Baha’i pondering this terrible trend in our society, I wanted to know.
The Odessa shootings particularly affected me. Having attended public schools there in the 1950s and 1960s, my attention was riveted on the news. Out of a morbid but apprehensive curiosity, I watched and wondered if some former classmate, friend or teacher had been a victim. Clicking onto Google Earth, I focused on an aerial view of the city. Locating familiar landmarks such as Permian High School and my family’s former Alpine Street home, I was fascinated how the city of 80,000 people in 1964 had so dramatically changed in 55 years. Blessed with a long life, I was also struck in viewing the city of Odessa and its recent tragedy that our tenure on planet Earth may be measured in decades or moments. No one really knows how or when his or her own end shall come.
During my school years in Odessa from 1952 – 1964, we never experienced any outward acts of violence. When Nikita Khrushchev sent warships to Cuba in 1962 and President Kennedy met the challenge with American might, some high schoolers in Physical Education classes began vigorously exercising to ready themselves for combat. Luckily that didn’t happen.
In the 1960s, my generation remembers the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. One of the earliest school shootings, by a sniper in 1965 who killed and injured 48 people, took place at the University of Texas tower; perhaps establishing a pattern later imitated by mostly individual killers in the years to come.
Since then, deaths and injuries from mass shootings have escalated dramatically. Defined as an incident in which at least four individuals are shot in one location, mass shootings have increased exponentially in the United States during my lifetime.
Particularly, most of us remember the horrors of Columbine in 1999 with 15 dead and 24 injured; Sandy Hook in 2012 with 28 dead and 2 injured; the Orlando nightclub in 2016 with 50 dead and 53 injured; Las Vegas in 2017 with 59 dead and 422 injured; Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 with 17 dead and 17 injured; and El Paso in 2019 with 22 dead and 24 injured. Given such alarming statistics, a sense of insecurity has crept over Americans as they venture into public places.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety – founded in 2013 by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America – the U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times higher and the suicide rate 10 times higher than that of other high-income countries. They also add other arresting data:
- Every day 100 Americans are killed by guns
- Firearms are a leading cause of death for American children and teens
- Nearly 1,700 children and teens die by gun homicides each year
- Approximately 3 million American children witness gun violence each year
- Access to guns doubles the risk of death by homicide and triples it for suicide
- 58% of American adults have experienced gun violence directly or indirectly.
As a pandemic that has metastasized, gun violence threatens to become anarchical. Efforts to control the violence have witnessed gatherings for protest marches, efforts to arm school teachers, laws to increase background checks, plans to install metal detectors, policies to restrict gun access, regulations to improve crime fighting, strategies to reduce gang violence, projects to improve public spaces, studies to heal social ills, proposals to treat mental illness and programs to offer employment. These kinds of efforts, praiseworthy for slowing the progression of gun violence, should be tenaciously supported.
Religion is the greatest instrument for the order of the world and the tranquility of all existent beings. The weakness of the pillars of religion has encouraged the ignorant and rendered them audacious and arrogant. Truly, I say, whatever lowers the lofty station of religion will increase heedlessness in the wicked, and finally result in anarchy. – Baha’i World Faith, p. 180.
Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’u’llah’s son and the Exemplar of the Baha’i Faith, addressed the Baha’i view of possessing and carrying lethal weapons:
Prohibition of the carrying of arms except in time of necessity. This ordinance is not to be found in other religions, but in the Baha’i religion it is considered as one of the imperative and essential commands. The great utility of this law is most evident and manifest. How many souls who were unable to control excessive anger have given vent to it by the use of arms ready at hand? If the murderer had not been armed, often after one hour the violence of his anger would have subsided and no crime would have resulted. These are the minor evil results of carrying arms. There are other greater evils continually manifested by people who carry arms, which are productive of great revolutions and excessive losses for the government and nations … – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Mirza Abu’l-Fadl in The Brilliant Proof, reprinted in Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 282.
I wonder: can we begin to abide by that sensible spiritual approach?