In announcing new executive action to more rigorously enforce requirements for background checks to purchase guns, President Obama today called for balancing the rights of gun owners with other constitutional rights. “Second Amendment rights are important,” Obama said, “but there are other rights that we care about as well. And we have to be able to balance them.” He then enumerated cases of gun violence in places of worship and people murdered with guns because of their faith. We have a “right to worship freely and safely,” Obama said, and “that right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City. And that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too.”
Hearing that list, again, of people targeted because of their faith, or targeted in a religious setting, was stunning and sobering, all over again, even if you remembered, in the back of your mind, that gruesome map of gun-related deaths, with an overlay of religious motivation. And it was a smart stroke of politic rhetoric, too: hey, listen, is your right to own a gun so sacrosanct that it trumps other rights, particularly the religious freedom rights many conservatives (selectively) champion?
Standing behind the president was Lucia McBath, whose son Jordan was shot dead in a car in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2012. McBath, the subject of the riveting 2015 film The Armor of Light, described to me in an interview last year how her own faith drove her to take on political advocacy for gun control after Jordan’s death. The film documents her friendship with the Rev. Rob Schenck, the religious right activist who has taken on a solitary battle to persuade his fellow white evangelicals that the Second Amendment isn’t scripture, that guns are not holy, and that the Bible doesn’t sanction arming yourself against your fellow citizens.
The film’s chronicle of McBath’s devastating loss and her newfound friendship with Schenck is moving, particularly in how it highlights both a racial and religious divide on guns. It is evident that McBath’s experiences as a black woman, and as a mother whose son was murdered by a white man who claimed to be angry at the volume of music in a car occupied by young black men, have shaped Schenck’s thinking in important ways. He acknowledged to me the racial fears of many of his white evangelical brethren, as well as the ways in which gun ownership is woven into their culture, even if they can’t articulate specific biblical support for it.
In conservative discussions of religious freedom, religious practice and belief must be protected from a government depicted as overzealous to expand the rights of religious outsiders—for example, LGBT people or women using birth control. Conservative support for unregulated gun ownership hinges on portraying gun ownership as freedom, and government regulation as tyranny or oppression. In both instances, the “rights” are centered on the person claiming them (the person owning the gun, or the person claiming infringement of religious liberty), and exclude or ignore the rights of other people.
In his speech, Obama offered another vision: one in which gun owners are free to own their guns, but where the rights of people who might end up getting killed by guns are also protected, rights including religious freedom, and freedom of assembly in public places that far too often have become gruesome sites of massacres.
It’s telling that daily accountings of gun deaths, of lives ruined by loss or disability, of children killed in classrooms, have not changed the rights calculus of gun control opponents. It’s still about their rights, and someone else’s rights are just an infringement of theirs. Obama is trying to change that, not just with heart-rending speeches and closing background check loopholes, but also with talking about the Constitution—conservatives’ favorite subject.