Stephen King Appeals to Gun Advocates’ Individual Responsibility

Over the weekend, Stephen King released a 99-cent Kindle single entitled “Guns,” which explores the link between violence in popular media and real-life gun violence, starting with King’s own novel Getting It On (re-titled Rage), released under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

Rage, about a high school boy who takes a gun to his algebra class, kills his teacher, and holds his class hostage, was named as among sources of inspiration in four high school gun violence cases between 1988 and 1997. After the last case, King pulled the novel from publication. Although he insists that he never apologized for writing it, “and never would,” King does acknowledge that the four psychologically troubled youths who cited Rage, “found something in my book that spoke to them because the were already broken.” He continues:

…I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

King goes on to argue passionately in support of President Obama’s call for universal background checks, a ban on the sale of ammunition clips and magazines with more than ten rounds, and an end to the sale of assault weapons. He calls on gun manufacturers and gun owners to support such bans based on the sort of moral grounds that drove his removal of Rage from bookstores:

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, “We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.”

Whether or not King’s treatise compels gun owners to act against gun violence—King acknowledges that most conservative gun owners are unlikely to bend an ear his way (turning, he suggests “to the comforting scripture of the Rev. Rush Limbaugh”)—his appeal nonetheless makes an important moral argument for gun regulation. Now, of course, religious leaders such as Washington National Cathedral Dean Gary Hall have likewise cried out in moral indignation for collective action against the powerful gun lobby.

For Hall and other religious leaders, the moral claim in favor of greater gun regulation is anchored to the valuing of human life that is at the heart of most traditional religions. Thus, in a sermon the Sunday after the Sandy Hook shootings, Hall preached, “As followers of Jesus, we have the moral obligation to stand for and with the victims of gun violence and to work to end it. … The Christian community—indeed the entire American faith community—can no longer tolerate this persistent and escalating gun violence directed against our people. Enough is enough.”

Life is precious, and people of faith must stand to protect it is the moral principle behind most religiously motivated support for tougher gun regulation. But, although King seems clearly to be stirred by a regard for human life, the heft of his argument focuses on a much higher priority moral value for many gun enthusiasts and certainly for the conservative politicos who enflame them: personal responsibility. “I pulled [Rage] because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do,” King said. 

King’s emphasis on responsibility, which is echoed twice further in the paragraph, allows him to deftly set aside quibbling over inane constitutional questions like whether the Second Amendment’s insistence on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” is in any way infringed by the Founders’ parallel clarity with regard to regulation, even of eighteenth-century single-fire muskets. The sacred text of the gun lobby is thus dismissed by the sacred chant of their minions on the conservative right.

“Jesus wept,” King writes in “Gun,” in reference to gun advocates’ unwillingness to yield on reasonable regulation, an echo of the minced curse that appears throughout his novels, and an indictment of the corrupted religious morals that prevent conservatives from acting on the faith to which Hall and his religiously sincere colleagues would call them. He appeals, to any who might have ears to hear, not to an imagined, pious self hidden under so much right-wing vitriol. After all, who knows better than King the contours of the tortured, unrepentant soul. Rather, then, he speaks directly to the fantasy of an unbridled individualism at the center of the conservative creed. The divinely human compassion of “Jesus wept” meets the theology of Atlas Shrugged

It’s worth, I suppose, a shot.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com