At the dramatic climax of Victor Hugo’s famous gothic novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (better known by anglophone readers as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), the hunchback, Quasimodo, drops from the cathedral on a rope and whisks La Esmeralda to safety, crying, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” As long as she remains in the cathedral with him, Esmeralda will be safe from her otherwise imminent execution.
As Hugo explains,
“Every city during the Middle Ages, and every city in France down to the time of Louis XII. had its places of asylum. These sanctuaries, in the midst of the deluge of penal and barbarous jurisdictions which inundated the city, were a species of islands which rose above the level of human justice. Every criminal who landed there was safe. … Such respect was cherished for places of refuge that, according to tradition, animals even felt it at times. Aymoire relates that a stag, being chased by Dagobert, having taken refuge near the tomb of Saint-Denis, the pack of hounds stopped short and barked. Churches generally had a small apartment prepared for the reception of supplicants.”
Now, some legislatures are applying the language of sacred sanctuary to gun rights. For example, House Bill 62, recently introduced in my adopted home state of Ohio, aims to “Designate Ohio a Second Amendment Sanctuary State,” resisting the imposition by federal law of any “tax, levy, fee, or stamp,” or any “registering or tracking” of firearms, firearm accessories, ammunition, or firearms owners “that might reasonably be expected to create a chilling effect on the purchase or ownership of [firearms] by law-abiding citizens.” It would also veto the enforcement locally of any restrictions on sales and transfers (which could affect the application of any expansion of background checks), and any laws allowing for the confiscation of weapons from “law-abiding citizens” (such as “red flag” laws).
The concept and language of sanctuary, the protection offered by sacred spaces from death and vengeance, has a long history.
In the Bible, Moses is commanded to appoint sanctuary cities as places of refuge for those committing accidental homicide, where the killer can remain safe from the claims of the deceased’s family upon their blood (Numbers 35:9-34). This sanctuary is limited to manslaughter, not murder, and it’s not to be exchanged for a financial ransom. It’s an interrupter, not an excuser, of bloody violence, “for blood pollutes the land” (Numbers 35:33).
In early Christendom, the designation of churches as places of sanctuary was enshrined in Roman law, and the practice of religious sanctuary continued through the Middle Ages. Even after it fell out of the statute books in many places, the idea of the sacred space as one exempt from violence, including the violence of arrest and imprisonment, persists.
Michael McLaughlin is a PhD candidate researching the intersection of guns, race, and religion at Florida State University. He commented by email that,
“The Black Panthers saw churches as sanctuaries from police gun violence. Church buildings were spaces where the Panthers could hold meetings or serve free breakfasts to school children without (or at least with less) fear of having their meetings invaded by the police. Although the police still often surveilled, infiltrated, or interrupted the Panthers when they were working in church buildings, the popular understanding of churches as places of peace served as a social barrier to the police openly bringing their guns into these Panther meetings.”
Still more recently, the tradition of sacred spaces as sanctuaries has been used to protect people and families from the dangers of deportation. One church in the Netherlands held religious services round the clock for 96 days straight to prevent the arrest and deportation of an Armenian family in 2018-19. Designation of places of worship (among others) as “sensitive locations” caused a faithful revival of the “sanctuary movement” as churches and other religious spaces hosted individuals and families at risk of deportation during the Trump administration’s increased ICE activity.
A local friend and colleague opened her church as a sanctuary when a mother feared that she would be separated from her children and deported after a traffic stop. The Rev. Lisa O’Rear commented by email:
“The sanctuary we created in our parish for a young mother and her minor children saved them from a violent family separation and probable death of the mother in her country of origin. To refer to geographically-based zones of unrestricted gun access as “sanctuaries” is a callous appropriation of the term given that statistically speaking, more guns means more gun violence and more loss of innocent life.”
Indeed, the tradition of sacred spaces as gun-free (weapon-free, violence-free, force-free) zones makes the use of sanctuary language in recent “Second Amendment Sanctuary” legislation curious. The turn from the use of “sanctuary” from its origins in restricting vengeance, violent enforcement, and weaponry to the protection of gun-keeping within the sanctuary borders, while rhetorically brilliant, feels particularly cynical when research shows that keeping more guns at hand makes us less rather than more safe from harm.
The Brady campaign concludes that resolutions declaring “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” within counties and cities are “purely symbolic and have no legal weight.” And in Texas, the author of House Bill 2622, which “may be cited as the Second Amendment Sanctuary State Act,” told the El Paso Times in April that his Bill would not prevent federal agents coming into Texas to enforce new gun laws—but that they would get no help from the local authorities. The Bill was sent to Governor Abbott’s desk before the Memorial Day weekend.
Of course, the history of sanctuary abounds with its own abuses. Victor Hugo wrote of, “the abuse of impunity by the side of the abuse of punishment; two bad things which strove to correct each other.” In that vein, Owen Chadwick, church historian, reported the “notorious case” of St Martin-le-Grand in 15th-century London, where “a group of men living in a public sanctuary became little more than a band of brigands issuing forth from an immune fastness.”
The fact remains that the origins and intentions of sanctuary lie in the preservation of life and the prevention of bloodshed. The use of the language of sacred spaces designed to preserve the sanctity of life to promote, instead, the status of guns among us twists its meaning and affords our relationship with the deadly weapon a quasi-religious status that it too often claims. But sanctuary is for people, not pistols, and the altars of refuge are dedicated not to the almighty gun, but to the Creator of life itself. The language of “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” makes a mockery of the long and deeply-held religious and anti-violent traditions of sanctuary.