There is a fundamental ambiguity in human nature which Christian theology understands:  we are free creatures with a capacity for good and evil, our evil inclinations described by Paul as the “law in our members” (Romans 7:23) which pulls away from Christ’s command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”  (Matthew 22:37-39) We humans are our own best friends and worst enemies.  The human freedom of choice to follow or repudiate an ethical belief is at the very core of our being.  Look a person in the face, and all you see is a human being, the telltale signs of evil or good may be submerged.  Christ told us to identify a false prophet (or any bad actor) the way we “know a tree by its fruit,” (Matthew 7:15-20) and indeed this may be possible.  A student of morality and politics knows how deeply this uncertainty stretches into all levels of analysis:  personal, political, and international.

In the world of J.R.R Tolkien, we see good and evil starkly contrasted.  Orcs, Nazgul, and Trolls are wicked abominations, easily recognized and branded by vile appearance and behavior.  Yet even in Tolkien’s Christian-inspired view the fairest to look upon, the Elves, could also be selfish and evil.  The Silmarillion was an epic based on the vengeful selfishness of the Elf Feanor.  Lord of the Rings is a primal struggle of good and evil, where wise Faramir might resist the Ring’s temptation while his much-esteemed brother Boromir could not.  Coming back to our world, the face that is undeniably “evil” can be hard to identify, other than by the fruit of one’s action.  Though to us the face of Hitler is the image of evil, very few people anticipated his infamous deeds.  Indeed, Hitler fooled Neville Chamberlain into peace, a man twenty years his senior.  Alas, we cannot always see as presciently as we should into the nature and ambitions of men.

Faramir expressed our own apprehension about violence: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend.”  Faramir’s sentiments are appropriate and might be called a Christian Realist ethic.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu voiced a similar reticence in the Tao Te Ching: “Weapons are the tools of violence; all decent men detest them.  Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity, and, if compelled, will use them with only the utmost restraint.”  In the West of course we have Just War Theory, that war must be avoided, and only embarked upon with regrets, and a responsibility to a just resolution.  In both Tolkien and the Tao Te Ching we see a grim realization:  weapons are not desirable, but they are part of the human toolset of fighting against injustice and trying to preserve peace.

Nowhere is the ambivalence perhaps clearer than in the 2nd Amendment: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  When in the history of humankind has anything subject to “well regulation” by the state not also risked being “infringed” by that same body?  The intent to well-regulate a right is no guarantee of its correct enforcement any more than granting a right is a safeguard that it will not be abused.  Many gun-rights T-shirts italicize “shall not be infringed,” forgetting the ambiguity of its connection to the first part:  something “well-regulated.”  The second amendment language carries with it an awareness of a human paradox here:  we have a right to an abiding freedom, and a capacity to abuse it.  Belief, and moral restraint, are the best and most immediate safeguard against it, but we know it is never infallible.  Since weapons will not go away, belief and law must serve the unenviable task of “well-regulating.”

This crosswind is felt at all levels of human interaction:  moral, political, and international.  No doubt the authors of the Second Amendment appreciated that weapons could secure a nation’s safety, but also an imperative of responsible conduct.  In their day, muzzle-loaders were far less deadly than a Glock pistol is now, and one cannot be certain by which thing the Founders would be more alarmed if they were transported to our time.  Would it be the capacity of weapons to unleash mass damage, such as an AR-15?  Or would it be irreverent and psychopathic spree shooters, repudiating all commitment to anything “well-regulated,” or indeed sacred?  Arms control advocates, who are probably not as interested in guns, lobby for greater restraints which gun-loving conservatives see as impractical.  Pew Research shows Americans are still intensely divided about the efficacy of such measures.  Many Americans still favor guns for personal protection, while others wish there were fewer of them around.

Morally, then, some prefer guns for protection while others wish to eradicate their presence from society.  Yet if the 400 million or so guns estimated to exist in the United States disappeared, what would happen to the security of the nation?  This was part of the 2nd Amendments concern.  And would the Founding Fathers perhaps be most alarmed about this:  that our fingers are on a nuclear trigger that could spark a world-ending Armageddon?  The Nuclear Non-Proliferation of 1968 displays the same tensions we feel at all other levels:  that countries with nuclear weapons will use them responsibly as a means of deterrence.  From the guns in our homes to the ICBMs in our silos, there is the deepest ambivalence about this capacity:   to ignore the Biblical command never to harm or kill our fellow humans.  If pacifists could dismiss this potential, we might join their efforts and disarm unilaterally, knowing that the fundamental ambiguity of our nature had been ironed out, but it has not.

We ask for many freedoms.  Freedom of speech, assembly, and participation in the economy.  In demanding freedom and rights, we must always be vigilant about responsibility.  If one forsakes one, then the other is sure to fall, for a right is never divorced from a duty.  The right to travel and be safe in public demands our personal attention to the right belief, responsibility, and law to make that happen.  Weapons will always be part of the human toolset.  It is only when weapons are armed with the wrong intents, practices, and laws, that they become harmful.