How a Maine restaurant owner’s discrimination against gun rights advocates signals a disturbing trend in American culture
As a conservative living in Texas (albeit, not a native Texan) I’ve often been in something of a minority position when it comes to guns.
For the longest time I didn’t like guns. I’ve been, and still am, personally uncomfortable around them. I have often struggled with the impulse to take to the public square and defend their legal moorings. More frustrating to my fellow red staters, I don’t break out in an anxious sweat before running through an angry laundry list of expletives when someone mentions “guns” and “control” in the same sentence.
Some of my past trepidation was born from personal experience: I grew up in Maryland in the wake of the Beltway sniper and still remember the fear of going outside during recess. Likewise, I spent two years in ROTC in college—two years in which I gave new meaning to “lack of proficiency” with an M-16 rifle.
But a greater part of my hesitation with vocal gun rights advocacy has to do with my religious convictions. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has much to say when it comes to gun violence and gun control, including supporting universal background checks (which the NRA opposes) and the reinstatement of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (which the NRA also opposes—although their argument for what constitutes an “assault weapon” and what does not, has merit).
That the Bishops have reiterated what our society would identify as a “liberal” position on guns, even in the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino, Charleston, and Sandy Hook, is a perfect counter for those who claim the Catholic Church is too political, or too rightist, or not really “pro-life.” The Church treats the “gun issue” with care. It doesn’t trivialize the right to self-defense nor does it condemn the use of guns for hunting or recreation; it does, however, understand that a society with a violence problem does not work for peace and justice by celebrating and promoting firearms.
More and more, though, I am realizing that the gun debate cannot be reduced to an issue of violence against nonviolence, “love” against hate. This is the mistake of Ann Verrill, a Maine restaurateur who made headlines with a Facebook post that encouraged outright discrimination against both gun owners and those who do not take an activist position against personal firearm ownership.
“If you own this gun, or you condone the ownership of this gun for private use, you may no longer enter either of my restaurants, because the only thing I want to teach my children is love,” she wrote in June.
Verrill, whose restaurant, Grace, sits inside a repurposed church, called her statement a “human rights issue” and defended it against charges of hypocrisy. Those who compared her refusal to cases of Christian bakers who (politely) refused to bake cakes for homosexual weddings, were corrected.
“Gun owners are not a protected class,” Verrill wrote in a follow-up. “Owning a gun is a choice. It bears literally no resemblance to the biological nature of the color of your skin or your sexual orientation.”
The symbolism of the name and location of Verrill’s restaurant speaks volumes to the mindset that can cling to this kind of exclusionary and discriminating statement. As Catholics we understand grace to be “the free and undeserved help that God gives.” We do not ask for grace, we surely don’t deserve it, and we can even choose to ignore it. In fact, one of the tenants of Catholic teaching is that grace “demands man’s free response.”
Grace, then, comes back to freedom—both the freedom of God to give to humanity in its undeserving state and our freedom as individuals to receive and ultimately turn to God. One might even say grace is formed from “choices”—the kinds of choices that Verrill seems incapable of allowing her fellow Americans to make. That Verrill, who owns a restaurant that sits within the façade of a former place of worship, should dictate who can and who cannot receive her version of “grace”, underlines the symbolic nature of replacing the benevolent authority of God with the imperfect intentions of humanity.
The problem with this replacement should be evident: Verrill, like all men and women, ultimately lacks the immense capacity for love, forgiveness, and righteousness that define God. Mankind, even when wanting to do good (as stopping gun violence would be doing) is stained with a level of selfishness and pride. When you read about the reason for Verrill’s initial post—the Orlando massacre—it becomes clear that her discrimination stems from an adherence to our culture’s increasingly unreasonable notions of love and hate. In pursuing “love” she recreates grace in an artificial term, since, unlike God, she is unable to forgive and extend grace to the entirety of a fallen society.
To borrow a phrase from Seinfeld: “No soup for you!”
While the practical observer on the right will note the hypocrisy of Mrs. Verrill’s use of the word “choice” and point out how the secular left has long used the banner of choice to promote abortion, euthanasia, and even “gender identify,” the inward-looking Catholic notes the sad absence of faith in Verrill’s actions.
I am not just talking about faith in God. I speak of faith in freedom; the freedom that allows Americans to own weapons in a responsible manner, as well as to consider issues related to guns and the second amendment in broader terms than the ones that would cast all gun owners as hateful or hawkish.
Shifting over to another fissure within our cultural framework, one can’t help but wonder if America’s strong adherence to the church of sexual identity will soon yield similar instances of de facto discrimination against those who do not subscribe to the ideas of homosexual marriage. After all, the issue of same-sex marriage has often been labeled a “human rights issue,” while the proponents of traditional marriage are often called-out for promoting “hate.”
And this, perhaps, is why I can no longer sit awkwardly on the sidelines of the gun debate. For while all Catholics should enthusiastically support the Bishops and their calls to promote peace and nonviolence, we cannot continue to look at the issue of guns in a vacuum. Instead, we must work to promote objective and reasonable dialogue on the issue, and to recognize that more than just the freedom to own weapons is at stake.