Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: The Morality of Preemptive Violence

I’ve been watching the news lately about gun violence, and in the space of about a week there have been four instances where someone was killed or wounded by a gun owner after a simple mistake, like knocking on the wrong door, or taking a wrong turn into a driveway, or opening the door to a similar but wrong car.

These shootings all share a common theme: preemptive violence. I find myself increasingly dismayed by this trend to shoot first and ask questions later.

In each case, the shooter assumed (incorrectly) that he was about to be harmed (either physically or financially). He took action before any actual threat had been made or any actual harm occurred. In two of the cases, the shooting occurred in a state with no “stand your ground” doctrine, where retreat from a threat is a legal requirement.

Many of the arguments I hear about arming ourselves are about defending our families, specifically the people we love. It usually bleeds over into protecting our properties, but most of the time the go-to argument is the far more emotional one about protecting loved ones and innocent bystanders from physical harm.

The problem, I suppose, is that the preemptive use of a gun (not the brandishment, but the actual trigger-pulling action) in many cases is predicated on the assumption that the person intends to do us physical harm, and we’re unwilling to find out whether that’s actually the case. “Better to shoot first before someone gets killed or raped” is the kind of tone of most pro-carry arguments.

This makes me ponder if we as Christians have the moral right to preemptive violence, especially deadly force, and especially in the case of theft instead of physical violence.

I’ve read arguments that there are several good examples in the Bible of preemptive violence, so let’s look at some of them.

One readily-cited story is of the Jews attacking their enemies in the book of Esther. This particular use of that story, in my mind, neglects that the edict permitting violence was from a secular king, not God (who’s never once mentioned in the entire book, by the way). Also, it neglects to consider that the same king was also happy to write a law allowing genocide against the Jews in the first place. It also neglects that the Jews were only permitted to specifically attack those who intended to harm them based on the king’s own prior edict. Esther 8:11 says “The king gave the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to make a stand for their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish the entire military force of any people or province which would act as their adversaries.” Furthermore the edict allowed the Jews to kill not only those who would harm them, but even their children (“including little ones and women“, also from Esther 8:11. That’s not self-defense; this is preemptive retribution at a military level. This depiction of violence in an ancient society is hardly a good story to use to define appropriate Christian morals. Christians likely to support gun rights are also most commonly pro-life; it’s a strange thing to see pro-life people supporting slaughter of innocent women and children.

I also observe that preemptive violence in the Bible was almost exclusively a matter for nations, not individuals. I think it may be an inappropriate stretch to use the responsibility of a nation to keep its citizens safe as justification for an individual to take preemptive lethal action against a fellow citizen, acting as judge and jury and executioner, which violates Constitutional principles of the right to trial by an impartial jury.

As far as I can tell, the only actual self-defense verse in the Bible is Exodus 22:2-3, that allows a person to strike a deadly blow in the night when protecting their property – but not in the daytime when the thief can be seen. This is also a troublesome verse to use to justify violence – because the second half of verse 3 has the thief sold into slavery if he cannot pay for his theft.

Psalm 82:4 says “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” It’s interesting that some Christians focus on using that to justify rescuing people using violence if necessary, but ignore the part about rescuing the needy.

Proverbs 24:11 is also often used to justify self defense. It says “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.” But consider this in the larger context of Proverbs 24:10-12: “10 If you falter in a time of trouble, how small is your strength! 11 Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. 12 If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?

So Proverbs 24:11 has nothing to do with defending yourself or your family against an unexpected intruder or attack; this is about what verse 10 says is “a time of trouble” – a societal-level response to injustice, which should have been recognized ahead of time (“if you say ‘But we knew nothing about this”). So it’s hardly applicable to the use of a gun against intruders or theft.

Another common verse is Ezekiel 33:6 which says “But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.” Again, this is not applicable to home or personal protection. This is about the failure of a city-wide watchman to recognize and warn about an approaching army. It’s not about the watchman killing the intruder, and it’s certainly not about personal or family self-defense.

Another common pro-gun verse is Jesus’ words about “when a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed” (Luke 11:21). I’d respond that Jesus isn’t advocating this position, any more than the next verse in Jesus’ parable advocates the opposite, saying “But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder.” The context is casting out demons, not self-defense against fellow humans. It seems a dramatic misuse of the single verse.

So nearly all these verses address properly recognizing approaching harm, not justifying the use of lethal force to address the threat. And they certainly do not address preemptively attacking a POSSIBLE threat: they address a well-recognized, actualized threat.

So if someone intrudes into my domain – my “castle” at home, or my physical space when I’m away from home – and appears to present a risk, I have to wonder if it’s morally appropriate to take a deliberate position that I can assume PRIOR to their action that they’re worthy of killing. Can I, in good conscience, take the first shot (the Han Solo response)? Can I possibly be certain enough, in most cases, to later explain to God why I killed one of His beloved children? Can I justify doing so without truly ever knowing their intentions?

I also have to observe that there is a lot of anti-violence language in the Bible, especially from Jesus Himself, who was unafraid to challenge common interpretations of Old Testament stories. Jesus of course advocated turning the other cheek, and not resisting an evil man (both in Matt 5:39) as well as giving even more than someone is attempting to steal from us (in the very next verses, Matt 5:40-42). Paul also specifically addressed vengeance and leaving it up to the Lord in Rom 12:17-21. This verse quotes Deuteronomy 32:35-43, where God claims sole right to vengeance on the Egyptians. This is interesting because it implies that we are not to take the Lord’s role in addressing even horrible mistreatment against us, but that we need to be patient for His justice to be carried out. “He will avenge the blood of His slaves” recognizes that their blood has ALREADY been shed, which He could have stopped preemptively, but did not. Similarly, in Revelation 6:10, the saints cry out to the Lord asking how long before He avenges their unjust deaths. God’s response is to choose to not take immediate action, but to ask them to rest “until the number of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.” (Yes, I understand this is about those who had been killed for their witness, not for some robbery attempt.)

Here’s the obvious question: if God was willing to frequently allow His people to suffer even up to exile and slavery and near-genocide, why would we interpret ANYTHING in the Bible to promote preemptive violence?

So as I think about Rev 6:9-11, I do have to wonder a few things:

What if part of my witness to the world is supposed to be protesting gun violence, to the point that I choose not to defend myself even to the point of death, in refusing to arm myself against criminals, so that I can try to help those who are being killed daily, many thousands per year, as a routine and too-readily-accepted consequence of this gun-worshiping culture in America?

Would I be willing to stand before the throne, having been “slain because of the word of God, and because of the witness” that I had maintained?

Would I be willing to ask my family to similarly accept the possibility of physical violence or robbery?

Would I rather have that white robe under the altar in heaven (not the throne, mind you, but the altar where the sacrifices are made), than to claim that I kept my possessions and body safe on earth?

This is an incredibly deep set of questions that will require a lot of pondering. I’m not fully settled on this.

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you’ll understand that I’m not here to tell you what to think, or even necessarily to tell you my final conclusions. It’s about documenting my process, including the twists and turns, and I’m not afraid to change my mind as the Spirit prompts me to repent. I think it’s valuable for others to see each of us walk through repentance.

So although I don’t have a firm conclusion, I think I do have some preliminary responses as follows.

No, I cannot find in myself a desire to be the judge and jury and executioner of any person entering my personal or property domain. I cannot find permission in my spirit to preemptively murder someone, on the unproven assumption that my life is at stake. I certainly cannot find permission in my spirit to protect my goods at the cost of a life. I cannot find any acceptable interpretation of Jesus’ commands that compels me – or even allows me – to kill to protect my own life, and especially none that compels me to protect my own property. We Christians love to proclaim that everything we have is the Lord’s. If so, and if He asks me to surrender it, even if it seems unfair to me, then I must. As to the argument that I’d be allowing someone to steal from my family? Again, it’s all the Lord’s, and am I willing to trust His grace over that situation? That sounds more to me like what I read in the Bible, than killing someone to protect “my” stuff.

If, on the other hand, I find myself in a situation where clear harm is already occurring, and I have the opportunity to stop that harm with violent force, I find that to be permissible, and even desirable. Putting myself at risk for the benefit of my neighbor is part and parcel of the Kingdom.

But at the same time, the idea of personally carrying a weapon just in case I need to protect others seems unacceptable to me. There are three reasons.

For one thing, the possibility of having an occasion to prevent harm to others is vanishingly small; I’ve never yet in 53 years had such an occasion whereby having a gun would have been valuable. I’m blessed to live in fairly safe circumstances, and that allows me to come to that conclusion.

The second is the rather larger possibility of my misusing that weapon, by looking for a chance to be a hero, or by seeing things as a threat that requires violence, when the problem in fact could have been handled nonviolently.

The third is the possibility of having my weapon taken and used to harm others, or killing or injuring someone by accidental circumstances. That happens very often in our society, unfortunately. It seems to me that carrying a weapon would make the situation worse overall around me, and I cannot do that in good conscience.

I find that I’m not opposed to being asked to participate in military defense of my country, because in that case any invader will have already given absolutely unambiguous notice of an intent to harm me and my family and the society which God granted me and my countrymen, and we do have a very clear Biblical mandate to consider the safety and health of the country and government into which God placed us. From that perspective, I find no reason to refuse to participate in a military defensive action. Nor am I opposed to military readiness.

I have not yet fully considered whether untrained gun owners in America would make any real difference in a military conflict against an invading army. If we want to have the services of any willing citizens, I’m not sure whether guns owned by private citizens and stored in their homes would play any useful role, especially since the small amount of ammunition owned by the average citizen would not last long enough for a sustained conflict. There may be better answers, such as stockpiles of weapons not in private homes, that would be opened to citizens if the nation were invaded. Military training as a prerequisite for owning certain types of guns may be another answer. But that’s a topic for another day.

I also have not yet fully considered whether untrained gun owners actually would deter any anti-citizenry action by a rogue military. It’s a common enough argument by gun advocates. I’m not yet convinced, however. I’ve seen arguments on both sides of this question, and it deserves its own discussion. That too is a topic for another day.

To summarize, I have a sense that gun advocacy in America is too prone to celebrate preemptive killing. I’m trending towards a sense that I cannot defend myself or my family or my property to the point of killing someone else.

I recognize that your conclusions may differ dramatically from mine. That’s between you and God. But I hope I’ve given you things to consider in your own decision.

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1 thought on “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: The Morality of Preemptive Violence”

  1. Thanks, Brandon.
    The issue of preemptive defense is, as you’ve described, quite complex, and particularly so for a person of convictions. How do we fit such actions into the context of morality and love that we hope to fulfill in our lives?
    I agree with your approval of intervention in a situation where clear harm is already occurring. At the same time, I won’t carry a weapon with me in the normal circumstances of life. As you mentioned, I don’t want to misuse a weapon in a circumstance that might have been better dealt with otherwise.
    Those are my personal choices. As for how we might respond at a national level to gun violence in today’s culture, I’m at a loss.

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