All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Taxes into Plowshares

Gun Buybacks Decrease Freedom and Fail to Reduce Violence

Yet another monument to state control has been erected in Washington, D.C. No, not the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. In this case, the monument is a lesser-known sculpture called “Guns into Plowshares.” This work, erected in 1997, stands in Judiciary Square close to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Dubbed a monument to peace, the sculpture is actually a monument to the anti–gun-rights lobby.

The work has its origin in a 1994 gun “buyback” program administered by the District of Columbia Police Department. Through this effort, the District purchased 3,000 privately owned handguns in the name of ending handgun violence. The question of what to do with all these guns was answered by artists Esther and Michael Augsburger, who suggested using them in a sculpture of a plow, playing on the well-known scriptural reference: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

The result was a four-ton, 16-feet high sculpture composed of steel and 3,000 disabled handguns, imitating a tremendous plow. Some might call it art, but others might call it instead the art of exploitation. The sculpture represents the fallacy of gun control and government intrusion at many levels.

First, the term “buyback” wrongly insinuates that the government has some primary right to all property to begin with, and that it was simply regaining possession of what originally belonged to it. In fact, it couldn’t buy the guns back at all.

Second, the program was based on the oft-repeated fallacy that guns, and not criminals, commit crimes. Purchasing 3,000 handguns from citizens can do nothing to reduce crime. Criminals, obviously, will not sell their weapons to the police department. As for crimes of passion, which an otherwise law-abiding gun owner might commit, no one ever needed a gun to cause another harm. The logic behind a gun “buyback” also ignores the argument—and the evidence—that gun ownership protects many citizens and actually reduces crimes. (See John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime.)

Moreover, the law-abiding citizens who sold their guns were under the mistaken assumption that they would profit from the sale. However, they paid for their small profit in two ways. At some level they were taxed for the program. But even worse, they found themselves with slightly less freedom than before: the program represented one more lurch forward in big government’s bid for control.

One can also find an interesting misuse of scripture in the very theme of the sculpture. The scripture being referenced refers to the peacefulness of nations, not the disarming of the populace. Those who believe in a powerful, coercive government should not celebrate such a government by quoting scripture about peace. Liberties are not stripped away by peaceful governments.

Finally, the very placement of the sculpture can be seen as insulting. Those who planned the sculpture felt that the work’s proximity to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial would point out the role of handguns in violence against peace officers. On the contrary, the sculpture is a slap in the face to peace officers who serve with the intention of protecting citizens’ rights. In this case, those who gave their lives that constitutional rights might be preserved are memorialized by one monument, while another nearby lauds the stripping of one of those rights from the citizens they died to protect.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this monument is that so many citizens will pass by it in an attitude of awe and reverence, never realizing what it truly symbolizes. It is up to lovers of liberty to point out that in this case art has been used to commemorate the power of the state and the death of individual freedom.

William Pike is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

  • William Pike is interested in non-profit development, planned giving, higher education, and Christian organizations.

    In addition to a full-time planned giving position at DePauw University, he am also the pastor of two small churches and ordained in the Church of the Nazarene.