Gun control will be a significant topic of national conversation over the next several months now that Vice President Joseph Biden has shared his task force’s recommendations on the politically sensitive issue.
That conversation — sparked by a string of mass shootings in recent years, including the Dec. 14 fatal shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn. — will have a distinct Catholic voice with the nation’s bishops advocating for strengthening regulations of firearms as a necessary component of building a culture of life.
“With regard to the regulation of firearms, first, the intent to protect one’s loved ones is an honorable one, but simply put, guns are too easily accessible,” Bishops Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, John C. Wester of Salt Lake City and Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend wrote in a Dec. 21 statement.
The bishops reiterated the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2000 statement on crime and criminal justice that supported controls on the sale and use of firearms, regulations on handguns, measures to make guns safer such as trigger locks, as well as legislation to protect society from deadly weapons such as assault rifles.
The bishops’ position
Over the last 40 years, the bishops have issued several statements favoring vigorous gun control.
In that 2000 document — “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” — the bishops wrote that while they supported the sensible regulation of handguns, they believed “in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.”
Those statements dovetail with the Vatican’s involvement in recent years at the United Nations to draft the Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to tightly regulate the international trade of conventional weapons. The Holy See views weapons control as a moral issue, saying that an unregulated arms trade and weak monitoring systems have serious humanitarian consequences, increasing conflicts and instability across the globe.
Father Joseph Classen, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis who is now serving in Alaska and who is an avid outdoorsman and hunter, discussed the gun issue in the context of self-defense. He said he carries a concealed pistol in areas where his physical safety may be compromised, such as remote areas in the West and isolated locations notorious for illegal drug production and sales.
Father Classen said he would seek every nonlethal option for self-defense before using a weapon to defend his life.
“Whatever legal means one chooses as a method of self-defense is up to the individual, and it is something that should be prefaced with much prayerful discernment and practical forethought,” he said.
In a 2011 interview with Catholic News Service, Tommaso Di Ruzza, an expert on disarmament and arms control for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said armed defense was appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.
He said that private gun ownership in 1791, when the Second Amendment was passed, might have served the common good because the young United States’ army and democratic institutions were weak. But with the nation having a functioning court system, police and military, Di Ruzza wondered if allowing guns in private citizens’ hands undermined the common good and promoted a lawless street justice.
Father Mitch Pacwa, a writer and EWTN on-air host who is also a hunter and outdoorsman, disagreed with Di Ruzza and suggested he was presenting a European perspective not familiar with hunting and private gun ownership.
While there is a “legitimate need” for regulating weapons, Father Pacwa told Our Sunday Visitor that guns, like all other weapons, are morally neutral, and that people will use any means at their disposal when they decide to commit crimes.
“I’m very skeptical of the ability of new laws limiting weapons having any effect,” he said. “Making certain weapons illegal probably is not going to be all that effective. The people participating in these crimes don’t care about the law.”
A real problem, Father Pacwa said, is a mainstream culture where violence is glorified and divorced from reality. Father Pacwa said that in 1970 he saw a youth he had been counseling, who had left a street gang, shot to death, and added that he himself has been shot at and had a cousin fatally stabbed. Forcing criminals to confront survivors of murder victims, he said, would show them their actions have consequences.
“The value of human life needs to be taught in our society,” Father Pacwa added. “The philosophical assumption in the modern world is that if you get rid of the guns, you solve the problem, and that’s not true.”
The wider cultural issue
Addressing the culture of violence is something that Catholics who argue over individual gun rights and new gun control laws appear to agree on.
“We need to recognize that what is going on with gun control coincides with an incredibly violent culture,” said Maureen O’Connell, a theological ethicist at Fordham University who studies the intersection of political theology and Christian ethics, particularly in urban contexts.
O’Connell told OSV that the gun control debate can be informed by Catholic social teaching principles such as the centrality of the family, the common good and subsidiarity. “As Catholics, we have a wealth of teachings to make people reflect on their positions on this issue,” said O’Connell, who added that there needs to be a recognition that people have commitments and obligations to their neighbors as well as individual rights.
To render shootings impossible — not just illegal — would “surpass the most dystopian regulatory fantasy,” said John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, who told OSV that cultivating a culture of life and building up strong families and young people of virtue are necessary components in the battle against gun violence.
“We all like to think that there is some solution that we can put our finger on that would solve the problem for us. I think that is part of the reason why we look for legislative solutions,” said Garvey, who added that he favors gun control in the context of fostering a culture of life.
“It’s a mistake to look toward government to solve our problems,” he said. “I think we have to take a look into our own hearts because it is our fault for creating the kind of culture that we have.”
Father Pacwa said he doubts the ability of the federal government — which is pushing a mandate that employers must provide contraceptives through health care — to address the gun issue.
“I don’t see a basis to trust them,” he said.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.