It has been a little more than a year since the terrible massacre in Newtown, Conn., when Adam Lanza shot 26 children and teachers after murdering his mother. Lanza then killed himself, and the reason for that terrible crime remains a mystery despite an exhaustive investigation. Since then, there have been other campus shootings and random outbursts of violence that have captured headlines.
In truth, it’s hard to keep up with the headlines in just the past 14 months. There have been thousands of victims of gun violence during that time period, and many more thousands of suicides. An estimated 60 percent of all gun deaths are suicide, and suicide also is becoming a hallmark of indiscriminate outbursts of violence such as occurred in Newtown.
Every person ‘is called to disarm his own heart and be a peacemaker everywhere.’’
While hard statistics are difficult to come by, experts estimate that between Dec. 14, 2012, and Jan. 27, 2014, there were 37,769 gun deaths including suicides.
A long-standing question has been why the United States has been so plagued by such violence. To find equivalent death tolls in other Western countries, one must look to war zones or countries with spiraling drug or civil violence. The almost casual nature of U.S. violence — the drive-by shooting, the random terror in a shopping mall, even the willingness to put the gun to one’s temple and pull the trigger — is without equivalent in countries of equal wealth, education and political stability.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this relentless stream of deaths by gun violence in schools, workplaces and homes, the public reaction has become increasingly muted. The outrage that followed Newtown has all but disappeared, and there is a feeling of helplessness with each new incident.
That there is no chance of any restrictions on gun sales or ownership being voted on at the national level is a given in today’s climate. The national debate about guns has become simply a discordant duel of competing rants, with virtually no likelihood of changing the status quo. At the state and local level, a few modest restrictions — such as on high capacity magazines — have passed, but they have been overwhelmed by laws allowing guns in even more venues — on campuses, in churches, in stores, even zoos.
In this environment, the Church can have little impact except to note that this level of lethality is yet another life issue. The instinct to solve problems with violence is not limited to the violence in the womb, or the violence that ends the life of the elderly and the seriously ill. It includes the violence of the mentally ill, the angry patron at a movie theater, the hostile student, the bullied child, the fired worker, the jealous spouse. And it includes the violence that is suicide.
In a very real sense, the Church understands the cliché that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The evil of gun violence resides in the human heart. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in a message to a disarmament conference in 2008, the solution is eliminating violence at its root. Every person “is called to disarm his own heart and be a peacemaker everywhere.” What this means in terms of policy in a society where there are nearly as many guns as people and where their very ubiquity makes them the tool of first resort when wishing to inflict death or mayhem is difficult to say. Until Americans grow so tired of the casual terrorism of gun violence that they are willing to address the mental health and public policy issues that preserve the bloody status quo, there will be no end to the mounting death toll and the shattered families that each death represents.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor