The shooting at Newtown, Conn., the inerasable mental images of the bodies of 6-year-olds being shattered by multiple rounds from an assault rifle wielded by a remorseless killer, has provoked a rare national discussion about gun control. As parents, as neighbors, as human beings, we want to stop such horrors from happening again. 

Experts are divided, however, as to what steps would prevent such a massacre. A lone gunman who steals guns from his mother and meticulously plans a completely unexpected slaughter is one of the most random of incidents and perhaps the hardest to prevent. What is most troubling for our nation, however, is that the 26 deaths at Newtown accounts for only a minuscule fraction of the 30,000 gun deaths and 75,000 gun-related injuries that take place each year in our country. What makes the death toll more troubling is that two-thirds of the gun deaths are suicides. 

The bishops again remind us that our priority must be to protect the innocent and the most vulnerable among us.

Discussion of strategies for reducing gun violence is highly controversial. The topic divides our readers as much as it divides the country. It is an issue that begs for calm and reflective discussion rather than the overheated rhetoric that too often characterizes the debate, but this may be the vainest hope of all. 

For Catholics, this conversation must begin by reflecting on what best serves the common good. And as with the battle over abortion, the Church is not looking at this issue from a constitutional perspective but from its concern for human dignity and respect for life. A culture of death pervades our society. The Church understands that murder and suicide and abortion, the glorification of violence and the disregard for the mentally ill are all manifestations of the same dark culture that exacts such an enormous spiritual and physical cost upon our nation.  

It is from this vantage point that the Church exhorts society to look for solutions that best preserve human dignity and respect human life. As the recent Dec. 21 statement released by three committees of the U.S. bishops put it: “Sacred Scripture reminds us time and again too ‘be not afraid.’ Indeed, we must find within ourselves the faith-filled courage to address the challenges our nation faces, both in our homes and in our national policies.” 

The statement released by the U.S. bishops’ committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development, on Communications, and on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth declared: “With regard to the regulation of fire arms, first, the intent to protect one’s loved ones is an honorable one, but simply put, guns are too easily accessible.”  

This same document called for the entertainment industry to look at the way its products often glorify violence. It also addressed the scourge of mental illness: “Our society must provide health services and support to those who have mental illnesses and to their families and caregivers.” 

The statement is a good place to begin a parish discussion about rational steps toward addressing our culture of death. As the bishops exhort us: The Newtown tragedy “has given rise to discussions about national policies and steps that can be taken to foster a culture that protects the innocent and those most vulnerable among us. It is time for our nation to renew a culture of life in our society.” 

Despite the fondest hopes of some and the fears of others, there is no quick fix. Gun violence, mental illness and safe schools are all challenging problems at a time of fiscal crisis and limited resources. At the same time, the bishops are again reminding us that our priority must be to protect the innocent and the most vulnerable among us.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor