Catholic Social Teaching Corner: Gun Control

December 29, 2012

The Catholic Social Teaching Corner is an occasional reflection by the Promoter of Social Justice of the Province of St. Joseph on the Church’s social doctrine as applied to current issues and events. 

St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Newton, CT
St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Newtown, CT
The horrible shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th has led to a national focus on gun control. What does the Church say about this issue? There is not precisely a Catholic position on gun control. Since the use of weapons like handguns and rifles has never been ipso facto condemned by the Church, their regulation is a prudential matter. This article from Catholic News Service gives a decent summary of recent Church pronouncements on guns: “Gun Control”. Most of the statements from the Holy See have to do with the arms trade, but they imply a strong aversion to the proliferation of even small firearms. Basically the Church’s position is, “Thou shalt not kill.” Even apart from military and police needs, there are moral uses for firearms including hunting, target shooting and self-defense. The problem, especially with the last use, arises from the tension between the individual right to own a handgun and the common good. Do guns in the home tend to get used more in accidents, crimes and suicides than in legitimate self-defense? For many, is not the prospect of seeing an ordinary citizen at the supermarket carrying a holstered handgun, as is legal in numerous states, a little perverse? The mere proliferation of firearms can create an atmosphere where gun violence is more likely, putting public safety at the whim of the commercial logic of gun makers. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” So goes the famous maxim of the opponents of gun control. Anyone with a Christian moral viewpoint should regard this principle with suspicion. Even though gun ownership is not intrinsically evil, this line of argument is awfully close to saying, “Internet pornography doesn’t cause sins of lust; people causes sins of lust,” or “The availability of drugs doesn’t cause moral dissolution; people cause moral dissolution.” Nonsense. Access to the instruments of sin, in a fallen world, helps cause the sin. The very same day as the Newtown shooting, there was a knife attack at a school in China, which bans private ownership of guns. Twenty-two children were injured but none of them died. Guns help to turn disturbed people into killers, arguments into murders, and depressions into suicides. Regulation is a matter of ensuring the right to the appropriate use of guns, in a country such as ours that values it, while regulating them so that they are not so easily misused.
The Holy Innocents
The Holy Innocents
Without banning the private ownership ownership of guns, there are numerous steps that could be taken to limit their most dangerous aspects. Assault style weapons and ammunition clips could be banned. It is hard to see that they are anything but potentially lethal toys. There can be better enforcement of restrictions on purchasing weapons, especially for the mentally ill and those with criminal backgrounds; and loopholes, as with gun shows, can be closed.  Banning or severely restricting handguns would not in itself be contrary to Catholic Social Teaching. The Supreme Court, in the McDonald and Heller cases, has made this difficult. But the conservative majority’s reasoning, based on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms within the context of militias, seems a Constitutional stretch oddly analogous to the Left’s use of the mythic right to privacy to justify abortion rights. There are no more militias. Granted there are other causes of gun violence than the mere availability of guns. Personal virtue is, of course, a deterrent. Toning down excessive violence in movies, television, and video games is necessary, too. But guns are serious and lethal tools; it is wrong that they have become just another consumer item. This year the fourth day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, has a special power. The holy innocents of Newtown remind us of Rachel’s weeping and inspire us to work for a safer and more peaceful society.

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