Gun control: What does the Church say?

The Sandy Hook school massacre of 20 innocent children and seven adults by a troubled gunman — who used a semi-automatic “assault” rifle to kill his victims — has ignited a national debate about gun control.

America has a problem with gun violence. A culture that celebrates violence, coupled with a society in which guns are too easily accessible, has contributed to one gun tragedy after another — whether in the form of workplace shootings, street violence, domestic strife,  school massacres, or innocent kids just playing around like their “heroes” and getting killed.

Clearly, a re-examination of our state’s and our nation’s gun laws is warranted, and common-sense reforms should be enacted to curb the violence.

Excuses for inaction

Some have claimed that eradicating gun violence is impossible as long as there is evil in the human heart.  This is, of course, true.

Still others claim that the bad guys who really want guns to commit crimes will probably find a way to get them.  This claim, in many cases, is most likely true as well — as it was in the Sandy Hook case where the killer, barred by law from owning the guns he used, simply used his mother’s weapons.

These statements seem in some instances, however, not to be mere descriptions of reality, but instead calculated primarily to depict gun regulations as futile or naïve.

It’s as though the desire to limit dangerous people’s access to the technology of mass murder is somehow a waste of time.

Catholic writer and Patheos blogger Mark Shea eviscerates this line of reasoning:

“Nobody says that the mystery of evil makes it futile to try to limit North Korea’s access to the technology of mass death. Nobody talks as though having cops arrest criminals is starry-eyed utopianism. Nobody says  ‘Stealers gonna steal’ and concludes that attempts to limit shoplifting with various technological fixes like cameras or mall cops is a refusal to address the fact that sin begins in the heart.”

We cannot be content to mouth pieties and refuse to explore ways in which public policy serves the common good, even if there is a possibility that reforms may fail to fully address the problem.

Bishops’ principles for reform

In a statement after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the bishops of the United States renewed their call for all Americans, particularly legislators, to do the following:

  • Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms;
  • Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner);
  • Support sensible regulation of handguns;
  • Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons.

Applying these principles will vary from state to state.  In Minnesota, acquiring a gun is fairly easy, and many gun purchases are completely unregulated — meaning neither permits nor background checks are required.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference believes this policy should be re-examined.

At both the state and federal level, the Church supports a ban on the purchase and ownership of “semi-automatic military-style assault weapons” and high capacity magazines.

Complex problem

While stricter gun laws are necessary, the bishops emphasize that they are not sufficient to curb gun violence. These sorts of social problems are complex, and require more than simplistic solutions or scapegoats.

In addition to tighter gun regulations, the bishops have asked us to “make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime,” and have also called on society to “provide health services and support to those who have mental illnesses and to their families and caregivers.”

Further, the bishops’ Sandy Hook statement had sharp words for the entertainment industry:

“Our entertainers, especially film producers and video game creators, need to realize how their profit motives have allowed the proliferation of movies, television programs, video games and other entertainment that glorify violence and prey on the insecurities and immaturity of our young people. Such portrayals of violence have desensitized all of us.

. . . We need to admit that the viewing and use of these products has negative emotional, psychological and spiritual effects on people.”

It is important, though, not to cast stones at profiteers until we have first reflected on how we ourselves, through our consumer choices, have celebrated and invited into our homes this culture of violence.

Indeed, Hollywood shapes the culture. But it also feeds a pre-existing demand for graphic violence.

Be not afraid

Undoubtedly, powerful and well-financed voices will, for many reasons, skillfully manipulate rhetoric to preserve the status quo.

We must, however, not be afraid to first turn our hearts and minds toward the Lord so that the Prince of Peace may transform us into people of peace.

Let us bring that faith into the public arena where we can offer prudent and hopeful policies that foster peace and the common good.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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