Although there was a time when the old men at a local gun club used to flatter my dad by telling him that I was a better shot than any of the boys in my 4-H club, I am not a gun enthusiast.
Nevertheless, as a Catholic theologian, I am troubled by accounts suggesting that Catholics who don’t support the U.S. bishops on gun control are akin to Catholics who disagree with fundamental moral teachings like contraception, abortion and marriage.
Regardless of the passion of some gun-control advocates, there exist clear distinctions between these issues. Let’s go back to the basics.
Blessed John Paul II articulated the foundation of the Church’s moral teaching in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). He started with the story of the Rich Young Man who asked Jesus how he could gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). Jesus responds first with the Ten Commandments. He reinforces that teaching with the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
John Paul explained, “In this commandment, we find a precise expression of the singular dignity of the human person, ‘the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake’” (21).
The fundamental dignity of human life underlies all Church teaching, and every Catholic has the responsibility to uphold this dignity.
Generally, John Paul II’s teaching style communicated this in a positive way, emphasizing the beauty in both the human person and the moral law. Nevertheless, he expressly saw a need for the thou-shalt-nots of the Ten Commandments. They outline some of our basic values: “These negative precepts express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons in marriage, private property, truthfulness and people’s good name.”
The encyclical also addresses the question of intrinsic evils — acts that are always wrong because they attack a fundamental good regardless of the circumstances. Among these, we include rape, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization and adultery.
Undoubtedly, there are many compelling situations that can make some of these seem necessary. But they don’t change the reality of the evil of the acts themselves.
When it comes to guns or gun control, however, there are no absolute teachings, aside from those concerning acts of violence. Guns can be used to protect human life. They can also be used for sport as long as they do not endanger human life.
Despite media coverage, guns are overwhelmingly used for purposes other than unjust violence. Although we have no exact data on the number of firearms in the U.S., a conservative estimate puts it at about 250 million, not including those owned by law enforcement and government. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 11,078 homicides resulting from firearms in 2010. The total number of deaths from firearms, including use by law enforcement, suicide and accidents, was 31,672. That means that less than .000127% of privately owned guns resulted in any type of death.
To give some context to these numbers, there are about 250 million registered motor vehicles in the U.S. The CDC reports 33,687 deaths caused by motor vehicles. Guns and cars cause about the same number of deaths. While those deaths are tragic and violent, drivers and gun owners operate more than 99% of cars or guns in ways that do not result in the taking of a human life. Guns, like cars, are instruments that have no intrinsic moral value.
When something is not intrinsically evil, there is room for prudential judgment. In other words, we weigh the positive and negative effects to determine whether or not something is good.
The U.S. bishops clearly stated their support for the recently defeated gun legislation. Every Catholic should take this endorsement seriously. But it does not have the same binding effect as a teaching on a matter which is intrinsically evil, such as abortion.
Church teaching leaves room for individuals to decide for themselves what are the most prudent ways to deal with guns. In our democratic society, we vote for ballot initiatives as citizens, and we elect representatives to vote on legislation for us. The prudential judgment of the population is therefore reflected in our laws.
Some countries with tougher gun laws have higher crime rates than the U.S. A recent survey of 150,000 law enforcement officers found that only 7.6% thought that a ban on so-called “assault weapons” would reduce violent crime. Seventy-one percent thought it wouldn’t help, and 20.5% thought it would aggravate the problem. This, taken with our statistics on gun violence, suggests that the problem goes deeper than the instrument used to commit the crime.
If we want to address the problem of violent crime, we cannot ignore the sickness of violence in our culture. Whether we see it in mass shootings, acts of terrorism, the more than 1 million abortions each year or on the streets of our neighborhoods, human life continues to be completely devalued. Much of our entertainment, including movies and video games, depicts random, extreme violence.
But, most importantly, we have to be willing to address the crisis in the family. I’ve yet to hear of a perpetrator of mass atrocities who didn’t experience serious family dysfunction as a child. As more and more children are born to single mothers or cheated out of an intact family by divorce, familial dysfunction continues to increase.
The family is a child’s first experience of reality. If the family cannot offer that foundation, the child is already at a disadvantage, especially if the child is also suffering from a mental illness. Then put the child in a world where he learns at an early age that the most innocent human beings are not protected.
Add to that a steady diet of violence, particularly in video games where he himself commits the violence, and you’ve got a recipe for destruction and dysfunction that has little to do with guns. It’s about evil. And evil will use whatever means necessary to accomplish its goal.
Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian and cultural analyst. She writes from Seattle.