The gun-control debate in the United States has perhaps never been as heated or as polarizing, with thousands of people marching across the country in recent weeks to protest gun violence while advocates for gun rights warn that the Second Amendment is in danger of being trampled upon.
Many of the nation’s Catholic bishops have lent their voices to the debate, with several expressing their support for the high-school students and young adults who participated in the “March for Our Lives” last month to demand gun control and show solidarity with the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“More guns don’t necessarily ensure peace in civil society, whether that is in a school, a place of work or entertainment, or a church,” Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, told the Register in a recent phone interview.
Bishop Dewane, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, has joined his fellow bishops in urging the nation’s leaders to come together and address the crisis of gun violence in a comprehensive manner.
Bishop Dewane told the Register that the country needs “commonsense” measures to prevent gun violence and added that it is incumbent upon states to impose strict controls on the sale of firearms.
“The bishops have said on multiple occasions that it’s simply too easy to obtain a firearm if a person wants to harm another, or harm him or herself,” said Bishop Dewane, who argued that the easy availability of guns undermines the common good.
“Safety from violence is a significant part of the common good,” the bishop said.
Bishop Dewane’s comments echo the bishops’ conference’s repeated calls over the last few decades in favor of stronger limits on firearms, such as limiting civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines, and calls for stricter background checks.
In the 1990 USCCB document, “New Slavery, New Freedom: A Pastoral Message on Substance Abuse,” the bishops said they hoped for the “eventual elimination” of guns from U.S. society.
In the 2000 document — “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” — the bishops wrote that while they supported the sensible regulation of handguns, they believed “in the long run, and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.”
Catholic moral tradition holds that police, military and the governing authorities are the entities that are charged with the responsibility to defend society. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2265) says those “who legitimately hold authority” have the right to use arms to repeal aggressors against the civil community.
Framing the gun-control debate as a pro-life issue, Bishop Dewane said that private gun ownership is not an absolute right in Catholic moral teaching.
“It has to give way to higher principles,” the bishop said.
While there is no stated mention of a private right to own firearms, the Catechism affirms (2264) Church teaching that people have a right to defend themselves, even using deadly force if necessary. The Catechism says that legitimate defense is not only a right, but a “grave duty,” for someone who is responsible for another’s life (2265).
“There is the principle in Catholic teaching by which you can hunt, defend your family and defend yourself,” said Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, a theologian, author and EWTN host who is also an avid hunter and outdoorsman.
Father Pacwa told the Register that he believes the gun debate has been dominated by emotion, with little substance from the advocates for gun control as to what kind of laws and other measures they believe would help stop mass shootings.
Said Father Pacwa, “What proposals are they making that would prevent various acts of violence that they’re trying to prevent? On a logical basis, that’s the most important question: What are you proposing that would prevent this kind of violence from occurring?”
In media interviews and on social media, advocates for gun control have called for stricter controls, if not outright bans, on high-powered so-called “assault rifles” like the AR-15, which was used to kill 17 people in Parkland.
The bishops’ conference supported the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004, and bishops have testified on Capitol Hill in favor of banning those types of weapons again.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, wrote on Twitter that private citizens “shouldn’t be permitted to own assault rifles any more than then they can own chemical weapons of mass destruction.”
“How about a little common sense in this public debate?” Bishop Tobin wrote.
Gun-control advocates highlight modern weapons like the AR-15 to argue that they do not deserve blanket protection under the Second Amendment, since the amendment was written in a time when soldiers used flintlock muskets.
John Paul Stephens, the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, went further, arguing in a March 24 op-ed, entitled “Repeal the Second Amendment,” in The New York Times that the amendment’s stated intent of being “necessary to the security of a free state” is now a “relic of the 18th century.”
Stevens’ argument does not convince many gun owners who are faithful Catholics and students of history like Lee Reynolds, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is a legal gun owner and lives in northern Virginia.
“The Second Amendment was written to prevent the government from taking away the rights of individuals,” said Reynolds, who serves as a military consultant to the entertainment industry.
Reynolds, who learned to shoot a rifle at a Catholic summer camp when he was a child, told the Register that a disarmed citizenry is more vulnerable to tyranny.
“I have no problem being a Catholic and supporting the Second Amendment because you have to defend yourself personally, and people have a right to defend themselves against a tyrannical government,” Reynolds said.
“Also, if the purpose of the Second Amendment was to defend yourself against a tyrannical government, and yet you’re not allowed to have an equal type of weapon or at least something close to what the government has, then that kind of defeats the purpose,” Reynolds added.
Father Pacwa added that the Southern states in the late 19th century began passing legislation that banned most inexpensive, nonmilitary-grade firearms, which he argued effectively disarmed the region’s black populace and made them more susceptible to being lynched and oppressed under Jim Crow laws.
Chris Pereira, a member of the U.S. Air National Guard and the Knights of Columbus, said “it is not the government’s business” as to whether citizens should have an AR-15. Even if Congress were to ban those weapons, Pereira, a Massachusetts resident, said gun violence would not stop.
“There are already laws on the books,” Pereira said. “This is a very emotional issue. We all want school shootings to stop, but a lot of people are not thinking about our laws and the government’s failures to enforce them. They’re not thinking about what could have prevented the shooting in Florida.”
Parkland High School
According to published reports, an armed sheriff’s deputy at the Parkland high school never confronted the gunman, instead staying outside the school and taking cover behind a wall during the six-minute rampage. Reports also indicate the gunman, who reportedly had a history of behavioral problems, purchased his AR-15 legally.
Though he disagrees with proposals like banning the AR-15, Reynolds said he believes there is some common ground in the gun-control debate. Reynolds added that he has no problem with registering weapons and mandatory background checks for firearm sales.
“I understand both sides of the argument,” Reynolds said. “There have to be some things in place, but when you get as emotional about it as the country is right now, you’re not speaking from a practical or logical standpoint.”
Father Pacwa, who favors curbing bump stocks, which simulate the ability of a fully automatic firearm, said sound legislative ideas, based on facts, logic and the principles of protecting civil society, have largely been missing from the public debate.
“It’s already against the law to commit murder. It’s already against the law to commit assault,” Father Pacwa said. “You’re not allowed to attack other people, so what laws do you want?”
Bishop Dewane told the Register that, from a Catholic perspective, similar principles apply to the gun-control debate as in the bishops’ previous calls for nuclear disarmament and ending the arms race. The bishop said armed deterrence does not ensure peace or value human life, but, rather, increases the risk of further conflict.
“The weapons may be smaller, but the same principles are there,” Bishop Dewane said. “We really have to look at this issue and ask: What does it contribute to peace, and how does it respect the value of human life?”
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.