Catholic Leaders Urge ‘Both/And’ Response to Spate of Mass Shootings

While partisan voices emphasize focusing either on gun access or underlying cultural factors, several Catholic bishops and commentators point to the need to address both.

San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller receives a woman as she arrives for the funeral Mass of Irma Linda Garcia and Jose Antonio Garcia at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Texas, on June 1.
San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller receives a woman as she arrives for the funeral Mass of Irma Linda Garcia and Jose Antonio Garcia at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Texas, on June 1. (photo: Chandan Khanna / AFP/Getty)

Responses to a slew of gun violence in recent weeks, including mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have fallen along predictable party lines. 

Republicans have tended to focus on the social and familial breakdowns that often contribute to these kinds of shootings, while Democrats have largely pushed for an increase in gun regulations, with both sides engaged in a zero-sum game of partisan brinksmanship.

In contrast to these one-sided approaches, several Church leaders in the U.S. are calling for a response to the crisis that takes into account all relevant factors, emblematic of the “both/and” approach that typifies Catholic thought and action.

On June 3, the heads of four U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees wrote to members of Congress, asking them to “unite in our humanity to stop the massacres of innocent lives.”

“There is something deeply wrong with a culture where these acts of violence are increasingly common,” the bishops wrote, urging elected officials to address “all aspects of the crisis, including mental health, the state of families, the valuation of life, the influence of entertainment and gaming industries, bullying and the availability of firearms.”

The letter was signed by Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, who heads the Committee on Catholic Education; Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who heads the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The bishops also cited the USCCB’s 1994 teaching document, “Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action,” which states, “We have to address simultaneously declining family life and the increasing availability of deadly weapons.”

Similarly, in the wake of the May 24 shooting spree at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, pointed out the problematic connection between easily accessible guns and a broken culture that robs young people of genuine hope and purpose, leaving them open to evil and violence.

“The darkness first takes our children who then kill our children, using the guns that are easier to obtain than aspirin,”  the Texas bishop, who heads the USCCB’s doctrine committee, tweeted after the massacre, which claimed the lives of 19 fourth-graders and two teachers.

Like the shooter in Buffalo, the Uvalde shooter was an 18-year-old male who used an AR-15, a high-capacity, auto-loading rifle. Several other mass shootings in recent years, including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and the 2019 shooting at an El Paso Walmart, were also carried out by young adult men utilizing the same or a similar weapon.

In a subsequent interview with PillarCatholic.com, Bishop Flores said that gun access and a frayed social fabric are “absolutely” connected, “because the guns then become … tools in a society where despair is spreading especially in younger generations. … So no, it’s not either-or at all — rather one sort of facilitates the other.”

 

Gun Reform

In their letter to Congress, the USCCB committee heads highlighted “reasonable gun-control measures” as an immediate priority. In particular, the bishops asked lawmakers to improve the firearm background-check process by passing the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021. The bishops also noted their support for Extreme Risk Protection Orders — known more commonly as “red-flag laws” — that temporarily restrict access to guns for individuals at an elevated risk of harming themselves or others.

The appeals are only the latest instance of the bishops’ long-term advocacy for gun reform in the U.S., a country where the right to bear arms is codified in the Constitution, but where exponentially more gun violence and mass shootings take place than in other developed nations. The USCCB continues to support bans on so-called assault weapons, which were banned in 1994 before the ban expired in 2004. The bishops also advocate for limits on access to high-capacity weapons, raising the age at which firearms can be purchased, criminalizing gun trafficking at the federal level, and other similar measures.

Catholic teaching underscores the right to legitimate self-defense. The Catechism teaches that “it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life” and that “legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.”

Simultaneously, the Church emphasizes that the right to self-defense, like all rights, must be integrated with the common good of society, which places a special preference on preserving peace and protecting the vulnerable. 

In 2017, after a shooting in Las Vegas killed 60 people, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, then-head of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote that “while acknowledging the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and related jurisprudence … society must recognize that the common good requires reasonable steps to limit access” to firearms capable of high levels of lethality.

“Access to these weapons should be a discussion that is focused on how we both respect the legitimate concerns of people who want to protect themselves or not be severely limited when they go hunting, but also the fact that some weapons out there pose a grave threat to the good of the whole,” said Bishop Flores. “And that discussion almost gets cut off when we’ve kind of elevated the individual right beyond proportion.”

 

Cultural Factors

Unlike most partisan advocates for gun control, however, the bishops point to the need to go deeper in their June 3 statement.

“While strengthened gun laws could reduce mass-casualty events, not even the most effective gun laws, by themselves, will suffice to address the roots of these violent attacks in our country,” wrote the USCCB heads. 

The bishops pointed out the weakening of the family as a major factor, noting that “many of the perpetrators of mass violence in schools have experienced childhood trauma including familial instability and suffering or witnessing physical abuse, emotional abuse, or substance abuse.” A study by Peter Langman, “School Shooters: The Myth of the Stable Home,” is cited in the bishops’ letter to Congress. 

The bishops also called for “improved access to and increases in resources for mental-health care and earlier interventions,” and have previously raised concern about the ubiquity of violent movies and video games in U.S. society. 

Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, agrees that family instability is a significant factor in the backgrounds of mass shooters and points to a related crisis of masculinity that also seems present in these scenarios.

Boys who don’t have a good and present father, he says, are more likely to “end up depressed, lost at sea, and vulnerable to being sucked into patterns of ‘hypermasculinity,’” in which there’s a tendency to prove one’s masculinity by engaging in aggressive and violent behavior.

“We don’t have a constructive model of masculinity we give our teenage boys in this country today,” said Wilcox, noting that young men are increasingly disconnected from involvement in their local communities. “If [young men] don’t have proper opportunities to belong to something that gives [their] lives needed direction and purpose, [they’re] more likely to come to this kind of nihilistic outlook that, obviously, in rare cases, ends up in some kind of shooting or other violent behavior.” 

Wilcox, a Catholic, told the Register social efforts to strengthen the family and enhance the formation of young men especially should be redoubled. He also said there’s a role in public policy for connecting some of the findings of social science, such as the connection between patterns of behavior indicative of a potential for violent outburst among young men, with commonsense “red-flag” gun laws that restrict access for said individuals.

Bishop Flores said that the Church has a key role to play in confronting the growth of despair among younger generations that receive life not as a gift, but as a game, or even a joke. 

“It is the responsibility of the Church to form young people in a sense of hope, a sense of purpose, a sense of courage, defending what’s good and what’s noble, and what’s vulnerable,” he said in his interview with The Pillar. “That is at the heart of the Church’s teaching mission.”

 

Overcoming Partisanship

Catholics may be able to see that both gun regulations and deeper cultural remedies may be needed to stem the current onslaught of mass shootings in America — but they’re not sure the rest of the country sees things similarly.

“We are just a deeply polarized country,” said Wilcox. “I think progressives tend to think about structural issues in public policy and conservatives tend to think about cultural pathologies, so on one side or the other, it’s hard to kind of appreciate that there may be a range of factors that are confronting us on a problem like this.”

With some exceptions, such as a National Public Radio story on the Uvalde shooting Wilcox highlighted, he said “progressives are allergic to talking about the family factor, which is a tragedy, given that it is part of the puzzle in this particular problem,” as well as many other social ills today.

Bishop Flores sees a similar ideological intractability on the other side of the issue. In his original social-media message, he said that American culture has “sacralize[d] death’s instruments” — treating gun ownership as a sacred right and viewing any discussion of reasonable gun regulations as off limits.

“Don’t tell me that ‘guns aren’t the problem, people are,’” the Texas bishop had tweeted. “I’m sick of hearing it.”

Recognizing the hyperpartisan climate in the nation today, the USCCB committee heads ended their letter to lawmakers with an appeal to collaboration — as well as empathy.

“Bipartisanship is never more important than when it is required to protect life and end the culture of death,” the four bishops wrote. “We invite you to support these measures and be a part of building up the culture of life that is so needed in our society, not just as elected officials but as mothers and fathers, grandparents, and aunts and uncles of little children or teachers whom you expect to return home safely today.”