On Gun Control, Bishops Offer Moral Guidance But No Absolute Stand

IN STATEMENTS and pastoral messages dating back as far as 1975, the U.S. bishops have strongly endorsed regulating the use and sale of handguns in this country. In a September 1975 document called Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life, issued by the Committee on Social Development and World Peace of the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), the bishops called for a “national firearms policy” that included a cooling-off period between the sale and possession of handguns, a ban on Saturday Night Specials, and registration and licensing of handguns.

The rest of the country is catching up, as the gun control issue, which has had mixed results in Congress, is now being played out in many of the states. And much of what is being asked for by way of regulations on handguns is exactly what was found in the bishops' national firearms policy, drafted more than 20 years ago.

Some of the latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., indicates that in seven states, the number of firearm deaths surpass the number of motor vehicle deaths each year. One of those states is Washington, where a measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, known as Initiative 676, called for new requirements that handgun owners obtain a license and pass a safety test, and for trigger locks on every pistol—new or used—sold in the state.

Although polls taken less than a month before the election indicated that the measure would pass, heavy lobbying late in the campaign, especially by the National Rifle Association, helped to defeat it by a 3 to 1 margin.

The measure was supported by the Washington State Catholic Conference. A memo sent to every pastor in the state by the Conference director, Sister Sharon Park OP, on behalf of the bishops of the state of Washington, said that “… As a Church deeply committed to upholding the value of human life, we oppose forces which threaten it. One of these factors is the easy availability of handguns.”

“We have taken a position supporting Initiative 676, and we don't usually take a position,” Sister Park said. “But we have done so because the bishops for such a long period of time have said that reducing the number of handguns is one of the ways to do something about violence, and particularly to protect our children.”

Sister Park pointed out that simply getting the measure on the ballot in the state was a great accomplishment for those in favor of more handgun controls. It is estimated that one in five residents of the state of Washington own a gun. “180,000 signatures were required, and 220,000 were collected,” she said.

The U. S. bishops have followed up their landmark 1975 statement calling for controls on handguns with two other important documents concerning violence in American society: 1990's New Slavery, New Freedom: Pastoral Message on Substance Abuse, and 1994's Confronting a Culture of Violence. Both documents call for Catholics in parish groups and as individual citizens to call on the strength of their convictions as the first step against violence.

“… We can turn away from violence; we can build communities of greater peace. It begins with a clear conviction: respect for life. Respect for life is not just a slogan or a program. It is a fundamental moral principal flowing from our teaching on the dignity of the human person. It is an approach to life that values people over things. Respect for life must guide the choices we make as individuals and as a society; what we do and won't do, what we value and consume, whom we admire and whose example we follow, what we support and what we oppose. Respect for life is the starting point for confronting a culture of violence” (Confronting a Culture of Violence).

In spite of their strong words in favor of controls on handguns, the bishops have never questioned the constitutional right to own firearms, or criticized the use of guns for hunting and recreational purposes.

“Clearly, the bishops have not taken a position on owning handguns, but on their responsible use,” according to Dan Misleh, a policy advisor in the Department of Social Development and World Peace at the USCC.

That rather fine point of distinction sometimes makes it difficult for state Catholic conferences, which are traditionally the policy arm of the bishops in their respective states, and other Catholics in leadership positions, to take a vocal stand on the various gun control proposals that are moving through so many of the states.

For example, earlier this fall, California Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have outlawed the sale and manufacture of inexpensive handguns known as “junk guns” or Saturday Night Specials. Federal law bans the importation of this type of gun, and the overwhelming majority of this category of firearms—80%—are manufactured in the state of California.

But the California Catholic Conference did not actively lobby for this piece of legislation, although they “basically supported” it, according to David Pollard, associate director for public policy at the Conference.

“It was a legislative attempt to eliminate a class of weapons whose sole purpose is maiming or eliminating life,” Pollard said. “These are not hunting weapons, not skill weapons—none of the legitimate justifications.”

“Our action on gun control has never been a drum-beating kind of thing,” Pollard said. “Basically, our stance over the years has been to take no position on the ownership of guns … but rather, lending moral force or moral support.”

Although this measure failed in California, Maryland banned the sale of the same class of handguns nine years ago. Connecticut has already made laws similar to the set of safety and licensing requirements just voted down in Washington. In a few other states— Massachusetts in particular—gun control advocates have taken to applying consumer product safety regulations already on the books to the sale of guns, requiring certain safety features. And in South Carolina, Minnesota, Hawaii, and Illinois, there are laws prohibiting the sale and manufacture of some handguns made with inferior-quality metal.

At the conclusion of their 1975 document, Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life, the bishops said that they understood the controversial nature of this issue, since the right to bear arms is “grounded in the Constitution.”

“We realize … some people of good faith will find themselves opposed to these measures. We acknowledge that controlling possession of handguns will not eliminate gun violence, but we believe it is an indispensable element for any serious or rational approach to the problem.”

Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.