Gun, Violence, and the Gospel

I am a responsible gun owner. I like shooting and I have hunted (unsuccessfully). I am interested in and know a lot about firearms. I have family and friends who are responsible gun owners and collectors. I respect the Second Amendment to the Constitution and the natural right of self-defense that it recognizes. I realize that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding and that many violent crimes are prevented by private gun ownership, including by licensed concealed carrying of a firearm.

But guns are too readily available in this country, and we’ve seen what happens when they can easily be obtained by people with mental health problems, ideological fixations, and a heart of darkness. About 15 million firearms are manufactured or imported into the United States every year. About 30% of adult Americans own at least one firearm and there are an estimated 300 million firearms in private ownership. In many states there are shockingly few limits on buying a gun. Just as an example, we go to West Virginia every summer to do vounteer work. Gun ownership is a serious part of the culture there. One day, about a week after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, we walked into a hardware store and there in the back was a rack full of rifles — including one identical in all respects to the one used in that massacre. I could have bought it and as much ammo as I wanted, simply by showing ID and doing an instant background check over the computer. No licensing or training requirements and no oversight by any government agency ever again.

And there are far too many deaths and injuries that result from gun ownership. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2014, 33,594 persons died from firearm injuries — and an astonishing 64% of those deaths were suicide. The most common victim is a white, middle-aged or older man who takes his own  life. The other most common victim is a young black male who is murdered. There clearly is a connection between ease of access to firearms and violence. The problem is in crafting public policies that will have an actual impact, rather than just “making a statement”.

Gun ownership in much of the country is regulated far less than many perfectly safe activities. For example, to become a licensed barber in New York, you have to complete a 500 hour training class that costs thousands of dollars. Nobody has ever died from a bad haircut. To own and drive a car, you need a license that requires training classes, an eye test, periodic renewal, passing a government-supervised examination in safe driving, plus a government-recognized title of ownership and proof that you have adequate insurance. Clearly there is a need for much tighter licensing requirements for firearm ownership.

The Bishops of the United States have long advocated for reasonable regulations of gun ownership. Their suggestions are not perfect, but they would be a good starting point:

  • Universal background checks for all gun purchases — the effectiveness of a background check is entirely dependent on the quality of the information that is gathered. If key information is not included in the database, then background checks are useless. But even the best background check has limited usefulness, because many violent offenders have no prior criminal records that would exclude them from lawful gun ownership.
  • Making gun trafficking a federal crime — There are already numerous federal and state laws that prohibit illegal gun transactions and possession, but they are limited in scope and enforced with few resources. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has only 2,700 special agents and was only able to refer fewer than 9,000 criminal enforcement cases for prosecution in 2016. There clearly needs to be a greater commitment of resources to the enforcement of gun laws. Laws with wider scope are also necessary to cut down on practices like the use of “straw purchasers” as a subterfuge for criminals to buy multiple guns.
  • Limiting civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines — These bans are highly controversial and their feasibility and effectiveness are not clearly proven. However, the use of semi-automatic rifles in recent mass shootings has heightened public interest in cutting back on their availability. No law can perfectly accomplish its goal, but some kind of regulation of these weapons may be able to reduce risks of multiple-casualty incidents.
  • Improving access to mental health care for those who may be prone to violence — This is a major public health need, and it is not being adequately addressed at all levels of government. It is a particularly important response to the high number of gun suicides. Unfortunately, its effect on gun homicide is not easy to determine, since the great majority of people who use guns to kill others are not discernibly mentally ill.

In the end, the only real solution to gun violence is to address the pathologies of our culture. We live in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway society” where all things, including human lives, appear to be disposable. We are also deeply in the clutches of what Pope St. John Paul called the “Culture of Death”, in which death and violence are almost reflexively seen as the solution to all kinds of problems. There is a sickness in the heart of our society, and that comes from a sickness in the hearts of too many of us — the loss of a sense of the innate dignity and sacredness of every human life, and of any hope or meaning in our lives.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers the ultimate and best answers to these sicknesses of heart and soul. But while we work for the evangelization of our culture and the conversion of hearts, we must work towards a consensus on reducing the availability of firearms, as an imperfect but incremental way of reducing the terrible violence we see in our nation.

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