Posts Tagged ‘Gun violence’

The Heart of Darkness in our Nation

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

We are once again confronted with a horrendous act of violence directed against innocent people. A young man, obviously disturbed, gained access to a powerful weapon and an unlimited supply of ammunition, and brought death into a school, traumatizing dozens of families, a community, and a nation. This comes as a tragic exclamation point to weeks of news about violence against women, either in the form of sexual harassment or domestic violence.

The public policy debate over gun control will be raised to a fever pitch. That is entirely right and good. There must be a public response to these events — and all the similar ones like them — as a defense of the common good and innocent vulnerable people.

We like to consider ourselves the most powerful, technologically and socially advanced nation in the world. Yet we seemingly cringe in a self-perception powerlessness when it comes to gun violence. We are the only nation in the world where these mass shootings happen on a regular basis, yet we seem unwilling to learn the lessons of other nations or to take them seriously.

How many more tragedies have to happen before we strictly limit access to firearms? In Florida, where this most recent tragedy took place — and in most other states — it is pretty much as easy to buy a gun as it is to buy a can of soda. Under their laws, you don’t need a permit to own a rifle or handgun, you don’t need a permit to carry a rifle and you can get one to carry a pistol for a small fee, you don’t have to register the weapon, you can you don’t have to take safety classes, you can buy the gun from anyone, you don’t have to pass any screening beyond the perfunctory federal questionnaire, you don’t have any limits on the number of weapons or the amount of ammunition that you buy, you don’t have a waiting period to buy a rifle and only a three-day limit for a handgun, there are no on-going permit or inspection requirements, and you can bring a weapon in from out-of-state without any restriction or regulation.

This is absurd. It is more difficult to obtain a barber’s license than it is to get a gun. We cannot stand by any longer and allow this to go on.

This is an important pro-life issue. Obviously, abortion is a much more grave threat to human life than gun violence — about 900,000 unborn babies are killed in abortion, while there are about 35,000 deaths from firearms (of which fewer than half are from assaults, the majority being suicides or accidents). But the amount of gun violence, and the availability of guns, are significant contributors to a culture of violence in the United States. They are a key part of the “Culture of Death” so often condemned by St. John Paul II:

This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life”. We find ourselves not only “faced with” but necessarily “in the midst of” this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. (Evangelium Vitae 28)

It is also something that Pope Francis has talked about. Last year, one of his monthly prayer intentions was for the elimination of the global arms trade. He said this:

It is an absurd contradiction to speak of peace, to negotiate peace, and at the same time, promote or permit the arms trade. Is this war or that war really a war to solve problems or is it a commercial war for selling weapons in illegal trade and so that the merchants of death get rich? Let us put an end to this situation. Let us pray all together that national leaders may firmly commit themselves to ending the arms trade which victimizes so many innocent people.

The arms trade has been denounced repeatedly by the Holy Fathers and the Holy See and our Bishops. But it’s not just an international problem. Over 27 million guns were sold in the United States in 2016 — enough for just about every single person in both New York and New Jersey to own one. That is ridiculous. There is no justification for such an arms trade in the United States, and it must be stopped by legislation restricting gun ownership and gun availability.

At the heart of all this violence — and the other violence we’ve seen in the news, particularly violence against women — is a darkness in the human heart. In The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul repeatedly referred to this darkness, the loss of the sense of God and the good, the turning against neighbor as Cain turned against Abel, and the fruits of violence in death. But he also pointed to the solution to this darkness — the light of the Gospel and the light of Jesus Christ Himself. The Apostle John says it very clearly:

I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:8-11)

We don’t know what darkness lurked in the heart of the young man who killed all those children in Florida, any more than we know the darkness that lives within each one of us. But we do know that we have a duty to the common good to stop wringing our hands and pretending that we don’t know how to reduce gun violence. We do, but our political classes lack the courage to do it.

And we also have a duty to proclaim boldly to our deeply wounded nation that the answer to our darkness is not to choose hatred and sin. It is to open ourselves to the healing love of God the Father through Jesus Christ.

Gun, Violence, and the Gospel

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

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.