We are pleased to post this guest blog from Thomas A. Shannon. Shannon is professor emeritus of religion and social ethics in the department of humanities and arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
The terrible tragedy last week in Aurora, CO, ironically just miles from the site of another massacre in Columbine, reveals the power of the gun. In just over a minute, the lives of 12 people were ended and the lives of many others irreversible changed. The fact the guns and the superabundant of ammunition appear to have been purchased legally does little to change the tragedy and surely does little to comfort those dead and wounded. Also whether the person responsible for this is mentally ill or not is beside the point. He had legal possession of guns that were able to do maximum damage.
Though calls for discussion of our gun culture and legislation are being made, it appears to be part of common wisdom that politicians are either unable or unwilling to challenge the power of the NRA. Whenever a politician suggests some change to gun legislation, he or she is immediately subject to the threat of not being reelected. Candidates for public office frequently need to demonstrate their support for guns by hunting or other activities involving the uses of guns. Many people feel the need to bring guns into the college classrooms and even Churches. But to criticize legislation that legitimates such behavior is to bring the wrath of the gun culture down on these people’s heads. Countering the NRA and the gun culture that surrounds it is difficult but there are two groups to whom I would issue a challenge to do so: The Franciscans and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. These two groups do not face reelection issues and are moderately independent of the usual pressures brought to bear on those opposing the gun culture. But there are more specific reasons for these two groups to step forward.
Francis of course preached peace in his own troubled times. During a Crusade, he sought out one of the Sultans to preach to him and seek peace. But more significantly when Francis established his Third Order of laypeople seeking to follow his way of life, one of the stipulations he made was that they should not carry weapons. This was quite a radical proposal for his day but it did prove effective in helping to diminish some of the violence at that time. Because of their history, the Franciscans stand in a unique place to begin preaching peace and to take leadership in opposing a gun culture. Francis said that the Friars should begin and end their sermons with the words “The Lord give you his peace.” Perhaps this could the basis for their preaching and for a public campaign to seek peace by countering the gun culture.
The USCCB is also in a unique place to begin a national campaign against gun violence. The Conference has many times demonstrated the ability to mount national campaigns that involved each diocese and parish of the country. They have distributed through various media pamphlets and other resources to provide the foundation for such campaigns. And the Bishops for decades have been promulgating a pro-life message. How much more pro-life could one be than to support gun control legislation? Would it not be wonderful to see a pastoral letter on the problems with our gun culture? Would it not be important for the bishops to ask us to hold hands, not weapons?
Both of these groups have the independence that is necessary to begin such a discussion and serious debate on gun control. They do not serve at the pleasure of an electorate and they both have deep resources within their traditions to address many aspect of the problems associated with the gun culture. Someone needs to stand up to this pressure and these two groups have the independence and resources to begin this discussion.
This is not intended as an anti-gun rant or a discussion on the interpretation of the Second amendment to the Constitution. It is not an anti-hunting or anti-target shooting screed. I live in a county where people hunt and most of those people use what they kill for food or take it to food pantries where the meat is distributed. We have a young man from our county on the Olympic skeet shooting team. Many young people learn to shoot on the high school shooting club. They learn to hunt from their parents or other relatives. But they also treat their guns with respect and use them for sport.
What we are seeing in the larger gun culture is close to an idolatry of weapons, particularly weapons that have no use in sport or hunting. Why is it necessary to be able to purchase an assault weapon? Why is it necessary to bring a gun to a classroom or a church? As long as victories for the gun culture such as the one in Aurora continue, we all stand in significant danger. I hope that the Franciscans and the USCCB will take up the challenge to begin a serious discussion on gun control so we may all live in peace.