Gun control is about the defense of life. Those who consider themselves religious or pro-life must be invited to see that the desire to prevent gun-related deaths is part of the religious defense of the dignity of all life. To put the matter bluntly, if one is in favor of protecting the unborn--and advocate for them, march in protest on their behalf, donate money to pro-life groups and encourage voting for legislators who protect the unborn—one should be equally in favor of protecting those lives six and seven years out of the womb, the ages of several of the children murdered last week in Connecticut.
I am not a political person. I do not follow political campaigns or the ins and outs of various pieces of legislation as closely as some of my friends do. And I don't know which politicians have supported and opposed stricter gun control laws. But I am a religious person. Many of my political opinions, then, are formed by my religious ideals: for example, a commitment to help the poor and marginalized, a desire for a peaceful world, and a respect for the sanctity of life from natural conception to natural death.
That is why I believe that gun control is a religious issue. It is just as much of what many religious people call a “life issue” or a “pro-life issue,” as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty (all of which I oppose), and programs that provide the poor with the same access to basic human needs as the wealthy (which I am for). There is a "consistent ethic of life" that views all these issues as linked, because they are.
All these issues, at their heart, are about the sanctity of all human life, no matter who the person is, no matter at what stage of life the person is passing through, and no matter whether or not we think that the person is "deserving" of life. The issues just mentioned are of course different. To take the most obvious example, the agonizing decisions surrounding euthanasia, with which loving families are sometimes confronted, are not to be equated with the twisted decisions of a mass murderer. But they are all, in one way or another, actions that impinge on the sanctity of human life. God gives life to every person, and that life is holy.
In the wake of last week's tragedy in
But our deeply felt revulsion over these crimes, our sadness over the violent death of young children, and our sympathy for family and friends of the victims, is more than an invitation to prayer. Deep emotions are one way that God encourages us to act. Simply praying, "God, never let this happen again" is insufficient for the person who believes that God gave us the intelligence to bring about lasting change. It would be as if one passed a homeless person and said to oneself, "God, please help that poor man," when you could have helped him yourself. It may help to frame the situation by using the old moral category of a "sin of omission," something that you should have done but failed to do. What will God say to us if we fail to do this? And last week's shootings, like many mass murders, could have been made less likely if the shooter did not have such easy access to firearms and ammunition. (Why, I wondered reading the reports last week, did one household need so many guns?)
Religious people need to be invited to meditate on the connection between the more traditional "life issues" and the overdue need for stricter gun control. The oft-cited argument, "Guns don't kill people, people do," is unconvincing. Of course people kill people; just as people also procure abortions, decide on euthanasia and administer the death penalty. Human beings are agents in these matters. The question is not so much how lives are ended, but how to make it more difficult to end lives. Over the years the government has legislated minute instructions on safety features for automobiles, to increase their safety for the driver, passengers, and others on the road. Surely it is not beyond us to summon up the moral courage to intelligently regulate guns and rifles.
Pro-life religious people need to consider how it might be made more difficult for people to procure weapons that are not designed for sport or hunting or self-defense. Why would there be opposition to firmer gun control, or, to put it more plainly, laws that would make it more difficult for mass murders to occur? If one protests against abortions clinics because they facilitate the taking of human life, why not protest against largely unregulated suppliers of firearms because they facilitate the taking of human life as well?
There are some cogent arguments against restricting access to firearms. People enjoy guns for sport and hunting. The Second Amendment permits the private ownership of guns (though I doubt that the need for a "well-regulated militia" envisioned by the framers of the Constitution translates into such easy access to assault weapons or the need for multiple guns in a house with children or adolescents.) But there is nothing to say that more stringent gun control laws that could lessen the frequency of such horrible crimes cannot be judiciously balanced with constitutional rights.
But the Christian outlook on this has less to do with self-defense and more to do with the defense of the other person. Jesus asks us to love our enemies, not to murder them; to pray for them, not to take vengeance; and he commends the peacemakers among us, not those advocating for more and more and more weapons.
Was Jesus naïve? I wonder. I often marvel how some Christians can say that in one breath, and proclaim him as the Son of God in the next. Apparently, some believe that the Second Person of the Trinity didn't know what he was talking about. But Jesus lived in a violent time himself, under the heel of Roman rule in an occupied land, when human life was seen as cheap. Jesus witnessed violence and was himself the victim of violence--the most famous person to suffer the death penalty. It was not only divine inspiration but also human experience that led him to say: Blessed are the peacemakers.
In July, I wrote almost the precise words in a column after the shootings in a theater in
I don’t have an easy answer for this life crisis: I’m not an expert in the types of rifles and automatic weapons that are used as assault weapons, which models are used most often by murderers, which ones are designed to penetrate body armor of police, and so on. But clearly there are some regulations that would lessen mass murders, and still preserver people’s Second Amendment rights and their desire to hunt for sport.
E.J. Dionne, a columnist respected by many individuals of all political stripes, had a thoughtful suggestion for how to begin: “We should begin with: bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons; requiring background checks for all gun purchases; stricter laws to make sure that gun owners follow safety procedures; new steps to make it easier to trace guns used in crimes; and vastly ramped-up data collection and research on what works to prevent gun violence, both of which are regularly blocked by the gun lobby.” Those who would oppose any regulations on the basis that it is impossible to stop person-on-person violence, it seems to me, are giving into the least religious of reactions to problems: despair.
Last week's shootings absolutely horrified me, and reminded me of the need for religious people who stand for life, and for churches who stand for life, to stand for life at all times. Why haven't I written as much on other life issues? Because the Catholic Church's stance on most of those issues is very well known. By contrast, religious people have seemed relatively silent on this other life issue. Perhaps it is the kairos, as Jesus said: the right time, in this case for religious people to pray about these issues in a new light.
Frankly, I wish the same intensity that is brought to bear on abortion could be brought to bear on this issue. Perhaps it is because the church’s teaching on this often goes unnoticed. As far back as 1975, the U.S. Catholic bishops called for “effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.” For those who would, and have, answered by saying that abortion takes more lives, I would say that this is not a matter of numbers. Every single life is sacred.
Some on the political right may object to my stance on firmer gun control. Some of the political left will object to my stance on abortion. But that doesn't bother me, because I am not political. I am religious. And so I am for the sanctity of life. And when I think of my seven-year-old nephew and what a bullet would do to his body, I can hardly bear it. Therefore, I am for stricter gun-control laws that will protect lives, not end them.
If you want to defend life, defend it. At all times. And in all places. In the womb and in an elementary school.