The Idolatry of Weapons

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.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jason Yergler
6 years 8 months ago
Once again, the Constitution is misunderstood.  The Second Amendment is NOT about hunting, target shooting, or other "sporting purposes."  In the context of a document espousing natural law and limiting government, that reading makes no sense.  

It is about protection of oneself.  God ordained self defense, and the Second Amendment recognizes the right to protect the integrity of one's body and spirit from criminals on one level and an overreaching government on another.  

The right to keep and bear arms is ultimately our last protection against tyrannical government.  I don't need a semi automatic rifle to hunt deer.  I need it to be on equal footing with the government.  The only logical reading of the Constitution is that one.  Otherwise, it collapses under the weight of illogic and fallacy.

And finally, assault rifles are already illegal.  I can not buy an M-16, which is fully automatic, mutliple bullets with one pull of the trigger.  By definition, an assault rifle has that capability.  I can only buy a semi-automatic which is one bullet per pull of the trigger.
james belna
6 years 8 months ago
As it happens, the movie theater in Aurora was a real-world test of Mr. Shannon's theory. Although Colorado allows its citizens to legally carry handguns, the theater complex (by decision of the owner) is a ''gun-free zone''. As far as we can tell, all of the patrons in the theater that evening obeyed the law and left their guns at home.

James Holmes did have a gun. Unlike certain 13th century sultans, he was not impressed by the peaceful witness of the law-abiding audience which had voluntarily disarmed itself, and he methodically set about to kill as many of them as he could, without fear for his own life. Even though there were armed police on-site at the complex who responded to the theater almost immediately, Holmes had ample time to kill 12 people and seriously injure dozens more. In this case he chose to use a gun, but he could have killed just as many with a gas can and a match.

And the only reason why he was able to commit mass murder is because his victims were completely unarmed, like the good little Franciscans that Mr. Shannon wanted them to be.
joseph o'leary
6 years 8 months ago
USCCB issued a Pastoral Letter on Violence in 1994. Here's the link:

It's long. But thorough.
Stanley Kopacz
6 years 8 months ago
Jason Yergler, I'm a gun owner but good luck using them against a tyrannical government.  Ever see those films from a helicopter erasing people with a .50 cal.  They didn't even know it was coming.Anybody on the ground  shot back at a drone yet?  The republican party will outlaw guns if billionaires start getting shot.  I don't much care about gun control one way or the other.  It's the CO2 that's going to get us all.
Jim McCrea
6 years 8 months ago
Give the Occupy movements free and virtually unfettered access to the kinds of weapons that this sick many had - and watch them use them - and you'll see the NRA push for gun control so quickly their trigger fingers will cripple for life.
J Cosgrove
6 years 8 months ago
Do Guns cost death or prevent death? That is the question that should be debated?  It is obviously not a simple issue as some have tried to make it.  It is very complex and to suggest otherwise is fatuous.

As I just replied to this question on the other OP on this topic, the answer is guns both cause and prevent deaths. If one wants to take a side on this then they should be prepared with facts to back up their point of view.  Here are a couple of links to those who defend gun rights or information on the values of allowing citizens to carry guns.

Whether these are valid measures of the vaule of controlling guns or allowing guns is what should be debated.
Thomas Rooney OFS
6 years 8 months ago
@ Jim Belna
Your comments about us "good little Franciscans" notwithstanding...

Turning this movie theater into some Wild West shootout from yesteryear would likely have created more confusion, certainly more shooting and perhaps more deaths, being that the theater was dark and full of the smoke/gas released by the perpetrator. 

Imagine if everyone HAD brought their guns into this crowded, dark, smoke-filled theater...I simply don't see Holmes being brought down cleanly.  I imagine panicked random shooting, poorly aimed shots, multiple crossfires, and more victims.  I imagine a legal nightmare of trying to match the bullets to the victims.

And I imagine more than one law-abiding citizen's life destroyed when he discovers it was his weapon that killed a 9 year old kid, or maimed a 30 year old man for life.
David Smith
6 years 8 months ago
Not ''idolotry'', I think, Tim.  Personal guns are a potent symbol for many people of a deeply felt pain - a need for freedom from oppression - a need to react to a growing threat from a government that subjugates its people in the name of freedom - a desire on the part of people strongly inclined to action not to live helplessly in an amoral and increasingly dangerous world. Or perhaps the desire to carry a gun is something more general and pervasive - a protest against the brutalization of the human spirit by an increasingly impersonal, mechanized world, in which the dignity of the individual is unceasingly diminished.

If this is the sort of thing we're talking about - or, rather, the sort of thing we should be talking about - a knee-jerk movement to further oppression is pouring gasoline onto smouldering coals.


The latest from america

The freshness and wonder, the way that what was there before still exists but is now shot through with newness. The city glitters. Why not? Lent is the season of baptismal preparation as much as penance.
We have experienced God’s benevolent interventions in our own lives.
Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of "Women Church World" a monthly magazine distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, poses in her house in Rome. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)
"We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by a climate of distrust and progressive de-legitimization," founder Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in the editorial, which went to the printers last week but hasn't been published.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shakes hands with Alabama State Sen. Henry Sanders at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., responded to a question about his religious views by talking about his own faith and what he sees as a distortion of Christianity among U.S. conservatives.