Are US bishops reaching critical mass on a new push for new efforts to curtail gun violence? For decades, US bishops have advocated stronger efforts to police gun sales and on occasion even suggested a preference for a gun-free society, but formal statements specifically on gun control have have only been issued rarely or as part of a broader indictment of American society like 1994’s “Confronting a Culture of Violence.”
But after a recent series of gun rampages across the country, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago stepped into what can be a brutal rhetorical fray. In an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune in October, he took a vanguard position, arguing that the time had come to "take meaningful and swift action to address violence in our society.” Chicago is known both for its tough gun laws and high rates of gun violence; Cupich pointed out that it was meaningless for Chicago to have stricter gun regulations on the books when gun buyers can readily pick up weapons in downstate or regional gun shops where the stricter codes does not apply.
"Let's be honest,” he wrote. “The Second Amendment was passed in an era when organized police forces were few and citizen militias were useful in maintaining the peace. Its original authors could not have anticipated a time when the weapons we have a right to bear now include military-grade assault weapons that have turned our streets into battlefields.”
He charged that the the Second Amendment's original intent “has been perverted by those who, as Pope Francis recently commented, have profited mightily.” He added, “Surely there is a middle ground between the original intent of the amendment and the carnage we see today.” Cupich called the combination of a ready supply of firearms, the glamorization of crime, "a society where life is cheap" and untreated mental illness "a recipe for tragedy."
Yesterday, following President Obama’s announcement of executive actions toward “gun safety reform,” Bishop Kevin Farrell joined Cupich. Supporting the president’s “modest” proposals, Farrell wrote, they represent “first steps in correcting gun laws so weak that they are ludicrous.” He added, “Congress has unabashedly sold itself to the gun lobby. If there was ever any doubt, its recent action to kill legislation to ban people on the terrorist no-fly list made it obvious.
“It is absurd that terrorists, criminals, and mentally unbalanced people can freely and openly buy weapons not intended for sport, but designed to kill people. Writers of the Second Amendment envisioned smooth bore muskets and not semi-automatic and automatic weapons of war.
“Thank God,” Farrell wrote, “someone finally has the courage to close the loopholes in our pitiful gun control laws to reduce the number of mass shootings, suicides and killings that have become a plague in our country.” Farrell’s objections to U.S. gun culture are especially notable. He is the bishop of Dallas, an especially gun-friendly city in an exceptionally gun-friendly state. Texas welcomed the new year by joining 44 other U.S. states in liberalizing concealed carry laws. Farrell deplored the new policy as an expression of “cowboy culture.” He added, “It is difficult to see how this new law allowing persons with concealed handgun licenses to openly carry firearms can accomplish anything other than cause people to feel threatened and intimidated.” He draw a line in the sand on gun rights at the threshold of the Dallas diocese’s churches and offices. “In accordance with the law, the Diocese of Dallas will prohibit the possession of any weapon in any facility owned, leased and operated by the diocese or a diocesan entity…This policy is rooted in the belief that our churches, schools and other places of worship are intended to be sanctuaries—holy sites where people come to pray and participate in the ministry of the Church.
And Farrell’s were not the only high profile comments yesterday from a Catholic leader on Obama’s proposals. Speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami said, “Violence in our society is a complex issue with many facets, taking many forms. While no measure can eliminate all acts of violence which involve firearms, we welcome reasonable efforts aimed at saving lives and making communities safer.” Wenski, the chair of the bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, noted that the conference has long “called for reasonable policies to help reduce gun violence.”
He suggested in a follow-up to Obama’s lead that the U.S. Congress “take up this issue in a more robust way, considering all of the varied aspects involved.” He said, “In addition to reasonable regulation, conversations must include strengthening social services for persons with mental illness, while being mindful that the vast majority of those suffering with mental illness are not likely to commit violent criminal acts.”
Other Catholic voices joined U.S. bishops yesterday. The Franciscan Action Network (FAN) issued a statement commending the president for his proposals. "FAN acknowledges, as does the President, that stronger measures need action by the Congress," said Sister Marie Lucey, Director of Advocacy. "However, FAN applauds the President for doing what he can within his legal abilities. His executive actions are definitely moving in the right direction.
“We now call on Congress to follow the President's lead and pass meaningful gun safety legislation to ensure that Americans are safer in their own homes, neighborhoods, places of worship, movie theaters and schools.”
If U.S. Catholic leadership determines this year to take a more prominent role in promoting policies aimed at reducing gun violence and harm, they may be able to count on the support of the head office in Rome. Pope Francis has been a frequent critic of the international arms trade, including the manufacturers of small arms which may account for as much as 90 percent of the suffering in global conflicts.
In his speech before the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis asked, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?…Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money—money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Advocates for tighter U.S. gun controls argue that pope’s global concerns pertain to the U.S. gun industry as well. Jon Lowy and Kelsey Rogers of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence commented in September, “The Pope may have been decrying the global arms trade, but his message equally applies to the problem of ‘bad apple’ gun dealers right here at home.”
According to this analysis, the “bad apples” represent just 5 percent of the all U.S. gun dealers but supply almost 90 percent of guns used in crimes in the United States—400,000 crimes each year. “In short, this small number of dealers are responsible for selling the guns used in virtually every gun crime, and they often sell these guns in reckless or illegal ways: to straw purchasers, gun traffickers, or obviously dangerous people. The gun industry makes millions of dollars by choosing to sell guns that any sensible person would know shouldn’t be sold.”