Guns and the demise of the American common good

Among the so-called advanced societies of the world, only in the United States are there regular scenes of gun violence and suffering like that witnessed in July in Lafayette, La., after an apparently unbalanced middle-aged man fired off 20 rounds in a movie theater, killing two and injuring nine, or like the even more devastating spectacle that engulfed Charleston, S.C., the month before that when a hate-filled young man began a murderous rampage inside a historic African-American church, killing nine people during a Bible study.

And in the month just before that in Waco, Tex., on May 17, a dispute among biker gangs erupted into an epic gun battle outside a chain restaurant in a suburban shopping center. A witness likened it to a war zone, with “maybe 30 guns being fired in the parking lot, maybe 100 rounds”; families with small children were forced to scatter for cover. In the end, that violence left nine people dead and 18 injured. Authorities collected more than 100 guns from the brawling bikers. Amid reports of other bikers pouring in to Waco to take up the battle, the city was locked down. People were afraid to leave their homes.

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This is what passes for normal life in our armed society—enjoying the “freedom” that the National Rifle Association promises as the number of civilian firearms in the United States soars and easy access to guns continues. The gun rights movement has made sure of this. The N.R.A. has fought universal background checks for prospective buyers and uses its political power to limit the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to regulate gun dealers and track illegal guns and guns used in crimes.

The gun rights movement’s solution to gun violence is more guns—always more guns. Its supporters argue that we must ensure that the “good guys” among us are well armed, as Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the N.R.A., memorably put it, and we must expand the number of public venues where guns can be legally carried. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders were killed, the N.R.A. recommended placing armed guards in every school in the nation and training and arming teachers and staff. Many school districts obliged.

Since the shooting in 2007 at Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 people, the gun rights movement has persuaded legislators in nine states to allow students and faculty with appropriate permits to carry their weapons on public university campuses. Ten more states are considering similar legislation this year. It seems the very notion of gun-free zones is endangered. In April 2014 Georgia passed a controversial law—a so-called guns-everywhere statute—allowing residents to bring firearms into bars and restaurants, airports and government buildings.

The ‘Shoot First’ Society

In a lesser known and heralded policy position, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for stronger gun control. The bishops released an impassioned plea to lawmakers shortly after Sandy Hook, urging them to support bills that would make guns safer and restrict easy access to firearms. But American Catholics have not embraced gun control as a central tenet of their parish social justice agendas. This must change.

The gun rights ideology, which says we need ever more guns to deal with the threat of violence, that we must expand the number of public places where people may carry weapons and that we must legally protect people who use firearms, is opposed to the message of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching. The radical agenda of the contemporary gun rights movement undermines the very basis of civil society, reducing community members to atomistic, alienated individuals and contradicts the Catholic doctrine of the common good.

The gun rights movement is busy creating a shoot-first society. This is the upshot of so-called stand-your-ground legislation, now on the books in more than 20 states. Stand your ground is the logical, legalistic extension of our armed society; it effectively emboldens gun owners to use their weapons in public. Indeed, what good is owning and carrying a gun for self-protection if you are not also legally protected in using it?

Stand your ground was invoked in the case of the retired police officer Curtis Reeves after he shot an unarmed man he argued with in a Tampa movie theater in January 2014. The victim had allegedly thrown popcorn in Reeves’s face. His lawyer said Reeves did not know his assailant’s only weapon was popcorn; in the darkened theater, he feared his opponent was better armed.

Fair enough. In a stand-your-ground society, it makes sense to suspect and fear your neighbor. You do not know what weapons he may have, how he might use them and over what complaint, no matter how trifling. What if he decides, like George Zimmerman, who in 2012 confronted and killed an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, that you look suspicious, and he picks a fight with you? The law effectively can offer legal cover to shooters who, fearing for their personal safety, feel justified in using deadly force in self-defense. Ironically, of course, that is precisely the feeling they are more likely to have thanks to stand-your-ground ordinances.

The armed society obstructs our ability to fulfill the church’s teaching and work for the common good, a foundational concept in Catholic social teaching. St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that we are political by nature and that the aim of the political community is to advance this common good. The personal success and welfare of each individual is bound up with it, and people cannot hope to advance individual goals without accepting and contributing to it; but the common good is not the mere accumulation of individual goods. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it: “The human person cannot find fulfillment in himself...apart from the fact that he exists ‘with’ others and ‘for’ others. This truth does not simply require that he live with others at various levels of social life, but that he seek unceasingly—in actual practice...the good...found in existing forms of social life.”

Cooperation and interaction are necessary conditions of this social life, the compendium affirms. But stand-your-ground laws drive people apart; they sow and then validate mutual mistrust.

America’s profusion of arms makes us instinctively wary of reaching out to others, even in acts of charity. It becomes impossible to “seek the good of others as though it were one’s own good,” as the church urges, because an armed society opposes the primary and requisite identification with others. In a stand-your-ground world, other people are a source of fear—a source of danger. I have to worry about even minor misunderstandings, should my actions and outreach be interpreted as a threat.

A Deadly Force

Busy making guns a fixture in public spaces, the gun rights movement ironically compels a radical retreat from the public sphere. Guns are inherently isolating. A gun indeed communicates; it communicates a threat. This is its nature, and gun rights proponents admit as much when they proudly assert that the weapon on one’s hip serves as a warning—a warning of deadly force.

This is a disincentive to look for Christ in others, as the Gospel urges us to do—as Jesus’ disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus, when they invited a stranger to dinner and discovered he was the risen Christ. Jesus tells us that we encounter him in others when we reach out to them and serve them, when we extend the bonds of love. Jesus is found precisely in a rich, open public life. What is more, he urges us to reach out to those we would be least inclined to engage because we fear them or disdain them, or suspect them. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” Jesus tells us.

A favorite saying of the gun rights movement is that “an armed society is a polite society.” That is, guns sprinkled liberally throughout a community will effectively scare people straight. People will behave lest they insult or offend gun owners, and God help any prospective criminals. But I imagine it otherwise: an armed society is distinctly uncomfortable, treacherous and electric. The gun rights recipe for peace sounds more like a constant tense and tenuous standoff between warring parties. It is no prescription for lasting social peace and security.

Guns by their nature frustrate discourse; they chasten speech. If you should spy an armed citizen on a street corner, you are not more likely to walk up to greet him unannounced, but less so. Most people will hurry the other way. Gun rights proponents will object at this point, saying that if or when guns are a regular feature of everyday life—in other words, a commonplace—they will not hinder conversation. Perhaps. But this does not change the fact that guns certainly do not invite conversation and interpersonal contact. Guns are mutually alienating.

The theologian Jacques Maritain suggested how an armed society violates natural law. “Each one of us has need of others for his material, intellectual and moral life,” Maritain explained in The Rights of Man and Natural Law, “but also because of the radical generosity inscribed within the very being of the person, because of that openness to the communications of intelligence and love which is the nature of the spirit and which demands an entrance into relationship with other persons.” Of our nature, we are outwardly directed, driven and disposed. We cannot live without others; we require their contribution and interaction. On our own, we are incomplete. The church teaches that we must work in and with a political community advancing the common good in order to perfect our nature.

Mr. LaPierre declares that supporting the gun lobby’s agenda “is a massive declaration of individual rights.” To be sure, gun-rights absolutism demands nothing short of radical individualism, sliding into a dangerous and foolhardy, and ultimately destructive, insistence upon self-determination and self-sufficiency. Mr. LaPierre is prone to listing the many hostile forces that oppose individuals in society, beginning with the government, which “can’t or won’t, protect you.... Only you can protect you!”

To gun owners, he declares, “We are on our own!”

Seeking Security

But an individual cannot ensure his security on his own for long. Real security rests on the integrity of society at large, which is contingent on the cooperation of others and, in a democracy, the rule of law. The N.R.A. touts gun ownership as the best way to protect your private property, your person and your family. But in a society without the rule of law and its recognition by others, your property is hopelessly imperiled, no matter how great your arsenal.

The gun rights movement willfully, at times happily, ignores the rule of law, but the rule of law is what ensures the seamless functioning of modern democratic societies. Everyone can go about their business because they assume their neighbors recognize and respect the rule of law. They share the conviction that invisible, tacitly accepted and understood laws govern society and that everyone will behave accordingly and predictably. If, by contrast, good behavior must be ensured at the barrel of a gun, as gun rights proponents maintain, then all bets are off; I can assume nothing about anyone else’s behavior. Needless to say, it fundamentally changes my everyday life and makes it impossible to pursue ordinary business.

“In the world that surrounds us,” Mr. LaPierre told the 2014 Conservative Political Action Committee convention, “there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers [sic], haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.” The implication is clear: The rule of law is quite nearly vanished; civil society is on the brink, if not already destroyed in parts of the country.

These are no harmless, idle pronouncements. In the hands of the gun rights movement, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A proliferation of guns in society, increasingly prevalent in public spaces and used in stand-your-ground states to neutralize imagined threats, undermines the conviction that the rule of law still pertains. People who have no gun start to think they too should be armed—and ready to use their weapon. That erodes the rule of law even more. In short, the gun rights movement creates the world it warns us of—where differences are decided by gunfire, as in Waco.

To that extent, Mr. LaPierre gives up on humanity; he would reduce us to our mere physical being, engrossed in selfish, material concerns. “In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption,” he told the crowd at the convention, “there is no greater freedom than the right to survive, to protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want.”

The church maintains far higher aspirations. “The human being is a person, not just an individual,” the compendium tells us, and “does not find complete self-fulfillment until he moves beyond the mentality of needs and enters into that of gratuitousness and gift, which fully corresponds to his essence and community vocation.”

Political society is not an end in itself, according to the church. We have a higher destiny, an ultimate end in Christ. But we cannot hope to attain that end, Aquinas knew well, unless we inhabit a society that promotes the fullest development of the human person in all its capacities and encourages and makes possible outreach and service.

We require such personal preparation to invite grace, and this is achieved in a political society devoted to pursuing the common good. The common good demands that we resist the radical agenda of the gun rights movement and work to bring peace to this armed society.

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James Richard
2 years 3 months ago
"But an individual cannot ensure his security on his own for long. Real security rests on the integrity of society at large, which is contingent on the cooperation of others and, in a democracy, the rule of law." Correct. The problem is, too many in society do not respect the lives of others and the cops are being overwhelmed by them. So, such being the case, what do law-abiding individuals do to protect their families from home invasion etc? I wait for your answer.
Ernest Martinson
2 years 2 months ago
The National Security State (NSS) has the answer for law-abiding citizens. A police state will protect your family from domestic and foreign invasion. There is a price tag, of course. Freedom will no longer be affordable. But freedom was never free. It required eternal vigilance. Happily, this individual vigilance is no longer necessary as we have placed our faith in the NSS that watches over us, protecting us from ourselves and the rest of the world with an arsenal second to none.
William Atkinson
2 years 3 months ago
The Unfortunate end to this GUN problem (Our forefathers and writers of the constitution used flint lock rifles) is to arm everyone, It will become a out west shoot first and fastest on the draw WINS. One method to control weapons is to see weapons the same way we see automobiles, houses, toys, and other stuff in our masses society we live in today; Register, License, and heavily insure all weapons owned or otherwise inside America, and anyone not having such proof of registration, licensing, and heavy insurance loses their weapon and pays high fines and even jail time. This does not stop law abiding residents and citizens from owning and possessing weapons (especially weapons of mass killings) but does regulate and control there existence.
James MacGregor
2 years 3 months ago
RE: "A gun indeed communicates; it communicates a threat." I agree. I experienced positive results of that when I served in Vietnam. Military personnel were generally courteous - at least not abusive - to one another, because we were all armed and the threat was always there. The scourge of Americans killing Americans was done in a way that was not public, had to be proven, and did not usually involve firearms.
Ellen Marie Dumer
2 years 3 months ago
Thank you Dr. DeBrabander! For an article that goes to the foundation of the issue and respects us as human beings, rather than individuals with an "all about me" fearfulness.
John Wotherspoon
2 years 3 months ago
This CNN report tells what Australia did about the gun problem ....and what US can do: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/19/world/us-australia-gun-control/
James Bannon
2 years 3 months ago
No doubt we need to work on the conversion of people to Christ. That will solve a myriad of society's problems. But there are other issues to consider: Are the "so called advanced societies" also those that promote killing the unborn the most? Or that are moving down the path of euthanasia? In the City of Chicago, guns are highly regulated, but the murder rate is sky high. The suburbs have less restrictions and a fraction of the violence. It seems the criminals have no problem getting guns. So will more regulation help? Perhaps the most deranged will be denied a permit, but if gang members can get guns, the deranged may just buy illegal guns as well. Historically, the largest number of innocents killed (post-birth) have been by governments against unarmed populaces. The second amendment is a protection against government tyranny.
Charles Erlinger
2 years 3 months ago
Did it ever strike anyone reading this as odd that the Catholic Church (which,I assume, is us) has practically no persuasive power over our fellow citizens in matters such as this? Our first instinct seems to be to invoke the law or in some other way try to enlist the Power of the State to force our fellow citizens to behave the way that we would prefer.
Rudolph Koser
2 years 3 months ago
Great comment and no one will adopt Church positions as theirs in the political sphere because they are not money raisers like abortion or to a lesser extent contraception and politicians know the Church will not vocally push it as they do these issues or as they did with same sex marriage. A real shame.
Michael Keyes
2 years 3 months ago
Professor DeBrabander seems to be painting all gun owners with a very broad brush. Since this includes about a third of the population of the United States, he is making a significant statement about "the gun movement" which ignores that fact that it is not a monolithic group - that would just be demographically unlikely. If you ask the hardest of hard liners (assuming you could without ad hominem remarks) if they abhorred the violence in Colorado or at Virginia Tech, most likely they would say yes. If you ask them if inner city youth should be killing each other is large numbers, they would say no, and if you ask them if there is any justification for a mentally disturbed person to shoot children, the response would be the same as yours. Because this is a politically polarized argument such a dialogue would be rare, if ever. Instead of trying to find a mutually agreeable solution to gun violence (of which there are several types), most of the time people back into their corners and spout the kind of rhetoric that this article shows. The fact is that the Second Amendment is here and people have a constitutionally defined right to own guns. This right has restrictions, as was pointed out in the Heller decision and exists right now for certain classes of people, and these restrictions have not been fully defined. But no one talks about the restrictions in a reasonable manner because of the polarization. (President Obama did in one speech but no one heard that part.) Gun violence is often spoken of through the filter of our differences. Gun owners see any attempt at resolving the issues of gun violence as an attempt to diminish this civil right. Anti-gun forces seem to hold a market force argument - if you diminish the access to guns, gun violence will go away. Neither side is willing to look at alternatives and articles like this one just continue the knee jerk responses. I'm not sure what Professor DeBrander would suggest or offer to deal with the problems of gun violence. Changing the Constitution is one answer, but 50 states have concealed carry laws (for example) , the Supreme Court has affirmed an individual's right to have a weapon, and the process to change an Amendment is very difficult. Because there are over 300 million firearms in this country (that we know of) gathering them all up and destroying them would be an impossible task especially in the light of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights, and the cost alone would be astronomical. This assumes that the citizens would be agreeable to such a taking of property. The gun rights movement may be radical or perhaps "radicalized" is a better word. Polls of gun owners don't always reflect the views of the various gun organizations and like most political actors they have to raise money mostly by appealing to their constituents by scaring them. But the anti-gun forces do the same thing and each side can't live without the other, at least not on a political basis. Guns=bad, No Guns=good is not a viable answer to the problems of violence in our society. There are plenty of reasons why law abiding citizens own guns in this country. Self defense is a legitimate reason - by the most anti-gun estimates, 100,000 encounters with a dangerous situation a year have been averted according to the recent Obama administration report on gun violence in 2013 - and there are plenty of other aspects to gun ownership. Focusing only on the violence puts a false face on gun owners in general. What is not acceptable is guns in the hands of psychotic killers, guns in the hands of violent criminals or un-monitored children, all of whom are restricted from owning firearms (sort-of) by federal and state laws. And no gun owner objects to these restrictions. Look at the prime examples of gun violence: psychotic killers, black on black inner city children (assuming you count anyone under 21 as a child) with handguns, criminals. There are also severely depressed people who kill themselves after killing their families, murders of passion, and others, I am sure. There are also those sad cases of children who die because adults are morons, accidents and people like George Zimmerman who may be all the above. There are inequities, social causes, a poor mental health "system" (if you can call it that), stupid and untrained people (ironically the main force for gun safety training is the NRA) and above all a polarized society. So we can continue to go on and blame each other for this problem, we can offer solutions that not really solutions as they are impractical or impose on the civil rights of others, or we can sit down and look for the difficult and complex (and probably imperfect) answers to this problem. Each side needs to understand what is going on with the other and to work with the vary large convergence of opinion that is hidden by this polarized dialogue that exists now. Being righteous has no place if there is to be an answer but both sides, at least the political entities of both sides and those who drink their Kool-Aid, are having a hard time dealing with this issue in the light of the common good. Perhaps God will grant us grace, but we have to show that we can use it first.
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
I wish your philosopher DeBrabander would go find himself a mountaintop on which to sit and offer advice to those seeking “the meaning of life.” Oh, wise Guru, consider some factual data from the real world to inform your philosophical meanderings. Here: ********************************************************************************* A survey conducted by researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago found that Chicago criminals obtained their firearms almost exclusively from friends and family. The survey, funded by the Joyce Foundation and set to be published in the October edition of Preventive Medicine, consisted of interviews with 99 inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail who had illegally possessed a gun within six months of their incarceration. It found that most criminals only acquired guns from people they knew and trusted. “It is rare for offenders to buy from licensed dealers, and also rare for them to steal their guns,” the study says. “Rather, the predominant sources of guns to offenders are family, acquaintances, fellow gang members—which is to say, members of their social network.” The study found that due to fears of encountering undercover police officers attempting sting operations, a large majority of the criminals surveyed would only make illegal gun purchases from people they knew. “In discussing the underground gun market in their neighborhoods, most respondents emphasized the importance of connections—prior relationships that could create sufficient trust to reassure the seller that the transaction would not create an unacceptable legal risk,” the survey says. “A majority of the primary guns (40 of the 48 for which we have detailed information on the source) were obtained from family, fellow gang members, or other social connections; the fraction is still higher for secondary guns.” “Only 2 of the 70 primary guns (3%) and no secondary guns were reported as purchased directly from a gun store.” *********************************************************************************** More gun control laws directed against us law abiding citizens will not reduce gun crimes or gun violence. Philosopher DeBrabander – yes, I'm unimpressed – apparently misses a fundamental fact: the right for law-abiding citizens to own firearms was written into the US Constitution by men who risked their lives, their property, and their sacred honor – which some of them lost – to have a citizenry willing and able to resist dictatorial government. That's what we have now; a president who routinely fails to “faithfully execute the Law” (e.g., the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA), a president who consistently lies to the American people and the (credulous) Catholic bishops (ask the Little Sisters of the Lied To). Please also inform DeBrabander the NRA has no votes for any member of Congress. Only citizens can vote; I do. I'm not a member of the NRA. I don't need the NRA to tell me why I ought to own a firearm; I can decide that for myself. I don't need ignorant, left-wing propagandists from the Society of Jesus or the USCCB to tell me why I shouldn't, either. A little more attention to facts – not philosophical dream-weaving – might also save the Church, the USCCB and the Jesuits from the continuing crusade against Obama's “climate change crisis”. Two separate contractors, working for NASA, assure us, based on worldwide satellite data, there has been no global warming for more than 18 years. Philosophy based on facts, please!
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 3 months ago
Of twenty-three dictator run countries, only three have a violent death rate higher than GOP dominated states. The firearm fatality rate alone of GOP dominated states runs over ten times higher than the violent death rate of the ten most socialist countries in the world. Wayne LaPierre perhaps belongs on a list of arms traffickers like Monzer al-Kassar, Pierre Beaumarchais, Viktor Bout, Samuel Cummings and Adnan Khashoggi.
Alex Finta
2 years 3 months ago
Pardon me for being sceptical (and a Republican, and a firearms owner), Mr. Kotlarz. I think you are a left wing Democrat, and a liar - but I repeat myself. Please provide some verifiable FACTS! Such as a reference? A source for the strange statistics you quote? What is a "GOP dominated state"? Governor = GOP? Legislature = GOP? Population = 50.1% GOP? Feel free to name the 23 "dictator run countries"! Feel free to name the three that have a violent death rate higher...yadda yaddda yadda...Syria? Ethiopa? Is Chicago "GOP dominated"? Washington, DC? St Louis? New York? They have very high violent death rates - i.e., homicide rates. Some countries have high auto death rates, such as Greece. Are they included in your violent death rate countries? To the best of my knowledge, (NOT perhaps), Wayne LaPierre has not done anything illegal, immoral, or unscrupulous. I'm pretty sure your hero Obama would have him in jail in a instant if that were true. Mr. LaPierre merely asserts OUR right to own firearms, in accordance with the Second Amendment - not yet repealed by Obama's Executive Actions. I'm not (yet) a member of the NRA, but fanatic leftists like you impel me to join. I do not intend to be dictated to, nor governed by, liars like you, Obama, and Hillary - Democraps all.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 3 months ago
Demographics are what they are. Fatality rates come from CDC and WHO. Google a list of current dictators. In a GOP dominated state, both US senators, a majority of its representatives in congress, the governor and majorities in both state legislatures are typically republican. A minimum of 55% of the popular vote for Romney can identify the states. Illinois has a lower firearm fatality rate than any of the GOP dominated states. I don't see how Obama or Hillary have anything to do with the violent fatality rates in GOP dominated states running worse than 80% of the world’s dictatorships.
Richard Wells
2 years 3 months ago
I'm so curious as to how many people walking around with concealed weapons have been assaulted in the past one, five, or ten years. How many armed Americans have been in a mass shooting situation in their lifetimes? True, these things happen. With 319 million people in America many things happen, but really - when was the last time your life was in danger? I think we're arming ourselves against our fantasies.
J Cabaniss
2 years 3 months ago
Professor DeBrabander is free to make whatever argument he likes against private gun ownership. What he is not free to do, however, is to suggest that the church has a position on this issue. Guns in public may in fact be a very bad idea, but this is a question of practical implications; there is no moral choice involved. The most direct reference I have seen on the subject is this comment from St. Bellarmine's treatise on civil government (De Laicis): "...if there be no law prohibiting the carrying of weapons, the carrying of weapons will be evil for him who is easily provoked to anger, and who has enemies whom he desires to kill; but it will not be evil for a peaceable man, who only desires to defend himself."
Todd Cotts
2 years 2 months ago
How does one approach this topic without bias, given that the statistics change when accounting for population? http://www.ijreview.com/2015/06/348197-obama-said-mass-shootings-dont-happen-in-advanced-countries-like-in-us-one-chart-proves-him-wrong/
Frank Bergen
2 years 2 months ago
A year and a half ago America published an issue with an unusual cover: the text of a proposed 28th Amendment of the United States Constitution. It was very brief, and I paraphrase: The 2nd Amendment is hereby repealed. States shall have power to regulate the possession and use of firearms. It is a marvelous idea whose time will only come when we have a people not mesmerized by the likes of Wayne LaPierre and not fazed by sidearms on the hips of their 'neighbor', and a Supreme Court that recognizes that along with most of the rest of the world we have arrived in the 21st century and no longer live in the circumstances that prevailed ca. 1790.

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