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.
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!”
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.