Are gun manufacturers and politicians morally complicit in mass shootings?

Michelle Trigo, right, carries balloons to lay near the site of Sunday's shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. Trigo's friend Malinda Lamford, left, brought roses to lay at the small memorial growing down the street along Highway 87. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Most people surely agree with President Donald J. Trump’s calling the massacre in Las Vegas on Sunday, Oct. 1, an “act of pure evil.” No one would dispute that Stephen Paddock is primarily responsible for this evil. However, can we also say that gun manufacturers bear some responsibility for the evil of Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook and the carnage on our streets every day? What about politicians who refuse to enact reasonable gun control laws? In the language of Catholic moral theology, do they cooperate in this evil?

A recent column in The Economist maintained that some believers see evil as an inevitable element of the human condition. Thus, regulations such as gun control designed to eliminate evil are futile. But this simplistic understanding of evil leads to fatalism and reduces responsibility for violent tragedies to the perpetrator alone and/or some malevolent cosmic force (e.g., Satan).

The understanding of evil in the Catholic moral tradition can help us think through such issues more fully. Catholic teaching assigns guilt first of all to perpetrators of sinful acts themselves, but it also underscores the social conditions that contribute to sin.

Those who do not do what is reasonably possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals contribute to what Cardinal Timothy Dolan labeled a “Culture of Death."

In his encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” St. John Paul II spoke of “structures of sin” that individual sins create and sustain. Because we are all ensnared to one degree or another in these webs of sinful relationships, practices, institutions and laws, it is impossible to avoid some degree of complicity in them. And as Catholic ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio argues, “if social evil is occurring, we can be held accountable for contributing to it.” We need to take steps “to lessen our cooperation with sinful structures.”

Those who do not do what is reasonably possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals contribute to what Cardinal Timothy Dolan labeled a “Culture of Death, where human life and dignity are cheapened by the threat of violence.” They cooperate in the evil of gun violence.

In Catholic moral theology, there are different forms and degrees of cooperation in evil. Formal cooperation in evil is never permissible. It entails either directly participating in the act itself or “sharing in the immoral intention of the person committing it” (“Evangelium Vitae,” No. 74). Being an accomplice in a shooting would constitute formal cooperation in evil. Providing the shooter with a gun with the intention of abetting a murder is also formal cooperation in evil, even if the accomplice does not physically participate in the act.

Gun manufacturers may not be guilty of formal cooperation in evil. But this does not exonerate them from material cooperation in evil.

Catholic ethicists have long regarded the principle of cooperation to be exceedingly difficult to apply in many cases. For starters, we cannot always know the intentions of others. In this case, let us assume that most gun manufacturers do not intend for their products to be used as murder weapons. Furthermore, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 2263-65) allows for the lethal use of force in self-defense if it is a necessary last resort and proportionate to the situation. Authorities entrusted with preserving safety and peace (i.e., police and military) may use arms against an unjust aggressor if, and only if, these conditions are met. In other words, guns can serve a legitimate, albeit limited purpose.

Therefore, gun manufacturers may not be guilty of formal cooperation in evil. But this does not exonerate them from material cooperation in evil, as theologians James F. Keenan and Thomas R. Kopfensteiner explain. If gun manufacturers do not attempt to “distance themselves” as much as possible from the killing of innocents by criminals, they are guilty of illicit material cooperation in evil. Furthermore, there must be “a proportionately grave reason” to produce the guns that have killed more than 1.5 million people in the United States since 1968 (66 percent of these deaths were suicides, and 33 percent were homicides, according to Politifact).

Rather than distancing themselves from the evil of widespread, tragic gun violence, the gun industry helps create the conditions for its possibility.

It is hard to imagine such a reason. Our country now averages more than one mass shooting per day (defined as four or more victims). Americans own 42 percent of the 644 million civilian-owned guns in the world. And the evidence is clear: More guns lead to more lethal violence, fewer guns correlate with less lethal violence. For this reason, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for the “eventual elimination” of handguns in the United States, with exceptions such as police and military firearms. We might add necessary, but not all forms of, hunting to this list.

Rather than distancing themselves from the evil of widespread, tragic gun violence, the gun industry helps create the conditions for its possibility. According to the Brady Center, gun manufacturers know that their products become murder weapons far too often, and 5 percent of gun dealers sell 90 percent of these firearms.

In addition to mass production, gun manufacturers have acted otherwise to ensure the increasing proliferation of guns. As this report in The New Yorker describes, the industry “markets fear,” making people believe they need guns to be safe even though violent crime has declined by 50 percent since 1991 and owning a gun greatly increases the risk of homicide or suicide in a home. The gun industry also donates millions to the National Rifle Association in order to influence lawmakers who might otherwise curb the industry’s $12 billion yearly profits through gun regulations. The industry’s lobbying efforts also won civil immunity from Congress in 2005, which shields them from civil liability for deaths and injuries resulting from their products.

It is perhaps no wonder that Pope Francis has called Christian gun manufacturers—and Christians who invest in gun manufacturing—hypocrites.

In short, producing and selling assault weapons in the United States that are not designated for law enforcement or the military—and wind up giving gangs and people like Stephen Paddock massive arsenals—is illicit cooperation in the evil of gun deaths. It is also an immoral act per se. There is no justifiable reason for it that squares with Catholic teaching on the morality of acts (see The Catechism, Nos. 1749-56). At a minimum, gun manufacturers should mitigate the negative consequences of producing firearms by supporting sensible gun control laws, such as those endorsed by the U.S.C.C.B.

Politicians who enable the proliferation of assault weapons are also guilty of illicit cooperation in evil. Those who voted against background checks, closing gun purchase loopholes and the assault weapons ban have these votes on their consciences. Even though support for keeping gun ownership legal remains strong, the majority of Americans support these measures. Investors should use strategies such as shareholder advocacy or divestment to push gun manufacturers to do the right thing. Investing is always a “moral choice” and cannot be driven by profit alone (“Centesimus Annus,” No. 36).

Everyone must do their part to promote the culture of life by fighting the social sin of gun violence.

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Dimitri Cavalli
3 years ago

Liberal radio talk show host Alan Berg favored gun control. After he began receiving death threats from Neo-Nazis, Berg applied to the local police department for a gun permit. He was turned down. The police made no effort to protect Berg. I'm guessing he wasn't wealthy enough to hire 24-hour security. He was soon murdered.

For every tragedy one insists can be prevented with gun control, there are many cases in which tragedies (against the elderly, disabled, gays, minorities, cab drivers, store owners) are prevented because the person owns or carries a firearm. In fact, guns don't even have to be fired to deter a crime. They can simply be brandished as gay libertarian author Jonathan Rauch once did when accosted by several thugs armed with metal pipes.

I don't think anyone's personal safety should depend on police 911 response times. Research by Jeremy Lott ("More Guns Less Crime") has shown that areas with higher rates of gun ownership have far less crime.

I think the evil lies in those who just want to keep us in a chronic state of victimhood and make everyone dependent on the state for everything.

Stanley Kopacz
3 years ago

You are conflating the sale of revolvers and pistols for personal protection with the marketing and sale of military grade semiautomatic rifles to the general public. Even the restriction against fully automated fire was shown to be easily obviated. And tracer bullets are available to the public? Why? Time for some domestic arms control addressing an overmilitarized public. As for your rugged individualism, if a coronal mass ejection ever wipes out the electric grid, you'll die off with all of the rest of us civilized hot house plants. It's civilization and big gummint that keeps us all alive in such vast numbers.

Fifty Cal
3 years ago

List all the militarys of the world that use "semiauto rifles". The grand total of that number is ZERO. And list all the gunz that were NOT "military weapons" at some time. You can't. EVERY GUN can be traced to it's military roots. Muzzleloader, bolt action, lever action, pump action, revolver, semi-auto and fully automatic have ALL been used. So quit worrying about the TOOLS and change the PEOPLE that do these actions. I have yet to see a gun load, aim and fire itself.

Jonah Hirsh
3 years ago

According to the Supreme Court in its 1939 U.S. v. Miller decision (cited by Justice Scalia in the majority D.C. v. Heller opinion), the criteria that qualify firearms for 2A protection are "in common use", "some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated miltita" and/or are "any part of the ordinary military equipment".

The Second Amendment protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms suitable for militia (i.e. military) use. The prefatory clause in the amendment makes that perfectly clear and the Supreme Court has so ruled, decades upon decades ago.

Translation: YOU. CAN'T. DO. THAT.

Ellen B
3 years ago

Gun manufacturers lobby for lax gun regulations in order to amass more sales, groups lobby for lax gun laws & the government officials take that money. The protections that we enjoyed for years are being systematically rolled back & we are becoming more unsafe. Lies are being perpetuated that one side wants to "take" all weapons. Studies regarding gun violence are blocked. Complicit? Absolutely.

Michael Barberi
3 years ago

I am for gun control especially banning military semi-automatic weapons. However, this will not prevent the type of tragedy we witnessed in Las Vegas. Anyone insane enough or a terrorist can get their hands on just about any military grade weapon. If such laws will decrease mass murders with military semi-automatic weapons (or at least one) then Congress should pass such laws as well as responsible background checks.

While better gun control is a good starting point, what we truly need is more effective moral leaders such as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and anyone in a capacity of public and family responsibility. Additionally, there are far too many Catholics who have no confidence in the hierarchy to resolve the many issues facing families today. Just consider how divided we are on Amoris Laetitia, Humanae Vitae and the treatment of LGBT Catholics in irregular marriages. The same could be said about gun control.

The state of affairs we find ourselves in today will take a long time to resolve.

Jonah Hirsh
3 years ago

"I am for gun control especially banning military semi-automatic weapons."

"The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table." - D.C. v. Heller (2008)

E.Patrick Mosman
3 years ago

"Therefore, gun manufacturers may not be guilty of formal cooperation in evil. But this does not exonerate them from material cooperation in evil,"
Quite a stretch since mass killers are now using cars,trucks,knives, pressure cookers and whatever readily available items are usable for mass killings which would mean that the manufacturers of these "weapons" should also be tarred with the "cooperation in evil" brush.
Where would this corruption of moral responsibility end?
Perhaps all these anti-gun/gun control supporters will lay out what constitute better gun control laws than exist today in the USA. Also they should be required to explain how and why the European countries with the strictest gun control laws in the universe fail to prevent mass killings.

Dimitri Cavalli
3 years ago

Well said.

Let's remember that the three worst mass murders in U.S. history (9/11 in 2001, Oklahoma City in 1995, and the torching of the Happy Land Social Club in 1990 in the Bronx, where I live) didn't involve firearms.

Thanks to YouTube and the Internet, "how to" knowledge is readily available. YouTube turned me into a decent auto mechanic (at least for Honda Civics). The knowledge is often neutral and can be used for good, evil, or pranks (which may backfire).

Rudolph Koser
3 years ago

We have the highest mass murder rate in the world (4 or more killed). Look at Australia if you want to see what happens when you get rid of machine gun type weapons. I might also add that, if taken care of, guns do not wear out, so sales need to be stoked through fear, etc. Unfortunately many American gun owners fetishize their guns.

Frank Silbermann
3 years ago

Scoped bolt-action hunting rifles are designed to kill a deer with one shot at 300 yards. A single shot rifle would take two seconds to load between shots. Add three seconds to aim at an individual vitals and you could have twelve deaths per minute. The shooter fired for well over ten minutes -- so as many or more could have been killed had he not sprayed his weaker bullets wildly. With no guns, a person willing to die could rent a truck and drive head-on into a full school bus.

So I conclude that this article is merely trying to create a scapegoat.

Jonah Hirsh
3 years ago

Since when is protecting a constitutionally-guaranteed right 'complicit' in evil?

Your worldview might work in France, Great Britain or Australia, but it's completely out-of-place here.

emmett coyne
3 years ago

The author makes a case for moral complicity based on Catholic moral theology. Fine.
But what about the pope and bishops and their complicity in clerical sexual abuse?
As Paul said, "Lest preaching to others, I become a castaway."

Christopher Lochner
3 years ago

As for the call for the "eventual elimination" of handguns one has to dig very deeply into the linked resource and reference (no. 36) which was not listed as a statement of policy but as an addendum. The concern appeared to be over gun violence in the drug wars. Sensible regulation is not the same as eventual elimination unless the bishops are proposing the sin of authoritarianism.

JR Cosgrove
3 years ago

I won't own a gun or have one in my house. I however support responsible others to do. I believe it it is about freedom. An interesting quote from a discussion just yesterday

The left sneers at conservatives for “doing nothing,” but conservatism understands the tragedy of the fallen world: we can only choose between freedom with evil and slavery with evil, because no government is large enough to make evil go away.

Tim O'Leary
3 years ago

I would like to see several reforms in gun laws that should not interfere with the 2nd amendment, (smaller magazine size, banning bump stocks, tracking of multiple sales, etc.) However, I do believe there is a balance between those laws/regulations and the rightful use of guns for self-defense. In some communities, the 911 response time is way too slow to protect one's family. I also agree that terrorists or those desiring mass murder will find other means if guns are harder to come by, and they will find ways to get guns, as we see in Europe where the laws are about as restrictive as possible.

The NYT had a sobering list of how long back it took for 58 deaths to pile up in cities. It was 28 days in Chicago, 68 days in Baltimore, 105 days in Phili, etc. (all run by the Democratic party, I might add). The message seems unmistakable - strict gun control laws do not prevent criminal use of guns. Something else is needed, such as a change to societal norms.

As to structures of sin, the following also probably contributes to the killing.
1. Movies that glorify violence, especially those that glorify mass shootings;
2. Books and movies that excuse/justify/promote fornication, and sexual libertinism, and the tools for that, such as contraception, abortion, divorce;
3. All laws and societal norms that increase family breakdown, parental irresponsibility;
The list could be much longer but I'm sure Pope Francis would agree these all contribute to violence in our societies and that it is hypocritical to oppose laws that promote them.

Charles Erlinger
3 years ago

Recently I have added to my long list of petitions recited before mass and, when I can stay awake, each night, prayers for those in occupations related to the firearm supply chain and border control and enforcement in the U. S. Many, and probably most, have well-formed consciences and are fully aware that because God endowed us with reason God fully expects us to use it. I try to appreciate the moral anxiety they must be experiencing and pray that they respond to the grace that God offers all of us to act with prudence and fortitude in their daily duties. I do wonder whether I could do it if I were in their situation.

JR Cosgrove
3 years ago

Diane Feinstein

“No, he passed background checks registering for handguns and other weapons on multiple occasions,” Feinstein told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

But there is one law he definitely broke, which is the law against murder. Criminals don't follow the law. Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Regulations aren’t going to do it,” Feinstein said on the need for a law over an ATF rule. “We need a law. It can’t be changed by another president.”

What is the law?

John Walton
3 years ago

The "fork" is responsible for obesity.
There is no free will, there is no allowance for sociopathic behaviour. Only an inanimate object, a pagan totem is responsible for human actions.
Such is the state of analysis in the Post JPII/BXVI world.

J Rabaza
3 years ago

Bravo. Bravissimo, Estupendo.
I will use your fork analogy with regard to obesity, cancer, heart disease, etc, etc, etc henceforth. It is brilliant.

* From as far back in time as data is available (1965) until when Chicago’s handgun ban was enacted (1982), 48% of all murders in Chicago were committed with handguns.[70]
* During the period in which Chicago’s handgun ban was effective (1982 to 2010), 59% of all murders in Chicago were committed with handguns (data unavailable for 2000 to 2002).[71]
* During the seven years prior to when Chicago’s handgun ban was lifted, 71% of all murders in Chicago were committed with handguns.[72]
* In 2011, the Chicago Police Department made an “internal policy decision to discontinue” its murder analysis reports that provided data on total firearm and handgun murders. The Chicago Police Department expects to begin publishing these reports again in 2017.[73]

rose-ellen caminer
3 years ago

Outlaw guns period. Let hunters keep their rifles at a secured hunting lodge. Have mandated prison sentences for any one who possesses a gun, after some grace period where all who return their guns get reimbursed and there is a functioning 911 access and response in rural areas.
When and if the day comes that we must rise up against our own government, we can ask the help of another sovereign country for military support, arms, and intervention. Enough with the rugged individualism- 19th century pioneer -cowboy justice, mindset, that breeds paranoia, conspiracy theories, glorification of militarism, too much violence, and makes for other mal adaptions to a 21st century globalized world and nation. Lets interpret the second amendment to mean a police force or state militia.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 years ago

Rose Ellen
There is this little thing called the Constitution and a series of Supreme Court cases standing in the way of your suggestion. You know full well that your suggestion has zero chance of implementation.

rose-ellen caminer
3 years ago

The Constitution is like the Bible , it can be interpreted to mean anything you want it to mean; the second amendment can be interpreted to mean a state or locality has the right to a militia, or it can mean a local police force. It does not have to mean every individual armed , or armed to the teeth as some interpret it. And the Constitution can be amended.
Democratic societies, culture, laws, change [evolve?,] over time. It matters not what the words are of the Constitution but what the beliefs are of just enough people in positions of power[ executive, legislative and or judicial] at any given time. Usually movements for change start from the bottom [ as political activism] and then eventually after much agitation from the bottom, are validated by the government; whether legislatively, by executive action or ultimately by the Supreme Court, if necessary. Then lo and behold a new right is "recognized"; it always existed of course but had not been recognized. Over time the new insights are normalized and are part of the culture. Exceptions of course exist; like the "right " to abortion which is still contentious.
The document is a frame; in it fits any and all new insights of what constitutes a fair and just society. That can include a re interpreting of the second amendment, or a new amendment clarifying the second. Or even an outright repeal. One day theoretically, the right to live free from fear of people armed with guns may be recognized as part of a civilized society whatever the words of the Constitution say. It starts with agitating from the bottom up;talking about it.

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