How the Catholic Church could help lead a gun control movement

A student lights a candle in front of the North Carolina Capitol in Raleigh on Feb. 20 in memory of the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The students were calling for safer gun laws after 17 people were killed when 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz stormed the Parkland school on Feb. 14 with an AR-15 semi-automatic style weapon. (CNS photo/Jonathan Drake, Reuters)A student lights a candle in front of the North Carolina Capitol in Raleigh on Feb. 20 in memory of the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The students were calling for safer gun laws after 17 people were killed when 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz stormed the Parkland school on Feb. 14 with an AR-15 semi-automatic style weapon. (CNS photo/Jonathan Drake, Reuters)

After a gunman killed 17 people at a Florida high school last week, calls for prayers and action were again issued by Catholic leaders, with church leaders who are sometimes at odds on other controversial issues releasing strikingly similar statements.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago wrote, “Let us make it clear to our elected officials that the weapons and ammunition that facilitate this carnage have no place in our culture.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia seemed to agree, writing that Americans should be “angry at our lawmakers for doing so little to prevent these catastrophes.” Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, perhaps put it most clearly when he tweeted a day after the shooting in Parkland, “Our thoughts and prayers must be joined with action, we can and must do more to prevent such attacks.”

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That got me thinking: If Catholic leaders seriously want to push gun control legislation, what might a concerted campaign look like? Over the years, I have reported on a number of public efforts by church leaders on a range of hot-button issues, and there are some lessons to be drawn from those experiences.

When people speak about “the church” in the United States, they almost always mean the church hierarchy, comprising the several hundred bishops who lead and run dioceses. Many of these men regularly issue statements about gun violence and the need for greater gun control.

If Catholic leaders seriously want to push gun control legislation, what might a concerted campaign look like?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released its last comprehensive pastoral statement addressing gun violence in 1994, titled “Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action,” and its leaders have followed up many times with statements supporting tighter gun restrictions (including, interestingly, given the current debate about military-style weapons, a call in 2000 to ban most handguns except for law enforcement and the military). But following a tragedy, statements are plentiful, and few break through the cultural noise.

Oftentimes quiet, symbolic actions are more powerful.

On immigration, for example, one of the most enduring “statements” about the church’s advocacy for more humane immigration laws came during a Mass along the U.S.-Mexico border that several bishops attended in 2014. The photograph of a Catholic bishop distributing Communion to fellow Catholics on the other side of a border fence, their faces unseen and only their hands visible, showed in ways words cannot how the U.S. immigration system is broken, how it separates family and why immigration is a moral issue.

When it comes to guns, there have been some examples of powerful actions that say more than words. I am thinking of a 2016 anti-violence march co-led by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Chicago priest and activist from the city’s South Side. I covered the event, in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shopping district, as hundreds of people marched with wooden crosses bearing the names of victims of the city’s gun violence. The images were powerful and they were seared into the minds of many Chicagoans who saw them in newspapers and on TV.

Bishops could consider holding a similar event, perhaps asking Catholic families who have been affected by gun violence to gather with them for Mass, reserving empty spaces for those whose lives were cut short by guns. In many cities, when bishops speak, the media pays attention. Using that pulpit to highlight gun violence in a visually powerful way—and asking pastors to consider preaching about the issue—could show Catholics that legislative action is needed to help curb gun violence. A coordinated preaching campaign has precedent. Later this month, for example, Catholic priests throughout Missouri are expected to preach against racism, in response to a request from the archbishop of St. Louis.

On another front, one of the major impediments to stemming U.S. gun violence is the lack of available research about it.

The number of fatalities from automobile accidents has declined steadily since the 1970s, thanks in part to treating them like a public health threat and devoting the necessary resources to understanding car accidents and then implementing measures to reduce them or mitigate their effects. The same with tobacco use.

But with gun violence, as a recent article in The Atlantic explains, a 1996 law backed by the National Rifle Association severely limits federal funding for research about guns, hampering efforts to understand the role they play in homicides, suicides and accidental shootings.

Catholic health care networks could help in this area.

There are more than 600 Catholic hospitals in the United States, including many in locations disproportionately affected by gun violence. The Catholic Health Association, which represents these institutions, has been vocal in its support for addressing gun violence. Perhaps some of these hospital networks could devote funding to lead their own research, answering questions about where gun violence clusters, who is affected and what causes conflicts to escalate.

Providing answers to some of these public health questions could be a valuable contribution from Catholic hospitals, which serve one in six hospital patients in the United States every day.

When it comes to rallying the faithful to lobby legislators around certain issues, it is true that affecting change in state capitals is difficult, and in Washington it feels downright impossible. And in fact, on some high-profile issues, the church’s efforts have failed. But the efforts themselves are still important because they help educate Catholics about the values the church teaches.

Catholic leaders have done this on abortion, marriage, health care and, most recently, immigration. (In fact, Catholic bishops announced an initiative encouraging Catholics across the country to contact lawmakers on Feb. 26 to urge congressional action on DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, before the program expires next month.)

Perhaps parishes could organize action days, asking volunteers from social justice committees to recruit parishioners to visit state capitals, write and call lawmakers, and highlight how gun violence affects their local communities. With more than 17,000 parishes in the United States, even a fraction of them participating in a program like this could help advance the goals laid out by many Catholic bishops.

Agree with its tactics or not, the March for Life is one of the most visible displays of Catholic activism in the United States. And this is not by accident. Many Catholic high schools and colleges not only give students the day off to attend the event, they provide transportation and lodging to make sure the numbers at the march surge into the tens of thousands each year. The participants draw in lawmakers and activists who share their goals and want their votes. Even the president addressed the marchers this year.

Would the schools that participate in the March for Life each year consider supporting a march against gun violence? There is one already being planned—March for Our Lives on March 24—and it is led in part by some of the students who have survived school shootings. Will bishops and large delegations from Catholic institutions be part of this event?

Finally, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become something of a lightning rod in recent years because of its use by gun-rights activists following shootings. Critics say the phrase is employed to muzzle conversation about gun control soon after a tragedy. But for Catholics and other believers, this phrase can be sincere. After all, people of faith do believe prayers make a difference.

Christians are marking the season of Lent, a time of asking God for forgiveness and pledging to turn away from sin. What better time for church leaders to highlight the plague of gun violence, fueled as it is in no small part by the drive for money?

In recent years, U.S. bishops and other church leaders have devoted time and resources to a number of political issues. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently voted to create a permanent committee about religious liberty. During the fight over same-sex marriage, individual bishops and the conference spent vast sums of money advocating against the change.

On immigration and poverty, many programs and campaigns spread the church’s message, making the church’s case to lawmakers and their staffs as well as to everyday Catholics. If U.S. church leaders seek to make gun control a top priority, a look at the church’s other public policy campaigns could provide a wealth of ideas.

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J Cosgrove
5 months 3 weeks ago

Not to be facetious but a reporter in Minnesota wondered how the increase in guns over the last 20 years has led to less/low gun deaths?

On Thursday, Minneapolis station WCCO reported on guns and crime in Minnesota. Anchor Frank Vascellaro's introduction: "More people are carrying guns than ever before, but the crime rate remains low." Imagine that.

Maybe concealed carry is the answer. It certainly would have reduced or eliminated the deaths in Florida.

Florida is investigating concealed carry in schools and a course set up for teaching teachers how to use guns in Ohio had 250 applicants for 50 slots.

Ellen B
5 months 3 weeks ago

The answers to mass murders via guns in schools is not more guns. Sensible gun laws would have prevented a military grade weapon from getting into the hands of the young man who committed the murders. Such as... you can't purchase a gun if you are under 21. Such as... background checks. Such as.... no bump stocks. Such as.... no military grade weapons in the hands of the general population. Such as... people who are known ISIS supporters and are on no fly lists can't by guns & ammo. There are many answers, not more guns.

J Cosgrove
5 months 3 weeks ago

I pointed out that concealed carry equals less deaths. Maybe it should be discussed. It certainly would have prevented last week or reduced the death toll.

Why did this person slip by the gun control laws? Yes there are gun control laws everywhere and they are routinely enforced and tens of thousands are in prison for violating them. How did Cruz escape enforcement of them?

Just saying gun control without specifying what type of control leads nowhere. An age restriction is one thing and good but does anyone believe this guy would be safer as he got older?

Vincent Gaglione
5 months 3 weeks ago

Your ideas reach from the simple to the ambitious and they are all worth trying. Thank you. I wrote in a comment on an article about the youths trying to change gun laws with their March 24 March in DC that I wondered if laity, clergy, nuns and Bishops from pro-life groups would attend.

And, now, some cynicism, if I may: You note that many Bishops are calling upon their flocks from their pulpits to contact Congresspersons on Feb 26 regarding DACA. I heard no such prescription in my parish at this past Sunday's Mass. I suspect that I won't hear it this Sunday.

And that, of course, gives me pause to wonder if the USCCB statement about the gun culture in the USA is just another Catholic public relations piece. I sincerely hope not. I look forward to being proved an unreformed cynic.

Christopher Lochner
5 months 3 weeks ago

First: If "the church" really does mean the hierarchy then we have ceded our Christian Faith to men. Horrible. (Jesus would not be impressed.) Second: Strange how the author refers to gun violence and not other forms thereof. I don't really believe the murdered victim is concerned with the tool as in "Dude! A gun and not a knife. No respect!" Or is 17 murders in one day worse than 17 over 17 days? Is murder primarily a numbers game? Third: Those in our inner cities are killed daily so where was the outcry; more than a little bias here in all of us I believe. Fouth: Might it be not about money and mostly about personal protection? The Bishops while living in their castles know full well that this protection is but a phone call and lightning response away, not so for the rest of the faithful. Fifth: Do you believe handguns should be banned except for police and the military? This is a working statement of intent and issued by the Bishops. Agree or not? It's that simple. Six: "Love" is not a platitude involving select groups. Anyone here love the NRA members today? Yeah, I didn't think so. I'm sure we'll see a great deal of love at The Rally. Perhaps we can bus some people of color in from the most dire areas of the cities to put a diversity spin on the issue (of course, we'll immediately ship them back!!(and inform them the future lack of guns will lead to peace for them, socioeconomic issues be damned.))
Kumbaya everyone and egads! After the storm blows over let us all instead do something constructive.

Carlos Orozco
5 months 3 weeks ago

Is it not strange that the same obscure entities and propagandists that have armed al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and drug cartels in Mexico (just to name a few of their crimes), want to impose gun control in the US?
Don't let them take your guns. You have a constitutional right to them.

Rick Montalbano
5 months 3 weeks ago

This....

Jim Lein
5 months 3 weeks ago

Who do we love more: guns or children? It comes down to that--and also to money or children? Children are losing out in both comparisons. There is no good reason for selling assault weapons to civilians. These guns are made for the military, to be used in combat against enemies with similar weapons, not against defenseless children. But thanks mainly to the NRA and NRA-bought politicians we have the current absurd and dangerous situation for our students.

Lisa Weber
5 months 3 weeks ago

Those who want greater control over which guns are available to the public, for what price, need to begin voting with the issue of gun deaths in mind. I have already seen the issue of AR-15's raised in a local campaign and I can only cheer for the woman who brought it up. And I will vote for her in November.

Ray Temmerman
5 months 3 weeks ago

Perhaps Church leaders could recommend to their congregants that all those who are members of the NRA but who disagree with the NRA's position on assault weapon ownership could cancel their membership, to be taken up again when the NRA comes to its senses.
If the NRA is hit where it hurts financially, maybe that organization will begin listening to its members and to the American people (both of whom appear not to be on the same page as NRA leadership).

Andrew Wolfe
5 months 3 weeks ago

Parkland, Orlando, and the TX church shootings were all failures of law enforcement. The TX shooting was overtly a failure of enforcing existing gun laws.

If the bishops object to personal gun ownership, why is it any better for celebrities and government officials to have paid gun carrying guards? After all, a Little Rock mass shooting was committed by a paid bodyguard with his registered gun.

Clearly, like all the other mass shooters, the Parkland killer was without Christian faith and hope. He was personally troubled. The authorities knew this and somehow did nothing.

The Christian and the hierarchy ought to know better than to put their faith in laws and governments. Any honest observer can see how many times gun laws have been failures, in addition to the three I mentioned.

Only Jesus Christ and His Gospel reduce violence.

Mike Theman
5 months 3 weeks ago

I wonder what percentage of murderers are practicing Catholics....

How much gun control will be necessary before the choice of weapon for would-be mass murderers will become bombs (the choice of jihadis) or gasoline or acid/chemicals? Gun control laws make us feel like we're doing something; they're a waste of time.

Most of these school shootings are by disturbed kids, from broken homes, single-parent households, and/or incompetent parents. The latest shooter -not unlike the others- sounds like he belonged in a reform school or mental facility.

Charles Monsen
5 months 3 weeks ago

I would invite some learned input on this question.

Is it morally good to leave the house with a gun?

My thoughts are:

1. It is defiantly an act of free will, so it can be judged to be moral or not.
2. The objectives, would for the most part, be moral.
Sport, Target Shooting, etc up to and including preserving innocent life.
3. The intentions, however could lead to difficulties.

Let’s look at a few.

Fear - If at its core the intent on leaving the house with a gun is driven by fear, I think there are a few questions. The first is, is it a reasonable fear? If the answer is yes, is the reason that makes it reasonable, avoidable. If the fear is not reasonable, why do you need the gun ?

Power - Does having the gun with you, increase your courage? Does it make you more confrontational? More likely to fight than flee? Are these feelings of increased power ordered?

Vigilante - Does one have an incorrect understanding of killing sinners. ( see catechism ). Is there a mis-guided belief that the death of the sinner in a case of self-defense an inherent good, as opposed to an unavoidable consequence of the good of protecting one’s or other’s innocent life. Are you God’s avenger ?

In summary - I think there can be real moral issues with leaving the house with a gun.

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