We are facing a crisis of gun violence in the United States. I say this knowing well that hunters, those who use guns for recreation and those who have a gun in their home for security do not ordinarily kill people. The crisis is about a small number of gun owners who abuse the firearms that are readily available to them and about the lack of consensus on how to respond to what has become a daily occurrence of gun violence.
It is a crisis for which there is no easy solution. But as Christians, we are obliged to be a part of the conversation and the practical efforts to address this deadly crisis. We must listen, learn, think, pray and act.
As Christians, we are obliged to be a part of the conversation and the practical efforts to address this deadly crisis.
The events in El Paso on Aug. 3 and in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 4 caused sorrow, shock, anger and frustration in the hearts of most Americans. And even as I edited this pastoral reflection for publication, the country learned of yet another mass murder in Odessa, Tex., in which at least seven people died and more than 20 people were wounded. The causes of these horrendous acts of violence have not been determined, but there is mounting evidence that social media platforms are being used to create communities of like-minded people who reinforce each other’s ethnic and racial hatreds, encouraging acts of violence against those they define as enemies. Indeed, radicalization via social media may be a more likely impetus to violence than violent video games. And while there is certainly a need for greater assistance to people suffering from mental illness, several studies contend that diagnosed mental illness accounts for only a small percentage of mass murders.
When shootings occurred in Newtown, Conn. (2012); Charleston, S.C. (2015); San Bernardino, Calif., (2015); Orlando, Fla. (2016); Las Vegas (2017); Sutherland Springs, Tex. (2017); Pittsburgh (2018); Parkland, Fl. (2018); Christchurch, New Zealand (2019); and many other places, I wrote to parishes and schools asking everyone to pray for the innocent people whose lives were senselessly destroyed, that they may share in the eternal life promised to those who love God and neighbor. I also asked them to pray for civic leaders to have the courage and the wisdom to act decisively to prevent future massacres and, yes, to pray for the perpetrator. But in recent months, I have not done the same because these heartbreaking assaults on the value and dignity of every human life have been happening so frequently that it has not been possible to keep up. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 293 mass shootings (four or more victims) this year in the United States as of Sept. 9. One hundred people a day, and 36,500 people a year, die from gun violence.
Beyond praying for the dead, suffering and grieving, for what should we pray? That God will put an end to the violence? God does not ordinarily intervene in human history and quiet the rage, bias and hatred that can invade the human heart, or remove the finger of the gunman from the trigger. Nor does God step in and bring representatives of opposing political ideologies together and guide them to reasonable compromise. Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.
We do know that words of comfort are not sufficient. We also know that American citizens (including our fellow Catholics) are deeply divided over the many questions surrounding the gun crisis in our country. One of the easiest ways to provoke an intense argument is to ask: Do we need stricter gun laws? Are Second Amendment rights absolute? Why is Congress unable to develop reasonable, common-sense gun legislation?
Many Catholics have told me they feel helpless, even paralyzed. I share this uncertainty and frustration. But I am convinced that we must do something.
Many Catholics have told me they feel helpless, even paralyzed. I share this uncertainty and frustration. But I am convinced that we must do something, as difficult and seemingly ineffective as our modest efforts might be. I invite all pastors, administrators, deacons, religious brothers and sisters, principals, parents, and community leaders to consider the modest proposals below as starting points:
- Create opportunities for the Christian faithful to gather to pray (e.g., adoration of the Blessed Sacrament) specifically for the conversion of hearts and the decrease in gun violence through appropriate, constitutionally permissible legislation.
- Study the teachings of the Catholic Church in relevant passages of Scripture, documents of the Second Vatican Council and sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the dignity and value of every human life. Study the relevant passages on the violence and the dignity of life in the writings of St. John Paul II and Pope Francis.
- Form small groups to study gun legislation at the state and federal levels. Read and discuss reliable documents about the history and meaning of the Second Amendment, and discuss the potential value of comprehensive background checks for gun purchasers, as well as extreme risk protection orders (sometimes called red flag laws), by which law enforcement officials can temporarily confiscate guns from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or to others.
- Learn about the statements of members of Congress who represent your parish. Consider writing them with suggestions or questions. Consider inviting them to address a group from your parish or parish partnership.
- Consider additional questions that might lead to fruitful conversation and actions, such as the following:
- What can you do in your own parish to help people to become more informed about this crisis?
- Do you think a mass shooting could happen in your community? Are you prepared?
- What are the reliable sources of news about this topic?
- How does the National Rifle Association influence the conversation about gun safety and gun violence? Should the N.R.A. be allowed to continue its not-for-profit status?
- Is it appropriate for military-style weapons to be available in civilian society?
- Can voting be a part of the solution to the crisis? Does party affiliation more or less determine a person’s views concerning the gun crisis?
- Can religion, faith, prayer and church life help our communities to address this crisis?
Discussion groups need not be led by pastors or principals. Any group of the Christian faithful, including a family group, could conduct these activities in a rectory, convent, school or home. But these gatherings will bear little fruit if only like-minded people participate. Group leaders need to help all participants to listen with open minds. The goal is a Christ-centered conversation, not a quarrel.
As you listen to and learn from one another, prayerfully reflect on what modest things you can do to address our national crisis of violence. Remember the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: “When we encounter pain and suffering in the world, our hearts are moved with compassion. We are frustrated when we cannot heal all of the wounds. We may be tempted to give up and do nothing. But everybody can do something! We must do what we can!”