The bishops must denounce our reckless gun culture with the same urgency as abortion
Many Catholics who praised the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade last year were not so happy that the court also gutted gun control—in the midst of a national gun violence epidemic. In New York State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, a 6-3 majority of the court asserted a new and outrageous originalist standard that will fan the flames of our rabid gun culture and flood the public realm with more weapons, if that were even possible.
Thousands are maimed or killed in the United States each year thanks to readily available guns; millions more are traumatized by the carnage. Our armed society sows mutual alienation and hostility, and it undermines Christian values and ideals. It is time for the church to make this a top concern, and for the bishops to call out the lawmakers and judges who enable our reckless gun culture.
Our armed society sows mutual alienation and hostility, and it undermines Christian values and ideals.
In Bruen, the court struck down New York’s century-old concealed-carry law, which required any individual to obtain a license before carrying a concealed firearm, and to show “proper cause” in order to obtain such a license. The state’s restrictions were too onerous, the justices concluded, and states must be more permissive in allowing the citizenry—whose arsenal stands at 400 million strong—to carry guns in public. Clarence Thomas penned the majority opinion, and Ryan Busse, a former executive at a gun manufacturer who now writes critically about the industry, summed up Justice Thomas’s reasoning: “If there is no historical proof of a gun law linked to 1791 or 1868—the years when the Second and the Fourteenth Amendments, respectively, were ratified—then any modern law restricting firearms is liable to be ruled unconstitutional.”
In other words, Justice Thomas effectively blew up Second Amendment jurisprudence. He wants judges to rule on gun laws by referring to a time period when there were practically none. The Bruen decision means that even widely accepted and eminently sensible laws are suddenly suspect. Take, for example, the federal mandate that bans the possession of guns without legible serial numbers, which help law enforcement solve crimes. A West Virginia judge determined the mandate was unconstitutional because there were no similar laws dating to the 18th century. (A federal judge disagreed and reinstated the law on appeal, but it may still end up at the Supreme Court.) More egregious still, a Texas judge struck down a so-called red flag law, writing that any law barring an individual who has been indicted but not convicted of a crime from obtaining a firearm does not “align” with “this Nation’s historical tradition.” The practical effect of his ruling is to keep guns in the hands of individuals with credible accusations of domestic abuse. (The Texas judge’s ruling has been appealed and will be heard by the Supreme Court later this year.)
The Bruen decision means that even widely accepted and eminently sensible laws are suddenly suspect.
As for gun laws that did exist before 1868, like some regulations in New York, Justice Thomas said we should ignore them as “outliers.” But lest anyone think assault rifles are in jeopardy because they were not legal in the 19th century—indeed, they did not exist—the justices in the Bruen majority would disabuse you of this notion. As Chip Brownlee writes in The Trace (a nonprofit website covering gun-related news), their reasoning is that the Second Amendment “protects weapons that are in ‘common use at the time,’” which is now arguably the case with assault rifles, since they “are among the best-selling guns in America.”
Have the justices in the Bruen majority noticed that a “common use” of assault rifles is perpetrating mass shootings? Do they care? Until recently, the Supreme Court would take into account the public health impact of gun laws, but no longer. Now it insists on an arbitrary reading of history—and the majority seem not to care whether we end up with a gun in everyone’s hands, throughout the public realm. They are pouring gasoline on the fire of a public health catastrophe.
The Supreme Court majority seems not to care whether we end up with a gun in everyone’s hands. They are pouring gasoline on the fire of a public health catastrophe.
The number of mass shootings continues to rise, and there has been more than one a day in 2023. Gun fatalities spiked by more than 20 percent from 2019 to 2021. This puts the lie to claims that all these firearms and permissive laws make us safe; instead, they endanger us all, as is evident from the data. Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children in America, having surpassed car accidents. In the richest nation on earth and the oldest democracy, which touts a vaunted if evolving tradition of human rights, human life has become cheap.
Consider the outrageous gun laws responsible for the carnage. Consider what craven legislators enact with frightening speed, and what judges uphold. In 2005, Florida lawmakers enacted a “stand your ground” law, which recklessly empowers gun owners to fire a weapon when they perceive another individual’s “imminent use of unlawful force”—not only in their homes but anywhere. Naturally, this kind of threat is hopelessly subjective, variable and often incorrect. This has not stopped legislators from spreading such laws, which are now on the books in 28 states.
Lawmakers are also falling over themselves to enact an even more treacherous measure: permitless carry. As the name of the law suggests—on the books in 26 states now—it allows people to carry firearms in public with no permit and no safety training.
In states that have enacted both, “stand your ground” and permitless carry laws mean you must worry about every encounter, and every stranger, in every situation; if they are armed, the law says they may use deadly force should they find you to be a threat. Your only recourse may be to draw your own weapon. These laws effectively urge us all to be armed in public, to be ready to draw and to exact vigilante justice, on the spot, as we see fit.
How can you feel you can live under the rule of law when you must worry at any instant that you could be shot down—at church, in the mall or shopping for groceries?
The radical extremes of our gun culture threaten the very foundation of civil society, which is the rule of law. How can you feel you can live under the rule of law when you must worry at any instant that you could be shot down—at church, in the mall or shopping for groceries? Our children worry that killers will barge into school and mow them down; this ominous prospect, for which they train with specialized drills, is traumatizing an entire generation. Under these conditions, the feeling starts to spread that law is weak, or absent, and no longer governs society. That it is every man for himself. And this is the “warre of each on each” that Thomas Hobbes attributed to the state of nature, where life was “brutish, mean, and short”—a state we must escape, not recreate.
Once gone, the rule of law is painfully hard to resurrect or institute. Consider the many countries that are mired in corruption, gripped by organized crime, suffering constant public violence or in the midst of civil war. Life becomes nearly impossible there, and it is hard to climb out of this mess when law is not respected. By recklessly empowering gun owners, our legislators undermine rule of law, pushing us into the ranks of lawless nations.
Christian charity is increasingly impracticable in this lawless state. Who is willing to reach out to strangers, lest we seem threatening and be shot? We are forced to look at strangers in a different light; we are forced to fear them.
The flood of guns and permissive laws ensure that many retreat, fortify themselves and seal themselves off from one another. This is no way to live. We are effectively deconstructing society, and all the good it enables, the life it sustains.
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York is correct when he argues that “gun control is pro-life.” His colleagues must join him and denounce our reckless gun culture with the same vigor they devote to abortion.