In the wake of another American shooting spree, this one in a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 50 people dead, attention is sure to focus once again on the country’s gun control debate. While the connection is complicated, some data appears to show that states with tighter laws have fewer shooting fatalities, but support for gun rights among Americans remains strong.
Catholics wondering what the Church has to say on the subject will find nothing firm from Rome, but a clear drift from the U.S. bishops in favor of stronger controls and the eventual near-elimination of guns from American society.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official compendium of Church teaching, upholds the right to self-defense, including the use of lethal force if one’s life is threatened. It doesn’t specify, however, which means may be used, or the conditions under which it’s acceptable to acquire weapons to face such a threat.
There haven’t been any authoritative documents from popes or Vatican congregations on gun ownership for private individuals. Various popes and Vatican officials have condemned illegal trafficking in weapons, but generally the context is the use of those weapons in armed conflicts.
In 1994, under St. John Paul II, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace put out a document on the international arms trade that included this comment: “It is urgent to find an effective way to stop the flow of arms to terrorist and criminal groups. An indispensable measure would be for each state to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms. Limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe upon the rights of anyone.”
That phrasing would appear to suggest there’s no a priori ethical objection to gun control measures, although the document does not address the ability of citizens to have access to small arms for self-defense, recreation, hunting, and so on.
In the United States, the Catholic bishops’ conference has addressed the debate over gun control several times over four decades, generally favoring tighter controls on access.
In 1975, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued a document titled “Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life.” In it, the bishops called for a “national firearms policy” that included a cooling-off period between the sale and possession of handguns, a ban on Saturday Night Specials, and registration and licensing of handguns.
In 1990, the bishops issued a reflection on substance abuse that touched on the use of firearms in drug-related violence.
“The widespread use of handguns and automatic weapons in connection with drug commerce reinforces our repeated ‘call for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society,” the bishops said.
In a 1994 reflection titled “Confronting a Culture of Violence,” the bishops cited “the increasing availability of deadly weapons” as among the factors fueling mounting violence in America.
In 2000, the U.S. bishops issued a document on criminal justice and rehabilitation that also included a reference to gun control.
“All of us must do more to end violence in the home and to find ways to help victims break out of the pattern of abuse. As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns,” the bishops said.
In a footnote, the bishops repeated that with few exceptions – police officers and the military, for instance – they support the near-eradication of firearms from American society.
Various state-level Catholic conferences have also endorsed gun control measures.
In 1997, a Washington state ballot measure would have required handgun owners to obtain a license and pass a safety test, and for trigger locks to be placed on every pistol—new or used—sold in the state. It was eventually defeated, but it drew the support of Washington’s bishops.
A memo sent to every pastor in the state by the Conference director, Sister Sharon Park OP, on behalf of the bishops of the state of Washington, said that “… As a Church deeply committed to upholding the value of human life, we oppose forces which threaten it. One of these factors is the easy availability of handguns.”
“Reducing the number of handguns is one of the ways to do something about violence, and particularly to protect our children,” the memo said.
Earlier this year, Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas criticized what he called congressional kowtowing to the “gun lobby,” praising President Barack Obama’s efforts to promote gun control and ripping the “cowboy mentality” that allows open carry laws like one that just went into effect in Texas.
“Thank God that someone finally has the courage to close the loopholes in our pitiful gun control laws to reduce the number of mass shootings, suicides and killings that have become a plague in our country,” Farrell wrote in a column.
Pope Francis has been vocal in his condemnations of the arms trade and weapons trafficking.
After the March 2016 Brussels attacks that left 35 people dead and more than 300 injured, he said, “Behind that act, just as behind Judas, there were others. Behind Judas there were those who gave him money so that Jesus would be delivered. Behind that act, there are manufacturers, arms traffickers who want blood, not peace, who want war, not brotherhood.”
Shortly after the Paris attacks in 2015, he spoke in a similar vein.
The only things produced by today’s violence, Francis said on that occasion, are “ruins, thousands of children with no education, so many innocent dead … and so much money in the pockets of gun-traffickers!”
In his address to the U.S. Congress in September 2015, the pontiff issued a lament about arms.
“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked. “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money—money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
In general, however, the context of those remarks has been war and terrorist violence, as opposed to individual gun ownership for legal ends.