Words fail to describe the horror of the Orlando nightclub shooting. It is the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States, which is saying something given the increasing number of mass shooting events in recent decades.
It is completely unjustifiable in every regard, regardless of one’s position on gay and lesbian relationships.
What should our reaction be to such an outrage?
Pray. Pray for those who were killed, including the shooter. Pray for those who were injured. Pray for the families directly impacted. Pray for the Orlando community. Pray that gun deaths continue to go down in the United States.
And pray that we are able to discern and take the proper steps to stop mass murder from happening.
Recent shootings, however, have brought with them stinging criticism of those who turn to prayer at a time like this. After San Bernardino, the New York Daily News ran the following cover headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This.”
President Obama said something similar in his remarks this afternoon about the Orlando shooting. Singer and comedian Colleen Evans summed up the feelings of many who criticize prayer at such times by Tweeting, “I don’t want to send my thoughts and prayers. I want to DO something.”
Of course, for those of us who have anything like serious religious belief, prayer is doing something. We will not hesitate to lift up the power of God and the forces of an enchanted world that go beyond our rational understanding.
But the strong desire to do something more, perhaps flowing from justified outrage, is totally understandable. What can be done beyond prayer? Here are some of the now familiar options:
- We could increase background checks, particularly with regard to gun shows and online sales. But the shooter not only passed a firearm background check, he apparently was cleared to be a security officer.
- We could ban the sale of firearms to people on the terrorist no-fly list. Indeed, NBC News reported that the shooter himself was on such a list. But according to the Huffington Post, there is a problematic lack of due process of law involved when someone is added to the list. You can get on it simply by posting something on Facebook, having someone who doesn’t like you tell the government you are a threat, being the family member of a suspected terrorist, and even being four years old.
- We could have more gun-free zones. But the Orlando nightclub was in a gun-free zone. Like attempts to ban abortion, drugs, prostitution, and alcohol, attempts to ban guns have been met with mixed results. Some argue that gun-free zones primarily limit the ability of people to defend themselves, while others argue that the law- even if ineffective in the short-term- can be a moral teacher of our culture long-term.
- Early news stories indicate that the shooter used a legally-purchased A-15 semi-automatic rifle, an increasingly-popular firearm in mass shootings. We could ban the sale of such rifles, not least because they can be easily modified to become very deadly weapons. But the A-15 is the most popular rifle in the United States, and several millions of Americans already own one. Even if the rifle is banned tomorrow, it would be relatively easy for someone who wants an A-15 to get one.
The moral evaluation is clear, especially from the perspective of Catholic moral theology. A gun-obsessed culture like ours is deeply unhealthy and even sick. It simply cannot be a witness to the Peaceable Kingdom of God in which swords will be beat into plowshares.
What to do in light of our moral evaluation — that is, moving from morality to public policy — is less clear. We should therefore respond first with prayer.
And we should pray not only for the victims, but for our culture as we discern next steps in responding to this most horrible tragedy—taking hope and comfort from the fact that God’s wisdom is above human wisdom just as high as the sky is above the earth.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.