The American Constitution guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. According to the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision, District of Columbia vs Heller, this right extends not only to the military and law enforcement officials, but also to private citizens who wish to own firearms for lawful purposes. Guns play a significant role in American history and tradition, and our right to self-defense has long been respected here. As an American, then, it seems fitting to support responsible gun ownership.
Is this consonant, however, with our obligations as Catholics? Some think not.
Authoritative Catholic documents have very little to say on the subject of guns directly. That’s as it should be. A gun is a tool, which in itself is neither moral nor immoral; owning it might be ethical or not depending on how it is to be used. Clearly, guns can also be used in acts of unjust violence, and the threat they pose to innocent life should be taken very seriously. But guns can also be used to defend life, and there is no moral defect in shooting for sport. Thus, there is no reason to expect that Catholic moral teaching should make any pronouncement on gun ownership as such.
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The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that it is permissible to do injury to another in an act of self-defense. Killing is to be avoided when possible; even if mortally threatened, incapacitating one’s attacker is preferable to killing him. Realistically, ordinary citizens will very seldom be in a position to reliably incapacitate an attacker without killing him, and some have suggested on these grounds that guns are sub-optimal as a tool for self-defense. The reality, though, is that criminals almost always have guns. An ordinary citizen stands very little chance of defending himself from an attacker with lethal intent, unless he too has a gun. The Catechism’s sanction of self-defense would therefore seem to stand as a substantial justification for owning a gun.
In recent years, many high-profile Catholics, including the American Bishops, have argued for stricter controls on firearms. Arguing that stricter gun control might increase respect for life, they supported the President’s failed gun control initiative following the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. Individually and as a group, American bishops have emphasized on multiple occasions their support for sensible regulation of handguns, and also for the ready provision of treatment for the mentally ill.
It is important for American Catholics to understand that neither the Church nor the bishops have made definite statements condemning either guns themselves or civilian ownership of guns. Liberal Catholics sometimes confuse the issue by exaggerating the significance of those statements that have been made, as in this story by Carol Glatz, which claims that the Church’s position on gun ownership is “resoundingly clear” and that civilian ownership of firearms must be “strictly limited and eventually completely eliminated.” Examining her evidence, it becomes obvious that her claims are ludicrously overstated. She cobbles together a few obscure references from various documents, but puts the greatest weight on a footnote from the American Bishops’ November 2000 document on crime, stating that “we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions—i.e. police officers, military use—handguns should be eliminated from our society.” The fact that she leans so heavily on such an obscure and future-directed reference itself speaks to the weakness of her claims. Other attempts to make an authoritative Catholic case for strict gun control laws tend to be similarly unsuccessful.
In the end, then, it would seem that it is permissible for Catholics to support the Second Amendment, and to own guns. Insofar as gun control initiatives seem insufficiently respectful of the Constitution, that is reason to be wary of them. Gun ownership may not be a natural right, but in this country it is among our positive rights, and that is not a small thing. As respecters of well-constituted positive law, we should respect that both we and our fellow citizens retain our traditional right to bear arms.
Important questions remain, however. First: what sort of public policy would be most consonant with both the Constitution and Catholic moral principles? And second: how should we approach the personal decision whether or not to own guns?
Not all restrictions on firearms are unconstitutional. In Heller, the Supreme Court agreed that guns could be regulated in certain ways, which might include background checks (preventing felons and mentally unstable people from purchasing guns), carry laws (limiting the places in which firearms can legally be carried), and restrictions on what sorts of guns civilians may purchase. Legal questions remain, but on a moral level we can easily see that there are multiple prudential questions to be answered here.
Tailoring gun laws to protect innocent life is no easy task. That’s because the sorts of people who misuse guns typically aren’t scrupulously law-abiding. Most everyone can agree that it’s undesirable for the criminally insane to obtain firearms. But criminals normally obtain their guns illegally, so further background checks would likely have little effect on violent crime. Moreover, with more than 300 million guns already on the streets, total disarmament of the whole nation is not realistically possible. Sometimes the best deterrent to violent crime is a gun-owning Good Samaritan who is willing to shoot back, and candidates for that role grow scarcer when we enact strict carry laws or substantial restrictions on gun ownership.
We should of course do our best to evaluate the individual merits of particular proposed laws. Some may be genuinely useful in keeping guns out of the wrong hands. But we should not naively assume that all gun control laws serve to protect human life, or to move us closer to the violence-free world that the bishops (like all of us, no doubt) would so much like to inhabit.
On the second question, it should first be said that personal gun ownership is a serious responsibility. Families should consider their own particular circumstances in deciding whether to own guns. How strong is the need for personal defense? How likely is it that a personal firearm could fall into the hands of someone who would misuse it? How comfortable are you with the responsibilities of gun ownership? These are questions that particular families must answer for themselves. That being the case, it seems unwise to issue blanket recommendations concerning guns.
Catholics can make a strong argument for gun ownership, however. This is based primarily in the doctrine of subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity suggests that power and responsibility ought to be as decentralized as reasonably possible. If local authorities are capable of handling a particular problem, they should do so; larger organizations should become involved only when necessary.
With respect to the protection of families and children, who is the most local authority? I would argue that it is the father of the family, or, if he is not available, the mother. Parents should regard themselves first and foremost as the protectors of their children.
This of course does not mean that parents are the only ones authorized to protect children from harm. As with most other responsibilities, it is permissible to delegate, and assistance is sometimes welcome. I and my husband bear primary responsibility for our children’s education, but that doesn’t make it wrong for us to employ a Greek tutor. I of course would not be upset if I “caught” an uncle or aunt explaining a point of grammar or regaling them with tales from Roman mythology.
Still, it is our responsibility to consider the available educational alternatives, and to decide what course of study will be most advantageous to them. It is similarly up to us to consider how best to protect our family from harm. In modern society, a willingness to summon the police should certainly be part of any reasonable family protection plan. But it may be that a personal firearm can also contribute positively to family security. If so, that constitutes a compelling reason to own a gun, and a well-constituted society should at least acknowledge the legitimacy of that desire.
Gun control is a challenging issue, because it is undeniably the case that guns can be extremely dangerous. At the same time, arguments for gun control generally rest on the confident premise that “the police can keep us safe.” The harsh reality is that that isn’t always the case. Policemen can’t be everywhere at one time, and in an emergency situation, a few minutes may mean the difference between life and death. Catholics should give serious consideration to the arguments for stricter gun control, some of which have been actively advanced by our own bishops. At the same time, we should not disregard the moral imperative for ordinary citizens to take steps to protect their families and loved ones, and potentially to contribute to the protection of society as a whole.