Should the New U.S. Cardinals Push Gun Control?

The Holy Father will be creating 17 new cardinals in November—three of them from the United States. Since I’ve been writing a small series of articles on the American hierarchy’s views on gun control for Crisis, the timing of the announcement is interestingly coincidental: two of our American cardinals-to-be have publicly called for increased gun control in America: Archbishop Cupich and Bishop Farrell.

Virtually everyone agrees that there should be some gun control. I don’t know anyone who thinks, for example, that drug-addicted teenage convicted felons should be legally able to buy firearms. There should be gun control. But what kind? In my previous articles, I have argued that the American bishops have endorsed some bad gun control policies (for example, banning handguns and banning high capacity magazines). In this piece, I will address a couple of items that are right at the heart of the contemporary debate about gun control: waiting periods and universal background checks. But first, I want to briefly address a couple of things said by our new cardinals. As I’ve stressed all along, we mustn’t be disrespectful to our bishops—we must be docile to their leadership—but of course we needn’t follow their decidedly non-magisterial lead when they simply offer emotionally charged rhetoric rather than thoughtful, prudent instruction.

Bishop Farrell’s letter from January of this year was prompted by a new open carry law in Texas. It is not, I think it must be granted, a model of balanced pastoral guidance. He writes, for example,

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Congress has unabashedly sold itself to the gun lobby. If there was ever any doubt, its recent action to kill legislation to ban people on the terrorist no-fly list made it obvious. It is absurd that terrorists, criminals, and mentally unbalanced people can freely and openly buy weapons not intended for sport, but designed to kill people.

Strong language. And in general I encourage our bishops to use strong language much more freely and openly than they do: to condemn the actions of prominent politicians who freely and openly officiate at gay weddings, or who freely and openly advocate pro-abortion policies, for example. My worry here isn’t with the language itself. My worry is that the language is in the service of some dubious thoughts. His Excellency doesn’t notice that you do not need to be a terrorist, criminal or mentally unbalanced person to find yourself on the no-fly list. Here’s a comic book primer. I can understand someone thinking that people on the no-fly list should be barred from buying guns. I’d disagree with that view, but I can understand it. But Bishop Farrell doesn’t merely say that people on the no-fly list should be barred from buying guns. He says, in effect, that to disagree with that view is absurd—and to disagree with it if you happen to be an elected official is to make it obvious that you’re in the pocket of the gun lobby.

Bishop Farrell, it is obvious that a person can, in good faith, and perfectly reasonably, hold that being on the no-fly list should not, all by itself, exclude from purchasing guns. After all, it is usually not wise to deny citizens their constitutional rights without due process. Hence it is obvious that elected officials might hold that view in good faith, and perfectly reasonably. Hence it is obvious that your statement may very well be straight up calumny.

Quite apart from that, there is no real argument, and no citation of any meaningful fact, in the whole letter. We Catholics should be docile to our teachers in the Faith, the bishops. And they should take their obligations seriously enough to make some effort to teach well.

Archbishop Cupich’s piece is written in much more pastorally balanced language, though he does help himself to some standard gun control rhetoric:

Let’s be honest. The Second Amendment was passed in an era when organized police forces were few and citizen militias were useful in maintaining the peace. Its original authors could not have anticipated a time when the weapons we have a right to bear now include military-grade assault weapons that have turned our streets into battlefields. The Second Amendment’s original intent has been perverted by those who, as Pope Francis recently commented, have profited mightily. Surely there is a middle ground between the original intent of the amendment and the carnage we see today.

It is only right and fitting to ask His Excellency how many of the murders that happen in Chicago (or elsewhere in the country) are committed with “military-grade assault weapons.” (Answer: statistically speaking, virtually none.)

But I’ve already covered the assault weapon business in a previous article, and I lack the space and will to enter into the other details of his letter here. So let’s move to some new ground.

Do Cooling-Off Periods Really Work?
In one of their most important statements about gun control, the American hierarchy called for “a several day cooling-off period between the sale and possession” of handguns. The thought, I take it, is this. Imagine someone becomes incredibly angry (say, finds his wife is cheating on him), runs off to the gun shop, buys a gun and takes possession immediately. Then he runs home and kills his wife. If only he’d had to wait a few days, he might have cooled down, and her life could have been saved.

At first glance, this certainly seems to be a reasonable precaution. But things are not as simple as they appear.

First, grant for the sake of argument that instituting a waiting period could stop some criminals from committing some crimes. You’d also have to grant, I think, this possibility: a citizen might be under some relatively serious threat of violence, but not one that the police are in any reasonable position to stop. The person under threat might wish to buy a gun to protect himself, but find himself having to wait out this cooling off period, during which he winds up a murder victim. This is not fantasy: it happens. So even if waiting periods could help stop some crimes, they could help other ones to happen.

This is not a point that gun control advocates should simply shrug off. There’s a tendency to overlook, or even deny, the fact—and it is, indisputably, a fact—that armed people stop a lot of crimes from happening. A lot of crimes. (Needless to say, exactly how often armed people stop crimes from happening is hard to determine with any certainty, in part because when a crime doesn’t happen, there’s often no real reason to involve the police, and even if they are involved, there may be no official record of anything that a search of crime data would pick up. So for many reasons, there is dispute about the numbers. But here is some interesting information, which I invite you to critically examine at your leisure.)

Second, it’s not at all clear that waiting periods make any statistical difference. It has been suggested that they cut down on suicides. (See the previous link.) I find the evidence offered for that claim underwhelming. “For example, an article published in 2000 by members of the Firearm Injury Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin said a Wisconsin study found a ‘sharp increase’ in the risk of suicide within one week of a gun purchase.” But if the increase stretches out for a week, doesn’t this rather cut against the notion that a waiting period of “several days” is likely to really make a difference here? If people wait for up to a week after taking possession of the gun before putting it to use, then why think that adding a waiting period to the front end will cut down on suicides? The evidence is far from compelling.

But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose waiting periods would help cut down some on suicides. That’s an important point for us to take into account. But it’s very hard to know how to balance it against the very real need that people sometimes have for getting their hands on a gun quickly, without waiting. As we’ve seen, sometimes that, too, can save lives.

I can see Catholics sensibly taking either side on this issue. But the idea that Catholic teaching in itself should incline us in one direction rather than another doesn’t seem supportable. And I’d have to reject altogether the contention of the American hierarchy that waiting periods ought to be part of any sane and rational approach to gun policy.

There Is No “Gun Show Loophole”
Now I turn to background checks. The seminal documents from the American hierarchy do not mention universal background checks—they speak of more intrusive policies such as the registration of handguns and the licensing of handgun owners. I might address those matters in a future article, but for now I want to focus on the more politically realistic short-term prospect of universal background checks.

The call to institute universal background checks is often framed as “closing the gun show loophole.”

There is no such thing as a gun show loophole. First, the term “loophole” is grossly misleading. Our current laws were deliberately written with a specific exception in mind. That exception isn’t a loophole. It’s an exception. Second, the exception doesn’t have anything to do with gun shows.

It’s much easier to understand the exception if you know what it’s an exception to. The law says that anyone in the business of selling firearms must have a federal firearms license (FFL). But not everyone who sells a gun is in the business of selling guns. Suppose you buy a gun and discover you just don’t like it. Suppose you want to get rid of that gun. You post a classified ad, find a buyer, and make the deal. You’re not in the business of selling guns, even though you just sold a gun. The law allows for this. It allows for private sales. The “gun show loophole” should be called, by people who value truth, the “private sale provision.”

Now, people being what we are, I am sure there are people out there who really are in the business of selling guns, but who do not have an FFL, and who do most of their business at gun shows. These people are not exploiting a gun show loophole. They are breaking the law. Their existence is no more evidence of the existence of a gun show loophole than the existence of employers who pay employees under the table is evidence of the existence of a tax code loophole. No, their existence is evidence that people break the law.

When we talk about instituting universal background checks, we are talking about revoking the private sale provision. The most likely result of this is that each and every gun sale would have to go through a person who holds an FFL. Already, the law requires anyone who holds an FFL must run nearly every gun sale through an FBI hotline called the NICS for a quick background check. (There are exceptions to this—for example, in my state of North Carolina, FFL holders do not have to submit purchases made by concealed carry permit holders through NICS, since concealed carry permit holders have already been through a much more thorough screening process. But we can ignore these minor complications.)

The NICS check doesn’t occur in private gun sales. So if I have a gun I no longer need, and the private sale provision is revoked, then I would need to either (a) sell my gun to a gun shop or (b) consign my gun at a shop or (c) arrange to meet with a private buyer at a gun shop, where the gun shop can actually handle the transfer and run the background check for me. Maybe other options exist, but all of these methods will increase the amount of time and money and hassle involved in selling a gun.

In short, universal background checks constitute an annoyance and an additional expense. Apparently, in some places, the fees can be shockingly high: according to John Lott, the extra expense can amount to $200 in Washington, DC. If you’re a poor person who needs a gun, this fee might well cost you more than the gun you’re trying to buy. In other words, universal background checks serve in practice as an additional—and, in practice, profoundly regressive—tax on used firearms.

This is not an overriding reason for objecting to universal background checks. If the imposition of universal background checks can be reasonably expected to significantly decrease gun violence, then that might be sufficient motivation to institute universal background checks. But it does seem to me the evidence would have to be pretty solid.

Do Universal Background Checks Prevent Crime?
It isn’t. The crimes that have tended to prompt the loudest public calls for universal background checks—mass shootings—have had little or nothing to do with background checks. So, many of the calls for universal background checks are premised on events that had nothing to do with universal background checks.

True, some guns used in terrible crimes are bought in private sales by people who would not pass a background check. One example is the Azana Spa shooting of 2012. It’s not at all clear how common this is. As always in the discussion of guns, the literature is full of conflicting (and often apparently deliberately misleading) statistics. One lawmaker has claimed that 70 percent of guns used in crime come from gun shows. (I don’t know if this is supposed to mean: “gun show sales by private sellers,” or just “gun shows.” Of course, many—most?—sellers at gun shows are licensed dealers, not private sellers.) But a study from the 1990s (found in the previous link) claims that only 2 percent of gun crime involves gun show guns (again, with no clarity regarding the above distinction).

It’s also not clear that background checks would really prevent criminals from getting guns. Obviously, there are already a lot of people who get ahold of guns without bothering much about the law. Someone who really wants to do harm will likely figure out a way to get ahold of guns, “universal” background checks or no. And on the flip side, as with waiting periods, it looks like universal background checks might well cause harm—people who are delayed or unjustly denied their purchase by the FBI, and who consequently remain unable to defend themselves, to disastrous effect. The truth is that with the often entirely unjustifiable delays issued by the NICS system, universal background checks can come to constitute de facto waiting periods.

So I am inclined to think that Catholic social teaching as such doesn’t give any really useful guidance on this matter. I don’t think it’s irrational or un-American to support universal background checks—there is a legitimate case to be made in their favor. But I’m not convinced that the case for them is really all that strong. For my part, I continue to oppose them.

In this, I am at odds with Bishop Farrell, who wrote “These ‘back door’ gun dealers have effectively nullified the law requiring background checks by legitimate gun dealers by creating a black-market in firearms for those seeking to avoid background checks for whatever reason.” Whatever your own considered judgment is on this question, I hope this piece helps you avoid being swayed by such grandstanding. There certainly is a very large black market for guns in this nation, and around the world. The private sale provision has next to nothing to do with it.

Why the Gun Control Debate is Problematic
A colleague of mine at Wake Forest, sociologist David Yamane, has been studying the American gun cultures for several years now. Quite early on in his research, he wrote a blog post claiming that debates over gun control aren’t really guided by empirical evidence. I think we should take that point very seriously, though I believe he’s slightly too pessimistic about it. To a great extent, debates over gun control are straightforwardly philosophical, even when (perhaps especially when) the participants want to pretend they’re just sticking with the facts.

Along those lines, I will confess what I am sure my readers have known from the start—I am philosophically very much a believer in wide open gun rights for citizens. My basis for this can be found in a thought from Chesterton, who wrote “…the chief mark of the Declaration of Independence […] is the theory of equality. It is the pure classic conception that no man must aspire to be anything more than a citizen, and that no man should endure to be anything less.” (What I Saw in America, p. 16.) And I cannot help but think that for us to endure to be told, without any especially compelling reason for it, that we must be held by the hand whenever guns are involved is to be something less.

I believe there are some changes that could reasonably be made to our gun laws, and I believe that Catholic social teaching can serve as an important guide in such matters. Our commitment to the Common Good, properly understood, should definitely make us open to concessions that the semi- (or outright) libertarianism of many gun rights advocates rules out. But I do think that there really should be some pretty compelling reasons offered. Such reasons often simply don’t hold up when they are offered—and all too often, they’re not offered at all.

(Photo credit: Of Cupich: Gilbert R. Boucher II / Daily Herald; Of Farrell: Ron Baselice/ The Dallas Morning News)


  • Patrick Toner

    Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas … and Norman Rockwell. He earned his Masters in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

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