How are we, as American Catholics, to understand our Second Amendment rights? As the Constitution of the United States is a document made by man, it is subject to errors, and has contained notable ones in the past. Could it possibly be that the “right to bear arms” itself is a mistake? Certainly gun ownership has come under heavy fire in the past few decades, and while this issue hasn’t been as loud as others, it remains a divisive issue (especially since, once again, it is a polarized issue, with the loudest proponents on the Right, and the loudest opponents on the Left). Recently we on the Right celebrated what we viewed as a great victory in the battle for gun rights, as the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the ban on guns in Washington D.C. But should we, as Catholics, see this in the same way?
Unfortunately, the question of the ownership of guns is more a matter of prudence than an issue of justice or morality. Why? Let us examine what purposes guns serve. Regardless of one’s view on gun ownership, I believe we can all concur that the explicit purpose of guns falls into two categories: hunting, and self-protection. Certainly guns can be abused—they are weapons, no doubt, and can be used as such in situations other than last means of self-defense—but if we are to make any headway in the argument, we must focus first on the roles guns are meant to fulfill, rather than the abuses. The abuses themselves are important in consideration of how well guns fulfill their roles.
There are certainly no questions in Catholic social teaching about the legitimacy of hunting or self-defense. As long as hunting falls within the parameters of good stewardship of the earth, then it is a good activity. Thus hunting for food, when said hunting does not endanger the survival of a species, is a legitimate activity. Poaching is legitimate only when that becomes the only means of feeding one’s family. Hunting for sport in itself is poor stewardship, but can be accepted as long as it is paired with a necessary function, such as hunting for food or accomplishing a necessary thinning of the herd.
Catholic teaching on self-defense has been established at least since Thomas Aquinas, especially in response to the pacifistic interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. The Catechism, citing Aquinas, states:
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
Having established the justice of the purposes guns fulfill, the question of whether we, as American citizens, have a right to bear arms then boils down to the following: are guns the best means for fulfilling those purposes?
As a Wyomingite, and having grown up around hunters (though my immediate family and I don’t hunt), I would argue that guns are indeed the best means of taking down game. A hunter can bag game from a much greater distance (which adds to safety), and can kill much more effectively than with bows or crossbows.
But hunting is only a small portion of the prudence debate. More to the point is whether possessing guns makes us safer, or if they endanger us further. Keep in mind that a gun is only a tool; it has no will of its own and thus cannot do anything on its own. Granted, guns are dangerous. The most fervent advocate of gun ownership will not only admit that point, but stress it, and explain why anyone who owns a gun must go through proper training. But guns require people to use (and yes, abuse) them. The maxim “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is correct, as far as it goes. What we need to ask then is “do guns incite people to kill people”?
The arguments on either side are manifold, and the evidence cited always seems in favor of the views of the researchers (or whoever pays them). Some argue that keeping gun ownership—especially concealed permits—legal deters crime, and that places where such rights have been revoked have seen a drastic rise in crime. This is confirmed by studies that show that crime is deterred not necessarily by stricter punishment, but by the greater likelihood of punishment. Others argue that allowing gun ownership increases crime by making weapons available, and also has the effect of increasing accidental death.
I have no intention of arguing these points one way or another. I personally believe the answer to whether guns are the best means of accomplishing self-defense is: “It depends.” I certainly believe that the Catholic answer is: “It depends.” And it depends because judging whether or not guns are the best solution to the problem of self-defense depends on many factors.
It depends on location. For a family living practically in isolation miles from city limits—such as on a ranch or a farm—local authorities may not be able to respond quickly enough if someone decides to break into the house or assault the family. The situation may be different within city limits, or where within city limits one is located. I understand that in larger cities—Denver, Houston, Los Angeles—there are districts where the police are very unlikely to frequent.
It depends upon training. A person who is skilled with a gun and has undergone safety training is much less likely to have an accident than someone untrained. Someone who respects his weapons, keeps them away from untrained hands, and ingrains respect in those around him is less likely to see someone else have an accident with his weapons. Conversely, someone who brandishes a gun around like a cowboy in a western film is a threat to himself and others.
It depends upon availability of other means of self-defense. It might be that tasers and mace are as great deterrents as guns. It might be that they are as or more effective in preventing a crime from happening. They certainly have the advantage of being less lethal. But they have their disadvantages as well, such as range and psychological impact.
It depends on the gun. A shotgun and a handgun are the normal arsenal of a hunter. A howitzer is not. There are guns that are more reasonable for a citizen to own than others.
A Catholic confronting the issue of the right to bear arms is free to fully support the right, and is equally free to fully denounce the right, depending on how he weighs the evidence. Moreover, he is free to support governmental restrictions on gun use, especially in how quickly one can attain a gun, which guns one can attain, and how those guns are to be stored. Indeed, just as we license people to drive, licensing people to own guns is sensible. In contrast, a Catholic needs to keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity, and that the people closest at hand are usually best suited to deal with the situation. Thus asking for a blanket federal prohibition of gun ownership may be going too far. Instead, prudence might suggest that keeping guns rights in the hands of the states, or even the counties or municipalities, is a better course. But again, it comes down to judging the evidence.
What we must keep in mind is this. While the Church expresses the right to self-defense, that does not open us to “whatever means necessary”. It is still legal in Wyoming to shoot and kill trespassers. If someone uninvited steps into your house, you can legally shoot to kill. That does not mean that a Catholic is justified in taking such action, especially if just pointing a gun or kneecapping the intruder suffices. It does not mean a Catholic is justified in buying an expensive military assault rifle to deal with trespassers.
As a final note, I thought I’d relay the gist of a conversation I had with a felon convicted of battery and theft. He was complaining about concealed permits and wished that the government would ban them. His reasoning was that if a person had to keep his gun visible, it would deter a thief, because the thief would know that if he tried anything, he’d get shot. I asked him if it wouldn’t be better to keep the conceal permits legal, since then a thief wouldn’t know who was packing and thus wouldn’t try to steal from anybody, and that threw him for a loop. His reasoning, of course, was that banning concealed permits would make a thief’s job easier by letting him know who exactly he could target without risking his life.