A number of years ago, when I was a parish priest, a woman preparing for baptism at Easter asked if she could speak with me privately. There were various issues that had been bothering her, and she wished to discuss them. I had come to know her somewhat during the preceding months and appreciated the sincerity with which she viewed her formation as a Catholic. Baptism for her was not a light matter.
Shortly after we began to converse, the issue of gun control surfaced. This woman, in her mid-30’s, was a member of the National Rifle Association and had some very definite views about any type of gun control legislation. Her views were strong for a number of reasons. She enjoyed spending time with her husband shooting targets at the local shooting range. She valued the relationships she had formed with other members of her shooting club, many of whom were upstanding members of the community. She looked forward to the annual fall moose and deer hunting seasons not only as a time to commune with natureas well as to have additional time with family and friendsbut also as an important opportunity to put meat in the freezer. For many Alaskan families, subsistence hunting is an indispensable source of food and a way to supplement the family income.
I listened for some time to her concerns. Guns obviously were a part of her lifestyle, and she had recently become apprehensive after hearing some parish members express the need for gun control. The whole time that she spoke, she kept referring to the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which affirms the right of citizens to own and bear arms. As she continued to speak (now becoming more animated and beginning to monopolize the conversation), a certain realization came to me. She was speaking of the Second Amendment as if it were the second commandment of the Decalogue from the Bible. She had elevated the Bill of Rights to the level of a holiness code. For her, the right to own and bear arms, and to do so with minimal limitations, were God-given rights and therefore sacred.
This woman, a person seeking to embrace a life in Christ, was deeply concerned that if gun control legislation were enacted, she would have to surrender a significant part of her lifestylea part that she had considered to be not only not sinful, but wholesome. In addition, she saw her right to possess guns as virtually a sacred one. How could members of the church she planned to join possibly be against something that was sacred? What she failed to perceive was the relative nature of the Second Amendment. While I believe that the way she used firearms was not inconsistent with her new-found faith, this cannot be said of all gun use.
The right to private property (in this case guns) is not absolute. An individual’s right to own and bear arms, as well as actually to use them, must be balanced by the greater social needs of a society and its citizens’ right to safety. There are good reasons why restrictions may need to be placed on the possession and use of firearms. With regard to certain types and classes of firearms, even the possibility of possessing them is bad for society.
I cite an example that recently has been in the news, the Barrett .50-caliber 82A1 rifle. It is a military weapon designed to destroy armor-reinforced vehicles or even shoot down low-flying aircraft. It has an effective range of about one mile. Ammunition for it is available on the civilian market. Though somewhat pricey (about $6,000), it is a relatively easy purchase. According to a recent New York Times article, "Gun dealers may sell anyone a .50-caliber if buyers present identification showing they are 18 years old and have no felony convictions." By contrast, to buy a handgun, individuals must prove that they are at least 21. A .50-caliber rifle hardly seems to be a sporting rifle!
A majority of Americans admit that there is need for some kind of gun control. A recent Harris Poll demonstrated that 69 percent of all Americans and 57 percent of America’s gun owners want tougher gun control laws. Likewise, a recent CNN/Time magazine poll found that six out of ten Americans generally favored stricter gun control laws. Of those interviewed, 76 percent favored federal laws requiring the registration of all handguns, and 77 percent favored the licensing of all handgun owners. Americans do not support a total ban, but they do support restrictions. For most, it is a matter of agreeing on where the line ought to be drawn. Few people would argue that the Second Amendment gives an individual the right to possess and use a 175 millimeter howitzer or a hand-held missile launcher. There are some, though, who would argue that they have the right to possess a Barrett .50-caliber rifle.
The framers of the Bill of Rights envisioned the Second Amendment during a time when the United States was a fledgling nation. In all probability, they could not have imagined the levels of violence that confront Americans in today’s society. We live amid what has been termed a "culture of violence." While there is some evidence that violent crime may have lessened recently, Americans still murder each other with guns 19 times more often than do the people of the 25 other wealthiest nations. In addition, among the 36 wealthiest, the United States has the highest proportion of suicides from guns. While it is claimed that guns may be necessary to protect oneself and one’s loved ones, they may just as likely be used to provide criminals or mentally ill people with easy access to the means to cause irrevocable harm.
I believe that the government has a responsibility to its citizens to limit access to certain types of firearms, as well as to set the parameters under which its citizens may exercise their Second Amendment rights. An analogous example commonly cited is that of the restrictions placed on owning and operating a motor vehicle. Cars are registered and licensed, just as are their operators. "Rules of the road" stipulate how a driver may use his or her vehicle. These rules place limitations on drivers, not as a punishment, but as a way to ensure the welfare and safety of travelers. While the "rules of the road" may vary from state to state, they are largely consistent in order to make the roads of the nation safe. Obviously, these rules are sometimes broken, and people are injured and killed. And sometimes they may seem not to apply, such as the rule that requires a stop at a red light at 2 a.m. when no other car is in sight. Yet we would be far worse off without them. Sensible regulation of firearms is just as reasonable.
Gun control is a sensitive matter for many Americans on both sides of the issue. In all probability, it will be an issue during this year’s presidential election. There is the perception by some gun owners that those who want greater gun control would like to eliminate guns altogether. An article on the National Rifle Association’s official Web site is entitled, "Gun Control = Gun Prohibition." Any restrictions on gun ownership are viewed as a slippery slope toward total elimination. As someone once said, "That’s not very likely to happen until the lion lies down with the lamb. And it won’t be the result of any legislative action." Fear that restrictions on firearms will lead to their complete elimination, however, seems based more on paranoia than reason.
I believe a majority of Americans recognize that there are legitimate uses for guns: competitive shooting and recreation, use by police officers and military personnel and hunting. I myself have carried a .44-caliber magnum pistol for protection when hiking in bear country in Alaska, and I would hope to be able to continue the practice. I have acquaintances who prevented an almost certain mauling (and probably death) because they were able to protect themselves against a charging bear with a firearm. In the present culture of violence, however, a broader perspective than back-country Alaska must be included. It is only reasonable to place appropriate and sensible restrictions on the possession and use of firearms for the well-being of the nation as a whole.
While some areas of the United States seem to be more prone to violence than others, no area is particularly safe or unscathed. Even in Alaska, there have been school shootings. For reasonable controls to be effective, regulations must be made on a federal level, like the Brady Bill. Without national legislation, it is simply too easy to transfer firearms across state boundaries.
Will restrictions on the possession and use of firearms totally solve the problem of gun violence? Hardly. Violence in society is recognizably a complex problem fed by a number of forces. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ statement Confronting a Culture of Violence (1994) lists a number of influences beyond firearms, such as the disintegration of family life, violence in media, substance abuse, gangs and youth violence and poverty.
One particularly important factor that appears to be eroding America’s sensitivity to violence in general is the manner in which violence is used in the media. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, describes how a combination of desensitization (brutalization), classical conditioning, operant conditioning and role modeling by the use of violence in media have "trained" countless people in our society to accept violence. He notes that it is the "newest variable" in developed nations that are experiencing record levels of violent crime. We view bloodshed and gore on television and movies and play violent video games while eating popcorn. Violence becomes a game and something for entertainment.
Simply establishing stricter gun control laws is hardly the total solution to gun violence. Any long-term solution must address a multitude of factors in addition to violence in the media: poverty, the breakup of family, abuse, drug use. Still, while restrictions on firearms may not offer the total solution to gun violence, they are definitely an important piece of the puzzle. Also, any solution ought to include the enforcement of existing gun laws and the prosecution of criminals engaged in violent acts.
It is true that society needs to address the many deep-seated problems that lead people to behave in violent ways. At the same time, given the present climate in which some people seem to turn so easily toward violent behavior, society needs to take steps to prevent instruments that can easily kill from too readily getting into the wrong hands, and insist that those who do possess them learn how to use them responsibly and safely.
The Most Rev. Michael W. Warfel is the bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska.