Is Gun Control Even Possible in the U.S.?

Catholics have no clear, dogmatic position on guns. The American bishops have occasionally indicated that they are favorable to gun control, although this has never been a major point of emphasis for them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions that it is permissible to do injury to others in self-defense, or in defense of the lives of innocents. Clearly, a great deal of prudential calculation is needed to generate an informed policy position from such limited data points.

In the wake of domestic terrorist attacks in San Bernadino and Paris, liberals have renewed their call for stricter gun control laws. Barack Obama, in particular, has continued to berate conservatives for refusing to cooperate with his gun control agenda; this talking point has even taken precedence over solidarity with our allies in a time of grief. The president emphasized these same themes again in his speech from the White House on Sunday night.

To some extent, this is simply misdirection. Liberals find it distasteful to discuss the threat posed by radical Islam, so they instead focus on the weapons terrorists use. It’s still true, however, that liberals have long been agitating in favor of stricter control of firearms in America.

As loyal citizens, it is perfectly fitting for American Catholics to be interested in protecting our Constitutional freedoms, including the right to bear arms (as specified in the Second Amendment). Nevertheless, the Church does not as such discourage legal restrictions on gun ownership. It is reasonable, therefore, for us to consider what kinds of laws would be most just with respect to guns.

Guns are dangerous, and presumably we would all prefer that homicidal maniacs, terrorists, and the criminally insane not have access to them. Is that possible? Liberal proponents of gun control often like to speak as though it is; mild modifications of our present laws (they suggest) could prevent the wrong sorts of people from getting their hands on weapons.

In assessing that claim, we should take note of the numbers. There are more guns in America than there are cars. There are more guns in America than there are people. There are 270 million legal firearms just owned by civilians. Our nation is armed absolutely to the teeth.

By way of acknowledging that point, gun control advocates sometimes suggest that we follow the example of Australia, which effectively banned semi-automatic weapons following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. They instituted a buyback program, offering money for guns turned in within a specified period. Most estimates suggest they retrieved about 20 percent of the guns in circulation at that time. At a matching rate of success, a similar program might leave us with only around 200 million civilian-owned guns in our country.

Of course, we should also bear in mind that the Australian program worked on a dramatically different scale. The Australian government probably collected about 650,000 guns. The program may well have diminished suicide rates, and some argue (though the statistics are less clear) that gun-related homicides were also affected. Whether or not that’s true, however, the fact remains that in the United States, 650,000 guns would be a drop in the bucket. Americans recently bought nearly twice that number in the course of just one a month.

Let’s state the obvious. Real gun control in this country would require much more than just increased background checks. It would require more than just a ban, paired with a buyback program in the mold of Australia’s. (Though, of course, even that would not easily harmonize with our Constitution.) To reduce the availability of firearms in any meaningful way, we would need efforts more along the lines of Prohibition. Gun control would need to be aggressive, invasive, and casual about civil liberties. And like Prohibition, it would likely mean black markets, a de facto expansion of federal powers, and an undermining of public trust in law enforcement. Seeing the direction in which our culture is moving, do Catholics really want to sanction that kind of broad-brush expansion of government oversight?

America hasn’t “solved” the gun-violence problem, but that is not because the National Rifle Association has a stranglehold on our politicians. It’s because serious gun control in this country is unfeasible. When we read about a vicious bank robbery or a kidnapping, do we respond by calling for stricter control of automobiles? Everyone appreciates that this would be futile. Why do we assume that controlling crime through gun control really is more realistic? We should note, too, that some European countries (such as France) do have much stricter gun control laws, as well as a much smaller number of firearms in circulation. That may diminish certain kinds of violence (especially suicide), but it did not prevent domestic terrorists from perpetrating hideous attacks in Paris this past November.

Is there another alternative that Catholics can support? There is. We can regard ourselves as having a responsibility for the safety of our families, communities and towns.

The good news is that, for a country awash in firearms, our crime rates are quite low, and dropping. Gun violence has declined significantly since the 1990s, despite the proliferation of sensational incidents. One’s chances of being unexpectedly shot in a decent suburban neighborhood or a crowded public place are extremely, extremely small. Considering how many guns Americans own, the lack of homicides is striking, especially when we consider that our official murder rate reflects very disproportionate numbers of murders in particular neighborhoods, where gang violence is a serious problem. If an armed citizenry were as dangerous as some liberals seem to suppose, America would already be extremely dangerous.

Perhaps part of the solution to this problem lies in subsidiarity. We should recognize that safety, like all other community concerns, cannot wholly be outsourced to a government agency. Throughout history, responsible men and women have taken prudent steps to protect their own families, neighborhoods, and churches. We can do the same today. That doesn’t mean shunning the police, and it doesn’t mean becoming a vigilante warrior. But it might mean purchasing a gun and learning how to use it, in case protection is needed. It also means getting to know our neighbors and community members, and paying attention to what we see and hear. It means learning who we can trust, and proving ourselves trustworthy to those around us.

Radical Islamists are an infinitesimally small minority in this country. Even a tiny number of people can do an enormous amount of damage under some circumstances, but acting in solidarity with our fellow Americans, we should be able to protect ourselves against this threat without need for a Prohibition-level, invasive government program. Instead of lobbying for gun control, let’s work on building up the sorts of community bonds that will enable us to keep our families safe from jihadists and any others who would do us harm.

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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