I’m not really a “gun guy.” A month after my birth my eldest cousin died in a hunting accident, and after that tragedy my family pulled back from guns in general. They didn’t become anti-gun, but guns were not part of my life growing up. In fact, I didn’t handle a firearm until I was in my 30’s. Needless to say, I’ve never been part of so-called “gun culture.”
But like everyone else in America I am witnessing the gun debate being brought to the forefront once again as a result of the school shooting in Michigan.
Cue the script. I have no intention of minimizing the unique individual suffering of such miserable events, but we all know what inevitably follows them. Since a gun was used in a high-profile case of violence, the corporate press immediately renews its push for stricter gun control laws, and 2nd Amendment backers quickly respond with arguments defending the possession and safe use of guns. Rinse and repeat.
On each of these two sides one finds Catholics professing that theirs is the valid Catholic viewpoint. Certain American Catholics argue that limiting gun ownership protects human dignity. Others counter that a just and free society—the best guarantor of human dignity—requires a broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. Why?
Setting aside the use of guns as tools for hunting or sport, there are two main legitimate purposes for a gun: protection and deterrence.
Of course, a gun can be (and often is) used for self-protection. Although the corporate press reports only the criminal uses of firearms, there are many stories of individuals who successfully defended themselves or others from attack by the responsible use of a firearm. Countless lives have been saved because someone had a gun available and was able to use it.
Catholics have a duty to protect the innocent. This is particularly true of those who have a vocation to protect their families: husbands and fathers. A man who would allow his wife or child to be attacked without using force—even deadly force—to protect them has failed in one of his fundamental responsibilities. Women, too, are often called upon to protect themselves and others, and should be equipped to do so.
And just as a man has a duty to protect his family, so too his country. When a country is under attack, its citizens must defend it. This is why most people agree that a military force is vital to a nation’s security. But sometimes the need to protect one’s country means protecting it from its own government. We don’t have to look far back in history to find examples.
Widespread possession of guns can also be a deterrent to both crime and government overreach. If criminals know an area has a high percentage of gun ownership, they are far less likely to engage in their criminal behavior there. Further, if government officials know that most of their citizens own guns, they are likely to hesitate before enacting unpopular laws.
Why does this matter from a Catholic perspective? Because history has shown that both crime and government oppression are two of the most significant violators of human dignity. The woman attacked while walking down the isolated alley has had her dignity violated. The family who helplessly experiences a home invasion now has also experienced a violation of their human dignity.
But the greatest violators of human dignity in history are oppressive governments. They can imprison the innocent, crush the spread of truth, and restrict the freedom of citizens to live as children of God. The less armed a citizenry is, the more governments can oppress their people.
The idea that some citizens with Glocks could do anything to deter the behemoth that is modern government may seem laughable. After all, a 9mm handgun won’t do much good against troops with tanks and bombs. Yes, an army would easily defeat a cadre of local citizens. Nevertheless, widespread gun ownership creates hesitation in both the minds of government leaders and those charged with enforcing unjust laws.
Consider the insanity going on in Australia right now with draconian COVID lockdowns and even internment camps for the unvaccinated. Enforcing such unjust laws takes a good deal of pressure and force from the police. Australia has less than half the rate of gun ownership than all of America, and there are parts of America, such as Montana, where gun ownership is almost five times as high as Australia. Without a healthy fear of armed revolt from the populace, a government is left unchecked to impose any laws it sees fit.
Imagine trying to enforce such laws in a place like Montana. Just the knowledge that behind almost every door on which you knock is a gun owner is sure to slow down tyranny. It creates a touch of uncertainty in the minds of government agents which stops or at least slows down the enactment or at least enforcement of unpopular laws.
Does anyone really think the Biden Administration wouldn’t enforce much stricter laws if they felt they could get away with it, or at least that there would be little resistance to their measures? The 2nd Amendment is primarily a right to fight government tyranny—something the framers of the Bill of Rights understood intimately—and such a fight is necessary to foster human dignity.
Many Catholics are nevertheless uncomfortable with American gun culture. After all, it’s hard to imagine Jesus carrying an AR-15 slung over his shoulder, for good reason. Our Lord allowed himself to be unjustly arrested, condemned, and executed, all without any resistance—he even rebuked Peter for his use of a weapon in resistance (John 18:11).
Yet it’s a fallacy to believe that because Jesus wouldn’t have carried a weapon then we shouldn’t either. It’s what I call the “WWJD Fallacy.” The WWJD movement was an attempt by Evangelicals to imitate Jesus as closely as possible by asking before any decision, “What would Jesus do?” It’s a well-intentioned idea, but it often fails in practice. Are you considering medical school? Well, Jesus wasn’t a doctor, so I guess you shouldn’t be one, either.
With the exception of certain saints like Francis of Assisi, most of us are not called to precisely imitate Christ’s life in all its particulars. Instead we follow Christ in the context of our own individual state of life (this is the benefit of the witness of the Saints—we can see a diverse panoply of ways people have lived as Christ’s disciples). And some of those states of life include protecting others from harm.
Contrary to what some modern Catholics may want us to believe, the Catholic tradition is clear that using weapons can be justifiable in many instances. The Christian Middle Ages is full of conflict and weapons, including even bishops leading troops into battle. The thought that a Christian couldn’t carry—and use—a weapon would have been as laughable to these Catholics as the idea that a man could declare himself a woman. While I’m not claiming that every such use of weapons in the Middle Ages was just, it’s clear that historically the Church has understood the need for people to defend themselves—and others.
Catholics are not obliged to own or carry a firearm. Owning and responsibly using a gun is a prudential decision that should take into account many individual factors. Yet Catholics are obliged to defend the right of individuals to own and carry a gun, because resisting tyranny and protecting the innocent is the duty of everyone.
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