Does being pro-life require support for current gun control proposals?
Several liberals are making this claim. But they don’t have much support in actual Catholic teaching.
One source they are citing is a blog post last month by Cardinal Dolan supporting New York’s recent gun control bill.
Like all of Cardinal Dolan’s communications, his gun control statement is candid. The Cardinal’s words actually illustrate the lack of precise Catholic teaching in this area.
Cardinal Dolan declares, “I was very much in favor a month ago when our own New York State legislature, heeding the call of Governor Cuomo, passed NY Safe.” This is the law that, among other things, made NY’s laws even more restrictive on legal gun purchases than they already were, by for example imposing a 7-round limit on gun magazines.
Cardinal Dolan immediately adds significant caveats: “I don’t pretend to be an expert on what should be in each specific bill, and I will never be an authority on the number of bullets that should be in an ammo clip, or the proper way to conduct background checks before selling someone a firearm. That’s the proper responsibility of our legislators, and, should constitutional questions arise, of our courts.”
So why did he support New York’s bill? He explains, “in the wake of Newtown, Aurora, Blacksburg, Tucson, Columbine, and almost countless other horrific and senseless deaths by guns, that something must be done. For me, regulating and controlling guns is part of building a Culture of Life, of doing what we can to protect and defend human life. The easy access to guns, including assault weapons, that exists in our nation has contributed towards a Culture of Death, where human life and dignity are cheapened by the threat of violence.”
Nothing like this could ever be said about laws against abortion. Church teaching specifically requires a ban on abortion. Evangelium Vitae declares that “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize.” “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.” No specific, authoritative teaching like this exists calling for a ban on guns.
It would be hard to imagine a bishop saying, “I don’t pretend to be an expert on whether making abortion more and more illegal should be in a specific bill, and I will never be an authority on the number of abortions that should be allowed.” Church teaching makes every bishop, every Catholic, and every human being using natural reason an “expert” to say more and more abortion restrictions need to be imposed up to and including a ban.
Cardinal Dolan ultimately admits that his rationale is disconnected from the contents of existing gun control proposals; he simply feels “that something must be done.” It isn’t clear that it matters to him what that “something” actually includes, as long as it is within things generally proposed as “gun control.”
This is an expression of emotion, and it is a laudable emotion: to want to reduce gun violence. But Catholic teaching does not cast aside the issue of whether the “something” that people are proposing will actually reduce gun violence, is actually reasonable, actually deals with the real problem instead of using that problem to advance a political agenda, and actually complies with what the Catechism calls “a right” and “a grave duty” for families to protect their children through the availability and responsible ownership of firearms. Catholic teaching cares about details and rationales, especially on an issue where there is no absolute prohibition.
The “do something” rationale would ultimately imply a total ban on guns. No matter what restrictions exist at any moment, violence will still occur and “something” more could be imposed. Connecticut, where the Newton shootings occurred, already had a ban on assault weapons in place, and those laws successfully prevented the shooter from buying a gun shortly before the incident. Columbine occurred in the midst of a national ban on assault weapons and magazines holding more than rounds. Eric Harris filled his pockets with 10-round magazines and fired 96 times. Dylan Klebold used magazines with capacities up to 52 despite the ban being in place, yet he fired barely more than half the number of rounds as Harris. Today, 9 years after the assault weapons ban and 10-round magazine limit expired and those items became legal again, murder rates are at historic lows. Gun deaths have been decreasing as gun control laws are being scaled back.
There simply is no Catholic teaching counseling limitless restrictions on guns. The “do something” motivation in favor of anything liberals propose as gun control is not a theological assertion, and it is not a reason to say that the Catholic pro-life position must support whatever is proposed as gun control.
The gun magazine limit illustrates this point. Maryland, where I live, already bans high capacity magazines by imposing a limit of 20 rounds per magazine. President Obama and the Maryland Governor want to reduce the limit to 10. New York already had a 10-round limit so it imposed a limit of 7. There is no floor to the idea of “doing something” to control guns that supports New York’s recent law, nor to the idea of saying “I will never be an authority on the number of bullets that should be in an ammo clip” but a Culture of Life means supporting whatever lower limit is proposed. In a few years when 5-round, 3-round, 1- and 0-round limits are proposed, the rationale “I’m not an expert, but we must do something” will still support those measures.
Yet Catholic teaching does not tell us to impose lower and lower limits until bullets (and therefore guns) are banned. It does not tell us what limit to impose at all. It leaves that issue to the reasonable judgment of Catholics. Bishop Stephen Blaire, a leading advocate of gun control, simply states that gun control be “sensible,” that guns should not be “easy” to access, that their purchase should involve background checks, and the like. But all those things already exist in law, especially in places like New York and Maryland, and no one really opposes these generic suggestions. It is not possible to claim that Catholic teaching requires support for a 10- or 7-round magazine limit simply because we need to “do something” to stop killings that occurred where rigorous gun control was already in place, didn’t actually work, and doesn’t touch the real issue of mental illness.
I think Cardinal Dolan’s caveats in his blog post inherently recognize this. He expresses his personal desire to reduce gun violence and support of New York’s new law, but disclaims any judgment on whether the law is actually effective or reasonable. I don’t think his disclaimer is consistent with his support. But at minimum, it doesn’t count as Catholic teaching about what pro-life must mean.
Liberals desperately claim that pro-lifers must support gun control, but they cannot be allowed to short-circuit reason. Catholic teaching doesn’t call for a gun ban, it calls for reasonable measures. Liberals must justify why they think specific laws like an assault weapons ban and magazine limit that existed in places like Newton and Columbine would now prevent Newton and Columbine. They must use reason to show that extensive background checks and waiting period systems like those in Maryland are not good enough, and we must make it ever more costly and difficult for law-abiding families to fulfill their duties under Catechism paragraph 2265 by being able to obtain guns for protection. These issues are subject to reasonable disagreement among Catholics because of Church teaching, not in spite of it. Pro-lifers have no obligation to agree with whatever liberals say is needed.