(This post helps launch a new organization to educate about Catholic teaching and gun control: the Firearms and Catholic Teaching Society of Maryland [the FACTS].)
Our country has a gun problem. Criminals, and people who are mentally disturbed, are using guns to hurt and kill people.
Almost none of the proposed gun control measures around the country substantially address this problem. Instead they propose to restrict the availability of firearms to everyone, including families seeking to protect themselves.
Worse yet, the only places passing new gun control laws are deep blue states where extensive gun control already exists.
I live in one of those states, Maryland. Maryland law already imposes the following:
- State police must approve handgun models that are sold, ensuring safety
- State police must approve each specific sale
- State police receive full information to register each regulated sale and purchaser
- State police run background checks before any sale of regulated guns
- State police require a 7-day waiting period, which often extends to weeks
- State police require 30 days before purchasing another regulated firearm
- “Assault weapons” are regulated by these rules, preventing easy access
- Sale of high capacity magazines holding more than 20 rounds are banned
However, the Maryland Catholic Conference has come out in support of Governor O’Malley’s new, additional gun control measures. His proposals barely touch the problem of mental disturbance or crime. Instead they multiply burdens and bans on ordinary citizens obtaining firearms for protection.
What does Catholic teaching say in favor of gun control? It’s hard to find anything specific.
The Maryland Catholic Conference cites only two sources of Catholic teaching* for its support of O’Malley’s proposals. One is a bishop calling Catholics to “take steps” to prevent violence. The other is a statement from the U.S. Bishops’ Conference in 2000. It sets forth five principles:
1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms;
2. Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner);
3. Support sensible regulations of handguns;
4. Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons; and
5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.
These principles tell us nothing about whether to add more gun control measures in a state that already has extensive gun control. A Catholic can read these principles and conclude that Maryland already imposes “sensible” regulations of firearms, except for needing to address mental illness (which Governor O’Malley’s bill almost completely fails to address).
For example, O’Malley proposes to ban gun magazines with a capacity of more than ten rounds. This is well below the standard number of bullets that will fit inside an ordinary handgun without even extending the magazine below the frame. There is no Catholic teaching that says Maryland’s existing 20-round limit is not already a sensible “high capacity magazine” restriction.
New York recently decided to “do something” and lowered its capacity limit from 10 to 7, and some Catholics there supported it because it was “gun control.” There is no limit on this vague idea of Catholic teaching. It is simply an argument to ban 2-round magazines, or 1-round magazines, or guns altogether. But there is no Catholic teaching saying that more and more and more gun control serves the common good.
This is notably different than issues like abortion and marriage. For both those issues, the Church has clear and authoritative teaching that requires absolute legal protection of the preborn and of the definition of marriage. This precludes faithful Catholics from opposing restrictive laws on abortion, or from supporting laws calling same-sex relationships marriage. But there is no corollary Catholic teaching on the issue of gun control.
The U.S. Bishops’ Conference merely sets forth principles in this area, and they are right to do so. The Catechism says that the common good requires the defense of others, including family, in paragraph 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.
If Catholics want to support more gun control, they are free to do so. They are also not required to do so by Catholic teaching. Like many issues, this is an area where the Church gives Catholics wide latitude to decide what is “sensible.” Catholics are entirely reasonable in believing that in Maryland, more firearms restrictions on families is contrary to the common good, and it does a disservice to society by refusing to address the real problem of mental illness and crime.
The common good requires control of gun control. Read more at The Firearms and Catholic Teaching Society website.
*It is worth noting that neither of these sources, by virtue of being from a national bishops’ conference or a committee thereof, actually constitute “Catholic teaching.” As Bishop Vasa and then-Cardinal Ratzinger have noted, episcopal conferences have no theological or canonical teaching basis in and of themselves.