Pro-Life Gun Owner Anathema Sit?


Should Catholics be excommunicated from the pro-life movement if they oppose banning most guns?

That seems to be the position of Sr. Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ conference.  She declared in the Washington Post this week that to be pro-life, Catholics must favor banning “assault weapons,” and support other new restrictions.

It’s very hard to determine what Sr. Walsh means, not because Catholic teaching is unclear, but because Sr. Walsh doesn’t tell us what an assault weapon is.

gunsAll weapons assault, and all firearms are lethal.  But how can someone say that Catholic teaching requires a ban of assault weapons, if Catholic teaching does not even speak of assault weapons, much less define them?

This problem does not exist for other, actual pro-life causes.  Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” defines abortion and definitively insists that it be banned.  It also speaks strongly, if not dogmatically, against death penalty.  Even the sometimes-disputed term “torture” is defined and discussed in the Catechism.  Neither document discusses, much less bans, “assault” weapons.

Maybe we could read the tea leaves of Sr. Walsh’s article to see what she means.  She says that an assault weapons ban is necessary for being pro-life because the Church opposes “lethal weapons on the streets.”

I live in Maryland, home to one of America’s murder capitals, Baltimore.  According to recent FBI numbers, Maryland has about 275 gun homicides a year. Two of those use rifles–with no evidence that those two rifles were “assault rifles.” (75 additional murders happen with knives. 757 died in car crashes.)

Nearly all these gun homicides were with handguns.  So from this justification, Sr. Walsh might mean that to be pro-life and oppose “lethal weapons on the streets” we must support a ban on handguns.

I can see why Sr. Walsh didn’t call for that.  It’s a much less popular position than calling for an “assault weapons” ban.  Those sound much scarier, but a handgun ban would make Sr. Walsh sound extreme, even to Washington Post readers.

If Sr. Walsh explicitly proposed banning handguns it would mean families must not protect themselves with ordinary firearms.  Is a Catholic family committing mortal sin for owning a handgun, “lethal weapons on the streets”?  According to the Catechism, families have a strong justification for owning firearms (not limited to single-shot rifles): “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others…. 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.”

It’s also possible that Sr. Walsh’s term “assault weapons” refers to weapons used in mass killings.  But those killings, like Newton, used handguns along with rifles. Columbine occurred during a national ban on scary-looking rifles and on “high capacity” magazines: those killers used handguns only, and fired most of their shots with 10-round magazines.  There is no evidence showing an increase in gun murders after that federal ban expired.

The federal “assault weapons” ban and several state bans define these weapons by cosmetic, symbolic features, not by lethality.  None of them affect “automatic” weapons, which are already illegal.  They deal with “semi-automatic” rifles that have other non-lethal features, like grips and adjustible stocks. Where in Catholic teaching does it say that guns are OK unless they look too scary? Most rifles are semi-automatic, do does Sr. Walsh insist that pro-lifers ban all semi-automatic firearms?

Sr. Walsh should not excommunicate people from the pro-life movement because of their position on how weapons look.  Semi-automatic rifles with cosmetic features are not being used in 99% of crimes that Sr. Walsh uses to justify her new pro-life requirement.  Those rifles are being responsibly and safely owned.  Catholic teaching contains no ban on most guns.

The U.S. Bishops admit that Catholic teaching merely calls for “reasonable” measures.  That standard leaves pro-life Catholics significant room for disagreement.  We all want background checks: and guess what, federal law already requires background checks.  States like Maryland, even without new rules, already impose very strict rules.  Pro-life people can legitimately believe that enough is enough.  They don’t have to buy arguments that ultimately mean Catholic teaching bans semi-automatic guns.

People have been trying to add extraneous topics to “pro-life” for years, always from the political left’s agenda.  Unspecified assertions like Sr. Walsh’s shut down discussion, and unnecessarily divide the pro-life movement.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Matt Bowman is a pro-life, religious liberties and constitutional law attorney in the Washington, DC area. He graduated from Ave Maria School of Law in 2003 and clerked for several federal judges thereafter. The Bowmans are involved in homeschooling and classical Catholic education and are rabid fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Matt is a member of the Knights of Columbus and his local parish.

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