What We Catholics Believe About Gun Violence

In times of uncertainty, clear direction seems difficult to find. As media consumers, we get caught up in the minutiae of debate and opinion on every conceivable topic, including gun violence. American Catholics have both privileges and responsibilities, as people of faith in a nation which recognizes and upholds the Second Amendment.  Perhaps it is useful at times like these to revisit our Catholic teaching on the issues.

The United States Bishops’ position is remarkably clear. Borrowing from a summary published in March, 2018, entitled “Backgrounder on a Mercy and Peacebuilding Approach to Gun Violence,[1] the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been consistently in favor of stronger gun restrictions than that which currently exists in most jurisdictions.

In 1994, the USCCB issued the pastoral message, Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, in which it was stated:

“We have an obligation to respond. Violence – in our homes, our schools, and our streets, our nation and world. –is destroying the lives, dignity and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers.”[2]

In 1994, the USCCB supported the assault weapons ban, which then expired in 2004. [3]

In 2000, the pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, was issued, with a call for all people to work toward a culture of life, to do more to end violence in our homes, and to help victims break out of patterns of abuse. Regarding gun violence specifically:

“We support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.”[4]

Finally, in the 2002 statement, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women, the USCCB specifically admonished violence against women.[5]

Several times after recent tragic shootings, the USCCB issued statements[6] and offered testimony to Congress.[7] In early 2016, it formed a Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, which issued a Final Report and Recommendations later that year.[8] The recommendations were consistent with its long- time position urging reform.

The Catholic Church has consistently advocated for a more restrictive gun policy, including:

  • A total ban on assault weapons
  • Measures that control the sale and use of firearms, such as universal background checks for all gun purchases;
  • Limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines;
  • A federal law to criminalize gun trafficking;
  • Regulations and limitations on the purchasing of handguns;
  • Measures that make guns safer, such as locks that prevent children and anyone other than the owner from using the gun without permission and supervision; and
  • An honest assessment of the toll of violent images and experiences which inundate people, particularly our youth.

The USCCB supports proposals to set a more appropriate minimum age for gun ownership, and to ban bump stocks. It also supports holistic measures, such as the promotion of mercy and peacebuilding in our communities through restorative justice policies and practices, ongoing encounters and discussions at the parish level regarding violence in communities.

Given the current polarized political climate, it is difficult to imagine compromise on this most passionately contested issue. But as recognized by Bishop Frank J. Dewane in the aftermath of the Las Vegas and Parkland shootings, honest assessment of the problem is critical:

Violence in our society will not be solved by a single piece of legislation, and many factors contribute to what we see going on all around us.  Even so, our leaders must engage in a real debate about needed measures to save lives and make our communities safer.  The USCCB continues to urge a total ban on assault weapons, which we supported when the ban passed in 1994 and when Congress failed to renew it in 2004.”[9]

There is a definitive Catholic teaching on guns and the corresponding rights and responsibilities of American Catholics. There is debate, particularly at this time in history, on the relative priority and emphasis the issue has or should have. It is important, nevertheless, to recognize that there is a moral imperative to be followed and that its directive is unwavering.

[1] Published by the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, Office of Domestic Social Development, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[2] Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/violence/confronting-a culture-of-violence-a catholic-framework-for-action.cfm

[3] USCCB Assault Weapons Backgrounder, February 2005, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/criminal-justice-restorative-justice/assault-weapons-background.cfm

[4] Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, 2002, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/violence/confronting-a culture of-violence-a-catholic-framework-for-action.cfm

[5] When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women, Committee on Women in Society and in the Church, and Committee on Marriage and the Family, USCCB, 1992

[6] Call for Action in Response to Newtown Tragedy: Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake, and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, December 21, 2012, http://www.uscb.org/news/2012/12-219.cfm; Letter from Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, Chairman of USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice, in Support of the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013, April 8, 2013, http://www.uscb.org/about/domestic-social-development/upload/2013-April-8-Letter-to-Senate-on-Gun-Violence-from-Bishop-Blaire.pdf

[7] Testimony of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Before Senate Committee on the Judiciary, February 12, 2013. “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting Our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment,” http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and dignity/criminal -justice-restorative-justice/upload/USCCB-Senate-Testimony-Proposals-to Reduce-Gun-Violence-2013.pdf

[8] USSC Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, Final Report and Recommendations, November 10, 2016. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/racism-task-force-report-2016110-peace-in-our-communities.pdf

[9] Statement of Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice, Urging True Debate on Gun Violence, November 17, 2017