With mass shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the recent rise in murder rates in numerous big cities all making headlines, now seems like a good time to think about the relationship between Catholic values and approaches to reducing gun violence. In this interview, Millennial editor Robert Christian addresses these topics with the founder of the organization Philadelphia Catholics for Fewer Guns, Nancy Grogan, a graduate of St. Joseph’s University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is a board member at CeaseFirePA, a statewide coalition of mayors, police chiefs, faith leaders, community organizations and individual Pennsylvanians working together to take a stand against gun violence.
Robert Christian (RC): Why should Catholics care about gun violence and the availability of guns in our society?
Nancy Grogan (NG): Over 30,000 Americans are killed by guns every year. Children and young people under age 25 account for a high percentage of firearm deaths. The availability of a gun in the house increases the risk of death in domestic abuse situations and in accidents. And it increases the risk of suicide. Mass shootings are increasing exponentially. All of this disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color.
Those are the facts.
As a matter of faith and policy, the Church embraces the “preferential option for the poor.” We have to recognize that it is the poorest inhabitants of our cities who suffer the harshest effects of gun violence. For them, the threat of sudden and random death or injury is the daily reality that shapes their lives.
RC: Is there a distinctly Catholic approach to regulating guns?
NG: While I don’t think there is a Catholic approach to legislation, I do believe that there is a way we Catholics approach social issues which may be unique. Our beliefs are based not only upon Scripture, but also upon tradition and the teaching of our leaders. Thus, our leadership is being called upon to provide guidance. We have historically advocated for social change only after careful and slow consideration, but once we do, Catholics become a critical influence in social movements.
We also believe in the necessity of both faith and good works, not one without the other. If we believe something, we have an obligation to work to bring it about. In a recent reading at mass, James said, “Be doers of the Word, not hearers only.”
The Catholic Church has long held that the legitimate defense of our own lives and the lives of those entrusted to our care is a right and even sometimes a grave duty. Our Catechism teaches that those with legitimate authority have the right to use arms to repel aggressors. The problem in our American society is that we have blurred the lines between legitimate authority and the fearful illusion of ultimate security at all times and in all places. The gun lobby has us believing that we need more guns and has helped to perpetuate the notion that we should be individually ready to fight to the death at any time.
RC: Do you see a tension between the second amendment and the best approach to addressing the large amount of gun violence that occurs in the US?
NG: I think we should prayerfully consider two truths. First, no matter where we stand on the issue of gun rights, none of us should be satisfied with the level of gun violence in our society. We cannot surrender ourselves to a status quo in which our own safety can only be secured by our willingness to meet violence with violence.
Second, following in the path of Jesus Christ requires courage. In the past two years, we have seen tremendous political courage demonstrated by some member of Congress, and by state and local leaders. It has been a bumpy ride for many of them who have defied the gun lobby, but I think we are going to see more of it, and the tide will eventually shift.
There will be political tension any time the rights and obligations of one group are balanced against the rights and obligations of another. That is the nature of a constitutional democracy. Right now the rights of individuals to go about their lives are infringed by the belief by some that there is a right to use weapons anytime, anywhere.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court made clear that reasonable regulation of guns does not infringe the Second Amendment, and since that decision, the lower courts have upheld gun regulations consistently. None of the legislative proposals being discussed infringe Second Amendment rights.
RC: What policy changes do you feel are necessary to reduce gun violence?
NG: I think the details of any regulation are not as important as the commitment to social change. Right now, at least in some cities in America, there is little or no direction from our Church leadership and therefore no political will to bring about change. Our elected representatives are not going to adopt meaningful legislation until we demand it, and we Catholics are not going to demand it unless and until we believe it is a moral priority.
No legislation is going to reduce all gun violence. The following provisions, however, have been demonstrated to reduce gun violence in the jurisdictions where they have been enacted. We can focus our efforts on several legislative proposals:
- Universal background checks for all guns sales
- Mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns
- Measures to keep guns out of the hands of abusers, stalkers, and others with risk of dangerous behavior
- A ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines
- Strict penalties for illegal gun trafficking and disciplined enforcement
RC: Can Pope Francis’ broad commitment to the protection of life and promotion of social justice make a difference on this issue, especially in areas where certain bishops have only focused on a handful of political issues and ignored numerous threats to the sanctity of human life?
NG: I think so. Pope Francis has reminded of us how we are to be motivated by both justice and mercy. We cannot be merciful if we allow the most vulnerable members of our communities to bear the costs of gun violence. Although he has not spoken directly about the gun culture in America, he has not held back in his criticism of weapons manufacturers in the context of international conflict. Most importantly, he has recognized that poverty and violence are inextricably linked. Right now, the poor in our cities need safer communities. Other critical things, like better educational and economic opportunity, are not possible while extreme violence persists.
Regarding the Church’s teachings on social questions, Pope Francis has told us our pastors have the right to offer opinions on all that affects people’s lives, and that it is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere. Consequently, no one can demand the religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, and without the right to offer opinions on events affecting society.
Pope Francis has reminded us that, at times, we have to challenge the status quo. We cannot accept a status quo which leaves the poorest members of our inner cities to bear the heaviest burden of violence in our country. The status quo has been silence and neutrality. Perhaps it is time we re-think that.