“You can’t regulate evil.” These words, spoken by Matt Bevin, the Governor of Kentucky, seem to resonate with so many Americans. Horrific acts of brutal violence are the price we pay for living in a free society, or so people claim.
Nevertheless, as Catholics, we do not believe this, and our faith does not teach this. The fatalistic attitude that bad things will happen because bad people exist fails to take into account the very purpose of laws. The essence of law is to regulate and reduce bad behavior, in addition to directing citizens towards making good decisions. Catholics believe that good laws can help to create better people. Laws should point society towards the common good.
St. Thomas Aquinas argues that laws can do two things: first, the coercive power of laws can pressure or scare citizens into obeying rules, and second, laws can work to create more virtuous citizens. Through this coercive element of law, even those who are the most vile and dangerous to society can be pushed in the direction of virtue. By prohibiting the unethical behavior that citizens might engage in, laws teach citizens good and virtuous behavior.
While Aquinas points out that laws cannot aim to create a perfect society filled with citizens who possess all the virtues of goodness, laws should always be oriented towards creating a system that promotes the common good and welfare of society. Obviously, Aquinas states, society cannot prohibit all vices; it would be impossible to do so. Nevertheless, in order to promote the common good, laws need to prohibit the most egregious misdeeds that people are capable of committing. These include laws against assault, murder, etc. Violence perpetrated by guns clearly falls into this category.
The simple fact of the matter is that Catholics need to support stricter gun laws and restrictions on weapons. There is a culture of violence and death that is abetted by our excessively libertarian approach to guns. The absence of adequate regulations results in harmful, unethical behavior that can be reduced. There’s no way around this; if you are Catholic, then you need to be in favor of creating governmental policies that will reduce gun deaths.
Using law to promote virtue and goodness in people might sound far-fetched, but we only need to look to civil rights laws that promoted and protected the equality of women, ethnic and racial minorities, religious minorities, persons with disabilities, and gay, lesbian, and transgender persons to find real examples of this in action. Various laws have helped to shift public opinion and have created a society that not only protects but also accepts and embraces people who were previously oppressed or ostracized. Bigotry, injustice, and inequality remain, but changes in law have dramatically shifted both behavior and attitudes in a positive direction.
Why should our attitude about guns be any different? Why couldn’t well-designed laws and regulations on firearms help to create a more virtuous community? The very point of law is to regulate evil and to convert those who might otherwise commit that evil. From a broad lens, it seems obvious that the United States has a great deal of room for improvement on this.
It is true that crafting legislation in this area is an incredibly complex issue in the US; and there does not need to be a “one size fits all” approach to regulating guns. Aquinas makes the point that different communities might need different variations of the law to match the needs of the community. We can do the same with guns.
Rural areas will likely need different rules and regulations than large cities, and areas with lots of hunters will need different laws than places where hunting is non-existent. But this is the beauty of the American federal system. Local, state, and the federal government can all engage in the policy making process to make laws that make sense for their area.
Given how pervasive gun violence is in this country, doing nothing is not an option. If we take the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas seriously, then Catholics need to be on the front lines of this fight for better gun control. To continue to throw our collective hands up in the air and to say “these thing happen” only further invites these things to happen.