In my post rejecting Cardinal Dolan’s calls for more gun control, and in subsequent discussion, the issue came up of Catholics and guns, and whether guns a detrimental to building a ‘Culture of Life.’ I believe they are quite the opposite; that armed citizenry is an essential element of a Culture of Life. I’m going to try to outline both why I think that and why I don’t see any conflict between my Catholic faith and my decision to carry a gun (or guns in general).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its section on the Fifth Commandment, has this to say on self defense:
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…The one is intended, the other is not.”
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow.
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
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.
Thus far, fairly straightforward; it is not a sin to use force to defend ourselves from unjust aggression, even if that requires the use of lethal force.
The sticking point for most people, I expect, would be the “moderation” clause: that self-defense requires “no more than necessary” violence. Aren’t guns immoderate violence?
I would argue no, for a number of reasons. First of all, despite what we see in the movies, guns are not always lethal weapons. As a matter of fact, if I recall correctly something like 80% of handgun victims survive their injuries (rifles, admitedly, are a different story). The human body is much better at dealing with the kind of damage that bullets cause than we give it credit for. So using a firearm on another human is not automatically the same as intentionally dealing a lethal blow or willing the other person’s death.
More importantly, though, my understanding of necessary or moderate violence is that you are allowed to respond at roughly the same level as the threat. That is, if someone is trying to knock you around a little, but you know they won’t actually kill you or deal you any permanent damage, then you can’t kill them (not sure what real-life scenario that would be, but hypothetically speaking). If someone threatens you with deadly force, has the means and opportunity to carry it out, and is acting in such a manner that you honestly believe he intends to follow through with his threat, then you are justified in responding with deadly force if that’s what it takes to get him to stop.
See, I think most people fall into the trap of judging this by the weapons involved: gun-beats-knife-beats-fists. But actually, from a real-life standpoint, the type of weapon doesn’t really enter into the level of force being brought to bear. That is, yes, different weapons are better or worse for fighting, but that’s not the point. The point is “how much damage is this person attempting to inflict?” Legitimate self-defense is “how much damage do I have to inflict to prevent him?”
For instance, fist vs. gun, who wins? Most of you probably say ‘gun.’ But now adjust it; a highly-experienced, trained, hardened fighter ten feet away vs. a mild-mannered accountant whose never thrown a punch in anger with a .38 pistol in his pocket? I’d lay my money on the fists in that contest.
Now, if the first man in this example wanted to, he probably could kill or seriously injure the other guy. So who is bringing the greater force? The unarmed fighter, or the accountant with a gun?
The answer: neither. Both are able to inflict deadly force against the other. One can do it at a distance, the other can only do it at close range, but each could kill the other. If they meet in the parking lot and the fighter acts in such a way to make the accountant think he intends to kill him, then the accountant is justified in bringing deadly force to bear on him, because that’s the same level of force he is being threatened with.
So using a gun does not automatically mean that you are bringing immoderate violence in a fight. The Catechism permits gun use.
What about ‘bigger’ guns: the ‘assault weapons’ that we keep hearing about? Aren’t those excessive?
The thing is, every gun is a weapon and every weapon can be lethal. The fact that one is more efficient or easier to use than the other doesn’t really give it a moral character all of its own. Functionally speaking, there’s not much difference between an ‘assault rifle’ and a hunting rifle (except that the hunting rifle is probably going to be bigger, more powerful, and harder to use).
And again, it all comes down to deadly force. If someone has the means and opportunity to kill you or someone you’re responsible for and are acting so that you honestly believe they intend to, then the question becomes what force is necessary to prevent their doing so? In applying deadly force, a long-gun (rifle or shotgun) is the best choice.
Now, admittedly under ordinary circumstances the only time a rifle or shotgun would legitimately be used in self-defense would be a home-invasion; unlikely, but certainly not impossible (in fact, it’s becoming increasingly common). But the thing we forget is that circumstances aren’t always ordinary, are they? I’m not talking about uprising against the government (which is a whole other topic that I’m not going to discuss here) or fantasy scenarios like the zombie apocalypse. I’m talking about civil unrest, riots, natural disasters, blackouts, or any other time the social order breaks down. It’s at times like these, where some people hunker down and hope to ride it out and others use it as a chance to enact their darkest fantasies, that long-guns become all-but essential to survival. Just as an example, in the terrible Los Angeles riots of 1992 the residents of Koreatown were able to protect their lives and businesses solely because they were armed with so-called “assault weapons.” Afterwards, there was a massive upswing in the number of people buying guns. Suddenly, they realized just how much they might need them.
No one who buys a gun expects to use it all the time. If he has any sense, he hopes he’ll never have to use it at all. Guns are not bought for the everyday occurrences; they’re bought for the once-in-a-lifetime, unexpected disasters. The decision to arm oneself in a hostile world is, to my mind, simply an example of being prudent, similar to buying health insurance or home medical supplies. You pray you don't have to use them, but you know that if you need them, you'll want them.
Then there is the question of martyrdom, and whether preparing to defend oneself with lethal force is contrary to the call of Christians to “be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.”
The thing about martyrdom is that it has to be a witness of some kind; dying for one’s faith or to avoid comitting a sin. There’s no witness in being stabbed to death by a whacked-out thug after drug money. That’s simply murder. Unless we posit that the murder or assault of any Christian counts as martyrdom, I don’t think defending oneself is contrary to the call to witness the Gospel.
On this note, St. Maria Goretti came up (for those who don’t know, she was a young Italian girl who was murdered resisting a would-be rapist). I would argue, though, that her witness was less in the fact that she was murdered resisting assault and more in the way she forgave her murderer. Also, remember that she is partially honored for preserving her purity through resistance, even at the cost of her own life, so I don’t think giving other young women the ability to resist without sacrificing their lives is contrary to the spirit of St. Maria.
There is the question of whether it is more perfect to go unarmed and never deal violence to an aggressor, no matter what. Yes, I believe that is the more perfect choice, but in the same sense that celibacy is more perfect than married life. It is not that one is sinful and the other isn’t, it’s that one is good, but the other is better. Not everyone is called to be celibate, and not everyone is called to be unarmed. A universal call to either is impossible and contrary to the will of God.
But isn’t it morally problematic to carry weapons specifically designed to kill other human beings? Again, a weapon is a weapon; they are designed to inflict violence, whether on human beings or animals. A weapon designed to inflict damage on a human being is better for defending against human beings than a weapon designed to inflict damage on animals. It is the nature of defense that damage will be done to the aggressor. We try to limit or minimize that damage as best we can by warnings or by avoiding conflict in the first place, but sometimes that simply isn’t possible. A man who is hopped up on drugs, or who is simply so hardened and embittered by life that he doesn’t care about pain or danger isn’t going to stop unless he physically cannot continue. To that end, the only defense may be to deal him a lethal blow. It’s not that we wish him dead, it’s that we want him to stop. The best defense, therefore, is a gun designed for this specific job; namely a handgun, an ‘assault rifle,’ or a shotgun (depending on where the encounter takes place).
But, again, if we trust in God and believe that our ultimate end is with Him (as we must), then why the need to kill in defense of our own transitory lives? Because our own bodily lives are sacred and it’s no piety to treat them carelessly. Moreover, those who are responsible for the lives of others – husbands, parents, teachers, etc – have “a grave duty” to protect the lives they are responsible for. It would, therefore, be wrong of them to allow a violent aggressor to kill them and so remove their protection from those they are responsible for. Part of their duty to protect others is to not be careless with their own lives. Another part is to ensure, to the best of their abilities, that they actually could defend the people they’re responsible for if they needed to. Depending on their circumstances, that could include being armed (this, incidentally, is why I favor allowing teachers with CCW licenses to carry in schools).
See, this is why I believe that guns can be a part of the Culture of Life. They allow parents to effectively protect their children, husbands to protect their wives, and teachers to protect their students. They allow ordinary people to live without fear of being victimized by the ruthless or violent. They discourage and prevent things like rape, murder, assault, and other manifestations of the Culture of Death.
Think about it this way; say some mentally-disturbed or evil individual decides he wants to become the most famous person in the country by shooting up a shopping mall…but then he sees the news of the last mass shooting attempt and discovers that that guy was immediately stopped by an armed citizen. As a matter of fact, every time he hears about an attempted mass shooting, it seems like the perpetrator only managed to murder one or two people before being apprehended, shot, or frightened into committing suicide. Would you say he’s more or less likely to follow through with his sick fantasy with more armed citizens in the world?
Or think about it like this; a man is out looking to indulge in his rape fantasy, but when he approaches a vulnerable-looking young woman, she suddenly pulls a Glock out of her purse, causing him to beat a hasty retreat. Not only has she been saved from a violent, traumatic, possibly-life-threatening experience, but he has been prevented from committing a grave sin and has been discouraged from attempting such a sin in the future.
You see? Guns not only protect people from being attacked, but they discourage people from even attempting such attacks.
Part of building the Culture of Life involves discouraging and breaking down the Culture of Death. Guns in the hands of law abiding citizens are part of that process. Not that I’m picturing a shooting war between the two cultures, but when people who are steeped in the Culture of Death are unable or unwilling to carry out their crimes because their victims are armed, then the Culture of Death is weakened. The crime is not committed, it doesn’t end up on the news, and other would-be-criminals don’t see it and aren’t inspired to do something similar. The violence which Cardinal Dolan rightly condemns is lessened by the presence of guns in the hands of ordinary citizens. Paradoxical, I know, but it’s been shown to work time and time again. Any honest researcher will tell you that when the law-abiding are armed, violence diminishes.
As long as there is evil in the world, people will need to be armed, and Catholics should not be afraid to choose to carry weapons if they feel they need to.
Molon LabeE Vive Christus Rex!