Lives in the balance

U.S. bishops say right to bear arms must give way to the right of society to be safe from gun violence. Congress urged to enact stricter gun control bill.  Plea from Cardinal Mahony is latest in long series of church efforts to stop gun violence in America

By Mike Nelson, Staff Writer, The Tidings, August 27, 1999

The Tidings is the official newspaper of the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles.

A “juvenile justice” bill currently moving through Congress has taken on new significance following last week’s shooting rampage at the North Valley Community Jewish Center in Granada Hills.

Catholic leaders including Cardinal Roger Mahony, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Domestic Policy Committee, are urging Congress to adopt tighter gun control provisions in the legislation. Such provisions are contained in the Senate-passes version of the bill (S. 254) but not in the House’s version (HR 1501); the differences are expected to be addressed when Congress returns to session in September.

“While we are aware that many factors contribute to youth violence -- including the breakdown of the family, violent images in the media and on the Internet, and the lack of respect for life, the easy accessibility to guns is clearly an important factor that cannot be ignored,” Cardinal Mahony said in a letter to Senate and House conferees who will meet to discuss the differences. “It would be shameful if we failed to address this part of the problem through common sense gun legislation.”

The cardinal urged Congress to “retain in full” the Senate-passed provisions regarding gun control. These provisions would require a three business day background check for any gun sold at a gun show; require a child safety lock to be included with every hand-gun sold; ban the importation of high capacity ammunition magazines; and ban the possession of semi-automatic assault weapons by individuals under 21 years of age.

The right to safety

The bishops’ lobbying efforts are the most recent in a 25-year series of efforts by church leaders -- on a domestic and international level -- to curb gun violence. As far back as 1975, the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Committee on Social Development and World Peace issued “Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life,” a statement that decried the increasing use and availability of handguns, and urged a series of measures to regulate their sale and use (including registration and licensing).

“We must have a coherent national firearms policy responsive to the overall public interest and respectful of the rights and privileges of all Americans,” the bishops said. “The unlimited freedom to possess and use handguns must give way to the rights of all people to safety and protection against those who misuse these weapons.”

In its 1978 statement, “Community and Crime,” the committee on Social Development and World Peace strengthened its plea for gun control by its plea for prohibition of the importation, manufacture, sale, possession and use of handguns, with “reasonable exceptions“ for police, military and security guards. And in recent years, the committee has attempted to promote “a national week of non-violence” in January between Martin Luther King Day and the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Several statements from the U.S. bishops in the 1980s and ‘90s also addressed guns and violence, but none as comprehensively as their November 1994 pastoral letter, “Confronting a Culture of Violence.” In the letter, the bishops addressed issues from abortion to euthanasia to the death penalty, as well as gun-related crime, but they also urged a closer look at factors that lead to violence.

“Not all violence is deadly,” the bishops said. “It begins with anger, intolerance, impatience, unfair judgments and aggression. It is often reflected in our language, our entertainment, our driving, our competitive behavior and the way we treat our environment. These acts and attitudes are not the same as abusive behavior or physical attacks, but they create a climate where violence prospers and peace suffers.”

The bishops noted that violence in American is fed by “multiple forces” -- the disintegration of family life, media influences, growing substance abuse and the rise of gangs, as well as the availability of weapons. “No nation on earth, except those in the midst of war, has as much violent behavior as we do -- in our homes, on our televisions and in our streets,” the bishops asserted.

And the bishops deplored the willingness of society to accept violent measures -- abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty -- to respond to difficult social problems.

“Violence is not the solution,” the bishops declared. “It is the most clear sign of our failures. We are losing our respect for human life.”

Culture of death

Shortly afterward, Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), condemned the “culture of death” and “the violence against life done to millions of human beings,” including abortion, the impoverishment of millions (“especially children”) and environmental abuse. It was in this context that he addressed gun violence.

“What,” the pope said, “of the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood?”

The pope -- as did the bishops, in “Confronting a Culture of Violence” -- said that the promotion of life was a task for all people. “Only the concerted efforts of all those who believe in the value of life,” he said, “can prevent a setback of unforeseeable consequences for civilization.”

More recently, following last April’s rampage shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead, Cardinal Mahony echoed the pope and his fellow bishops in lamenting “the lessening of respect for human life.”

“As we continue to romanticize the glory of guns and their false promise to protect us, the resulting availability of weapons of all sorts and sizes to virtually anyone,” the cardinal noted, “why are we surprised when school children and high school students begin to use guns to bolster their self-worth and to right alleged wrongs?”

In his April 22 statement, Cardinal Mahony called for “a profound change of heart” in each person, acknowledging that each human life “is a precious gift from God. We need to recognize the face of God in each other.”

He urged civic leaders and legislators to sponsor social policy and legislation designed to bring an end to “the ever-expanding culture of death, especially to abortion and euthanasia, and to the horrendous proliferation of guns across our land.”

“If we fail to heed the warning signs that surround us at every turn,” he added, “then we should not be surprised to see even more tragedies in our country.”