The following column appeared in the Jan. 3 issue of the Rhode Island Catholic, diocesan newspaper of Providence, R.I.
The right to own guns is not an absolute right. As a personal right it always has to be balanced with the legitimate rights of other people and with protecting the common good. That’s a principle that applies to all individual freedoms.
For example, we’re guaranteed the right to free speech, but it’s not an absolute right. It was decided a long time ago that because of the common good and for reasons of public safety you can’t yell “fire” in a theater. And you want to test your freedom of speech? Try talking about your fascination with bombs the next time you’re boarding an airplane and see what happens.
As a society we need always to achieve a proper balance between individual freedom and the common good. Blessed John Paul II addressed this in his 1993 encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor,” where he wrote: “Freedom must halt before the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil,’ for it is called to accept the moral law given by God.” And in a homily given in Baltimore in 1995, the pope taught that the basic question before a democratic society is how the members of that society can live together peacefully. “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought,” he said.
The question about the “right to bear arms,” the ownership of guns by individuals, has been forced into public debate once again by the horrific slaughter of 27 people, including 20 little children, in Connecticut by one deranged young man. We’ll all be thinking about and praying for the victims of that terrible event for a long, long time.
The crime in Connecticut raises lots of societal questions that need to be earnestly addressed — ensuring the safety of children in our schools; improving the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness; the rampant violence that’s glorified in our popular culture these days; the stability of the family unit; and the general lack of respect for human life and dignity in our society, come quickly to mind.
It’s the control of guns, however, that’s emerged as the most emotional and politically divisive issue of the lot. It seems to me, though, that it’s an issue where a little bit of common sense would go a long way in restoring a proper balance between individual rights and the common good of society.
In response to the tragedy in Connecticut, the bishops of the United States issued a statement in which they said: “The events in Newtown call us to turn to the Lord in prayer and to witness more profoundly Christ’s perfect love, mercy and compassion. We must confront violence with love. … We call upon all people of good will to help bring about a culture of life and peace.” In their statement the bishops also addressed a number of practical issues related to the violent attack including gun control.
It’s important to note, though, that the bishops are not new to the discussion about firearms. In the year 2000 they addressed the issue of gun control and they are on record for supporting legislation that would: control the sale and use of firearms; make guns safer, discouraging, especially, their use by children; protect society from the violence associated with assault weapons; and confront the consequences of addiction and mental illness in causing crime.
I’ve addressed this issue before as well. In a column on June 25, 1999, I wrote the following:
“Doesn’t the proliferation of guns in our homes and neighborhoods, and the increase of violence in society argue for some limits, some restraints? I know, I know … ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,’ the tiresome saying insists. But the fact is that people use guns more than any other weapon to kill people. In thinking of the terrible violence that has occurred in schools over the last few years, I can’t recall even one case in which students were stabbed or bludgeoned to death by a crazed classmate.”
The National Rifle Association has again emerged as a key player in the current debate. Despite its influence, however, the NRA is not a fourth branch of government. If the association wants to be a respected and credible part of our community, it has to be part of the solution, not the source of the problem. It has to promote the common good; not protect its own interests. The NRA, too, is subject to the law of God.
One of the signature songs of the iconic folk group Peter, Paul and Mary was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” written by Bob Dylan. There they ask nine questions, including: “How many times must the cannon balls fly, before they’re forever banned?”
In a similar way we can ask ourselves, “How many children must die, how many families must suffer, how many communities must be forever scarred,” until we as a society agree to reasonable limits on firearms? If the answer’s not clear now, it never will be. It’s time for our nation, state and local governments to enact legislation that will severely limit the number and nature of firearms available to the general public.
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