A friend of mine who is a seasoned law enforcement officer described an arrest he’d recently made at the risk of his own life. A young man suspected of murder had fled to a family member’s house and taken cover under an outdoor deck. Crouched there as the November evening quickly darkened, the youth had silently stared at my friend, both frozen with guns drawn and eyes locked.
Thanks to his years of police experience and the backup of his fellow officers, my friend was able to talk the young man into surrendering, and the youth even shared what had driven him to such desperation. One of his buddies had been shot and killed before his eyes, and he wanted to avenge that loss. Raised by a mother mired in addiction, surrounded by peers ensnared in the drug trade, the young man had grasped a gun to make sense of a world that seemed senseless.
Another friend, who lives in a neighborhood where bullets break hearts every night, bowed her head when I asked her how she navigates the perilous streets. “I keep to myself,” she said, her voice husky. “I’m saving every penny to move away.”
Years earlier, one friend survived being shot during a robbery at a local pub, where he was playing pool after a long day of work. His heroic attempt to disarm the attacker almost cost him his life, and resulted in thousands of dollars from medical bills due to post-surgical complications. And still another friend, walking to his job as a sacristan at an inner-city church, also narrowly escaped death when a thief approached and brandished a gun.
Fresh out of college, I’d watched a mother — a fearless woman who’d raised eight children in a West Philadelphia housing project — almost lose the will to live after her son was executed not far from their home. The teen’s girlfriend had run afoul of a drug dealer, and he’d tried to negotiate a truce to no avail: the dealer shot him in cold blood. Gail collapsed from grief during the funeral Mass and had to be carried out of the church; for months afterward, I would happen upon her staring quietly out of the window at the rectory where we both worked. “I miss that fool child,” she would whisper.
One study estimated that the annual cost of gun violence in the U.S. exceeds $229 billion, a number that represents direct costs, such as prison terms for offenders, and indirect costs that reflect the dire impact of gun violence on victims — lost wages, jury settlements — that don’t begin to account for long-term liabilities like extended medical and disability care, pain management, trauma and addiction issues, counseling.
For all those figures, even the most rigorous research could never calculate the damage wrought upon every soul wounded in some way by gun violence.
And still, we as a city — as a nation, as a species — seem utterly powerless to put down that by which too many of us die.
Our nation’s Constitution declares a right to bear arms, and indeed our own Catechism recognizes the need for legitimate defense (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2263-2265).
But as my law enforcement friend — who relies more on his deeply held Catholic faith than he does his service weapon — often reminds me, the term “gun violence” fails us, since the problem lies not in bullets or barrels or even in our bare hands, but in our hearts.
And until we turn those hearts in humble surrender to our Maker, we will never find the peace that eludes us, or the strength that secures tranquility. Laws, lobbyists, policies, debates, marches and candlelight vigils may help us grapple, in very partial ways, with the rage that seeks to harm others — but lasting change requires divine intervention.
Whether we find ourselves behind, in front of or to the side of it, the bullet points to all of us. Both target and trigger converge on the human heart, which can only be redeemed and restored by the Lord who “breaks every bow” (Ps 46:10) — and every instrument of death that would harm those made in his image and likeness.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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