Will Religious Leaders Lead on Gun Control?

A man works on an anti-gun mural in Chicago. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
Have you ever shot a gun?

I went to college in New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state where conservatives and libertarians preach limited government and personal freedoms, among them lax gun laws that would make the state feel more at home in the South than in New England. So my junior year, some friends and I decided to explore some of these freedoms, and we headed to a gun range a few miles from campus. I had never held a gun before so one of my friends helped me choose my weapon for the day (luckily he decided on a handgun over the grenade launcher). I put on the red earmuffs, walked to my lane, wheeled out the target, and took aim. I fired off a few shots and glanced down at the silhouette to see if any of the bullets had hit it. I wasn’t bad.

That day remains the only time I’ve ever shot a gun, but I vividly remember being blown away by how simple it was to load the bullets and pull the trigger. It was a bit of a rush actually, and I can see why some people would find the whole experience enjoyable. But I also remember thinking, This is too easy. Shouldn’t something that can snuff out a life be more difficult to operate? I had imagined that shooting a gun would require some preparation, some knowledge or mechanics, but I was wrong. It was so simple. Load. Aim. Shoot. Kill?

I woke up early on Friday as I do every morning, with my radio blaring NPR news. Last Friday, their voices were even more somber than usual, so I knew something was wrong. In my dazed half-sleep, I listened to witnesses describe their ordeal in a Colorado movie theater, how they crawled over bleeding bodies or hid behind seats as a lone gunman attacked them with gas and guns, hidden outside in his car. How did he have so many guns, I wondered?

Over the next couple of days, I felt an array of emotions, among them an overwhelming sense of sympathy when, as I was waiting in the checkout line at Whole Foods, I used my iPhone to read short biographies of the victims. Nearly all were within a few years of me, in the middle of establishing themselves as adults but still able to get excited about a midnight showing of Batman. Reading their stories made the horror more personal. They looked like friends, people I’ve dated, colleagues.

Talking about gun control

The next day, both President Obama and Mitt Romney altered campaign events to encourage prayer and support for the victims in Aurora. Their remarks were appropriate and powerful. President Obama reflected on what gives life meaning:

And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.

It’s what we do on a daily basis to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose. That’s what matters. At the end of the day, what we’ll remember will be those we loved and what we did for others. That’s why we’re here.

Romney, meanwhile, relied on his Mormon faith to guide his remarks:

“Today we feel not only a sense of grief, but perhaps also of helplessness,” Mr. Romney said. “But there is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy-laden. And we can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado.”

While moving, both men failed to offer words on gun control, an issue that surely must be at the forefront of millions of Americans’ minds during this election season. I’ve read reports that the shooter was able to buy thousands of rounds of ammunition online and that he procured four guns in just a couple of days. Though he broke no laws in acquiring his weapons, and though he would have probably succeeded in causing mayhem if that were his goal, might stronger gun laws have prevented some of the suffering and bloodshed in Aurora? I can’t imagine why a private citizen needs access to a gun that resembles the military’s M-16 rifle, a gun that was banned in 1994 under the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The New York Times has a rundown of the guns used in the massacre here. Why would anyone need these weapons in their homes? Could the framers of the constitution, who reserved gun rights for militias, have envisioned this kind of life-taking technology in the hands of private citizens?

From the spiritual angle, my friend Fr. Jim Martin, the Jesuit writer, wrote a piece at America magazine about the failure of Christians to view gun control as a pro-life issue:

Pro-life religious people need to consider how it might be made more difficult for people to procure weapons that are not designed for sport or hunting or self-defense. Why would anyone be opposed to firmer gun control, or, to put it more plainly, laws that would make it more difficult for mass murders to occur? If one protests against abortions clinics because they facilitate the taking of human life, why not protest against the largely unregulated suppliers of firearms (whether stores or online suppliers) because they facilitate the taking of human life as well?

Our courts have determined that as Americans, we have a right to own guns. In abstract terms, I suppose this makes sense to me. But the needless violence and death that we watch on the news (if we’re lucky) or are touched by in real life (if we’re a whole lot less lucky) makes the abstract much less appealing.

If our political leaders won’t muster up courage to state the obvious, that we need stronger gun control laws in this country, will our religious leaders? Will bishops and pastors preach about this issue, lead marches on Washington, and devote church resources to the cause like they have with other life issues? Or will yet another senseless tragedy pass without considering how we might prevent more suffering in the future.