On the Morality of Gun Control

After delivering a homily indicting Catholic Senators (Democrat and Republican) who voted against legislation that would render illegal the killing of unborn babies with a developed nervous system, I received a response in a letter:

I look forward to hearing your next political homily, similar to the one on abortion a few weeks ago. Please state the Catholic position on mass murder, and, in that context, list the Catholic Republicans in Congress who block any reasonable assault-weapons ban. You might need to extend church hours since the list will, undoubtedly, be extensive. Thank you.

It needs to be said right off, of course, that a homily on the evil of abortion is about as political as a homily condemning the Holocaust. Regardless, if my correspondent would identify any politician who was in favor of placing weapons – including daggers and box cutters – into the hands of criminals and psychotics for purposes of mass murder, I would happily identify them by name. And I would invite the same boos and hisses I invite for any politician who doesn’t lift a finger to protect the lives of unborn babies.

But on such matters, here is my answer in a nutshell:

  1. Abortion is intrinsically evil and thus opposing it is not political.

  2. Guns are not intrinsically evil. On the contrary, the Catechism teaches not just the right but the duty to use lethal force, if necessary, to defend oneself and those towards whom we have a responsibility.  The same right to life that condemns mass murder requires the use of a gun to wound or kill if necessary to save life. Keeping guns away from mass murderers is obviously a moral duty, but guns in themselves are not intrinsically evil, unlike abortion.

  3. Every firearm can be used in an assault, so the label “assault rifle” is a political, rather than a moral, one.

Priests and prelates have no pertinent expertise in crafting gun control legislation or, for that matter, in preventing the arming of rogue states.  Those killed by a butter knife, an AK-47, or a neutron bomb are equally and indifferently dead. In each case, the resort to arms will be judged just or unjust by the same moral criterion.

The Church must always uphold the integrity of justice, and justice not only permits but requires defense of the innocent against unjust aggressors, i.e., those who inflict harm without due cause.

But is a “reasonable assault-weapons ban” a moral imperative in our day in view of the increasingly frequent school shootings (not to mention violence in the cities)?

Here there arise some truly political questions that need thoughtful consideration and rigorous analysis – by the laity. The ones I am about to list certainly are not exhaustive.  (I do not presume to exercise priestly authority here, but I am, after all, a citizen, too.)

What is a “weapon”? Obviously, handguns and rifles are weapons. But so are box cutters on airplanes.  Nearly 3,000 people were murdered with assaults that began with box cutters in the hands of terrorists.


The difficulty of defining a “weapon,” however, doesn’t disappear when restricting the conversation to fire sticks. What is an “assault weapon”? A tank? A machine gun? A repeating Winchester rifle? An M-16? The real question is: how might legislation keep these weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally disturbed?

The question of crafting criminal laws threatening to inflict just punishment, it seems to me, is far easier to evaluate with moral criterion than regulatory laws. Front-end regulatory laws such as a “reasonable assault weapons ban,” in contrast, are far more complicated because not only do the laws need to envision an ever-expanding universe of definitions, there are serious questions of effectiveness and the morality of infringing on the right to self-defense. And it should be recognized that in the aftermath of violence, hysteria and emotionalism easily disrupt clear thinking.

With respect to the question of effectiveness:  What kind of gun control is “reasonable”?  How do outlaws obtain guns? Is it true – or just a clever phrase – that if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns? What is the experience in cities with strict “gun control” laws?  What is the experience of political entities with “conceal and carry” regulations? What are the facts?

All of these questions are clearly beyond the competence of the clergy.

Questions of gun violence causality need a continuing dispassionate investigation by the laity and the experts among them. (My educated guess is that pornography plays a large part in causality. When the porn fails to satisfy, a twisted mind seeks other methods of excitement. And of course at root is the breakdown of the family including legalized abortion. Disrespect of unborn human life begets disrespect of all human life.)

Who among us would not like to see a world without violence, where guns were only used for hunting and sport?  But the effects of Original Sin remain and we have a natural right to self-defense.  (Alas, whenever I try to “Visualize World Peace,” I end up visualizing a police state.)

These are difficult times, with a broken culture contributing to a breakdown on a wide scale of our civilization, leading to countless acts of violence.  So pronouncing on the morality of banning guns should not be made by a cleric in the exercise of his prophetic office. There are too many moving parts, questions of fact and causality, and good faith prudential judgments where believing Catholics can disagree in good conscience. But underlying moral principles remain and need proper application.

At times, a clean gun in good working order can be the solution – as in just war, just police action, and acts of personal self-defense. But legislation regulating the procurement and possession of guns, to preserve the liberty and order and security essential to a free society, is the business of the laity.


*Image: The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre, printed in 1770 by Paul Revere after a design by Henry Pelham [Library of Congress]

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.