It’s been an extremely full week in terms of news, with Monday’s surprising announcement from Pope Benedict, and Wednesday’s start of Lent. But I wanted to be sure to take a moment to highlight the President’s call for sensible steps on gun control in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, as well as similar actions by Governor Cuomo here in New York State, and Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.
Gun control has been much on my mind since the Newtown killings, and, in particular, seeing the devastating effects that gun violence can bring when I celebrated the funeral Mass at Saint Mary of the Assumption parish in Katonah for Anne Marie Murphy, a brave teacher who died in that horrible tragedy, protecting her little student.
Advocating for gun control is not something new for the Church. The Holy See has continuously been a strong voice in opposition to international arms trading, the world’s version of gun control; it’s even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official teaching of the Catholic faith (see numbers 2315-2316 in particular) .
Here in the United States, the bishops have for decades supported measures to get handguns off the streets, and to ban assault weapons. To cite but one instance, in Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, released in 2000, the bishops reiterated their support for legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons. “As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.”
That’s why I found myself nodding in agreement when the President said, “I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.” It’s also why I was very much in favor a month ago when our own New York State legislature, heeding the call of Governor Cuomo, passed NY Safe, (New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act) the most comprehensive gun control bill in the country.
Whenever I mention my support for gun control, the calls and emails come in, telling me that I’m naïve, reminding me of the Second Amendment to our Constitution, and arguing that the only thing gun control measures will accomplish is to keep guns out of the hands of honest, law-abiding people.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on what should be in each specific bill, and I will never be an authority on the number of bullets that should be in an ammo clip, or the proper way to conduct background checks before selling someone a firearm. That’s the proper responsibility of our legislators, and, should constitutional questions arise, of our courts. However, there can be no denying that, in the wake of Newtown, Aurora, Blacksburg, Tucson, Columbine, and almost countless other horrific and senseless deaths by guns, that something must be done.
For me, regulating and controlling guns is part of building a Culture of Life, of doing what we can to protect and defend human life. The easy access to guns, including assault weapons, that exists in our nation has contributed towards a Culture of Death, where human life and dignity are cheapened by the threat of violence. No law, no piece of legislation, will ever be able to protect us from every act of aggression, or from the harm that can come from an individual bent on killing. But, we must do what we can to minimize the opportunities for such acts, by limiting the easy access to guns – and, I would add, by increasing funding for programs to treat those who suffer from mental illness, especially those that might lead someone to commit mass murder.
I have a long list of things to pray for this Lent. Asking God’s help that our elected representatives in Washington and in state houses across the country have the courage and the wisdom to pass meaningful and effective gun control bills, will certainly have a prominent place in those prayers.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the Catholic Archbishop of New York City.