The list of deadly mass shootings continues to grow. The names of Tulsa, Uvalde, Buffalo, Boulder, El Paso, Virginia Beach, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Fort Hood, Blacksburg, Columbine, have become synonymous with such rampages. In the last 15 years alone in the U.S., there have been 20 different shootings killing at least 10 people.
After each, there is mourning and righteous indignation, but little action, especially at the federal level. In fact, as soon as politicians and media begin to clamor for gun control, gun sales skyrocket. This is an illustration of the fundamental chasm that exists in the national conversation about guns.
Some clearly want to eliminate all or most guns, even though the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms, 44 states have similar provisions in their state constitutions, and the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2010 decision McDonald v. Chicago, held that the Second Amendment applies even in those states that do not have such a provision. Gun control activists nevertheless note that guns, especially semi-automatic assault weapons, facilitate the homicidal aims of those tempted to take the lives of one or more, and they argue that for the sake of our children and others, we must make it much harder, if not practically impossible, to own or possess them.
When atrocities occur, gun enthusiasts complain that gun control activities are exploiting the situation to try to take away their guns — and gun sales rise as insurance against that eventuality. They argue that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and generally try to focus the attention of society on the killer rather than on the means the killer employed. They worry, sometimes to a paranoid degree, that if they give an inch toward gun regulation, they’re hopping on a slippery slope that will lead ultimately to the undermining of the constitutional order and to their being stripped of the ability not only to hunt but to protect themselves and their families against criminals, corrupt police and overreaching government.
The vast majority of people in the middle recognize that if we can get away from these extremes, there is ample room for progress. Most admit that there must be attention on the killers and not just their guns: studies have shown that many are loners from broken families who spend much of their time on the Internet or playing violent video games, who feel aggrieved, lack empathy and seek to be heard and taken seriously by attention grabbing massacres. There’s not just a mental health crisis, but a relational, familial, cultural and spiritual one. Most also admit, however, that such troubled boys and men should not have easy access to guns and ammunition, so as to diminish their capacity to carry out atrocities based on their interior demons.
It’s time for those who recognize the truths on both sides to come together to start addressing at least some of what almost everyone recognizes can be done.
In recent articles for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff has ably tried to sketch what’s possible.
“This will be painful for many of my fellow liberals,” he writes, “but I suggest that we work harder to engage centrists, talk about ‘gun safety’ rather than ‘gun control,’ and jump into the weeds … on technocratic details.” He cites surveys from Pew Research Center and Quinnipiac University that show that a majority of those who own guns and a majority of those who do not both support: background checks for all gun buyers as well as for private sales and at gun shows; preventing the mentally ill from buying guns; banning the sale of guns to those convicted of violent crimes or on no-fly or watch lists; federal mandatory waiting periods on all gun purchases; creating a federal database to track gun sales and banning the sale of magazines with 10 bullets or more; and banning modifications that make semi-automatic guns work like automatic weapons.
Kristoff also asks about raising the minimal age to own a gun from 18 to 21, since Americans 15-19 are 82 times as likely to be killed with a gun than teens of the same age in countries of similar socio-economic levels. Americans from 18-20, while comprising only four percent of the population, account for 17 percent of those who commit murder. Such a regulation may have stopped the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, both carried out by 18-year-olds. If 18-year-olds cannot legally buy a beer, he asks, should they be able to buy handguns and AR-15 rifles?
“These are pragmatic steps that won’t eliminate gun violence or avert every shooting,” Kristoff writes, “but they can make our country a bit safer.” And, he adds, “They would at least break the paralysis on sensible gun policy.”
He suggests doing with guns what we do for cars: focus on safety, license users and train them. Such policies would also impact and reduce the use of guns for other murders, accidental homicides and the spate of suicides.
The U.S. bishops have long advocated for practical steps to break the impasse. They have repeatedly urged for improved access to mental health care and earlier interventions, an honest assessment of the violent images and experiences that inundate the young, a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks, limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines, the criminalization of gun trafficking, gun locks and storage, a minimal age for gun purchases and the banning of “bump stocks” that help guns fire at the speed of automatic weapons.
On June 3, the heads of four different departments in the U.S. Bishops Conference jointly sent a letter to Members of Congress summoning them to action. They noted, “There is something deeply wrong with a culture where these acts of violence [like in Uvalde, Buffalo, Dallas, Laguna Woods and Tulsa] are increasingly common. There must be dialogue followed by concrete action to bring about a broader social renewal that addresses all aspects of the crisis, including mental health, the state of families, the valuation of life, the influence of entertainment and gaming industries, bullying, and the availability of firearms. … We must unite in our humanity to stop the massacres of innocent lives.”
While advocating bipartisan action on background checks and extreme risk protection orders (“red flag laws”), they note, “Not even the most effective gun laws, by themselves, will suffice to address the roots of these violent attacks in our country.” There is also a need, they say, to confront family instability, suffering and childhood trauma, as well as the moral state of cities.
They quote Pope Francis’ 2015 words to a joint session of Congress: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”
That’s a question for which there can never be a justifiable answer.
Working together to prevent deadly weapons from ending up in the hands of those who intend or are at risk to massacre the innocent is what society and her leaders must now ensure.