Automatic Sins

Owning one of these instruments of death, given the havoc they’re capable of inflicting, is an affront to God.
A bump fire stock that attaches to an semi-automatic assault rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop
A bump fire stock that attaches to an semi-automatic assault rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S., October 4, 2017. 

At the beginning of this week, I intended to write this column in honor of one of Christianity’s most beloved saints and pacifists: Francis of Assisi, whose feast was October 4.

But then the Las Vegas tragedy occurred. So instead of celebrating a peacemaker, I now find myself compelled by yet another mass shooting to lament peacebreakers: automatic and pumped-up semi-automatic weapons.

The late Jesuit priest and peace activist Richard McSorley once memorably declared that building weapons of mass destruction is a sin.

Their deployment is unquestionably sinful because they kill huge numbers of people in an utterly indiscriminate way. But McSorley’s point was that the making and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction is a sin too, signaling as it does a willingness to kill widely and wildly.

It won’t do to say that we need them to make the world a safer place. The sobering fact that these weapons can inflict unimaginable destruction on the entire planet ought to disabuse us of that myth. A world bristling with killing machines isn’t safer.

Nor will it do to say that weapons of mass destruction are benign when in the hands of responsible national leaders, or that we oughtn’t to condemn them simply because some psychopath might go rogue. Instruments capable of indiscriminately killing large numbers of people are never benign, no matter who controls or wields them.

Their very existence is an affront to God and a scandal to anyone who is a disciple of the Prince of Peace.

The carnage this week in Las Vegas is but the latest tragedy that makes it horribly clear that what McSorley said about weapons of mass destruction can and should be said about automatic assault weapons. They too are instruments of indiscriminate and massive death.

As the New York Times editorialized a day after the shooting, this nation has endured 521 mass shootings in the last 477 days, with “mass shooting” defined by the FBI as an act of violence that injures and/or kills at least 4 persons. Not all of these tragedies involved assault weapons. But the majority of them did, and well over half of the weapons used were obtained legally.

The purchase of new automatic assault weapons — machine guns — has been outlawed since 1986. But there are many thousands of pre-1986 ones still on the market and readily available to collectors with enough cash to buy them.

Semi-automatic assault weapons, already horrendous killing machines, are easily convertible to virtually automatic ones by installing perfectly legal and cheaply purchased (starting at around $100) bump stocks. Several of the guns used by the Las Vegas shooter were so modified.

Owning one of these instruments of death, given the havoc they’re capable of inflicting, is an affront to God. They’re made to kill widely and wildly, and to own one is to turn a blind eye to that miserable fact or, even worse, to shrug indifferently.

It won’t do to say that say that these weapons are necessary for self-protection or hunting, because they’re not. Less lethal guns are perfectly adequate for both purposes.

Nor is ownership of them made more acceptable if they’re used for merely “recreational” target shooting. Disintegrating a target with a killing machine is dubious recreation.

Finally, the standard NRA blame-the-psycho-shooter-not-the-gun defense just doesn’t work anymore. There’s simply been too much killing for that old trope to carry any weight.

It is, of course, perfectly legal to buy pre-1986 automatic weapons and to jerry-rig semi-automatic ones with bump stocks. But given that their existence leads to regular and horrendous carnage, owning them and stoutly defending such ownership smacks of moral complicity. Why would any decent person wish to own instruments that have caused so much loss of innocent life? How could any person of conscience justify possessing them?

So I ask everyone, but especially my fellow Christians, to prayerfully consider this: if you own an automatic weapon, don’t sell it. Destroy it. Ditto if you’ve pumped up a semi-automatic with a bump stock. Get rid of the bump stock. And really: think about getting rid of the semi-automatic as well.

Cleanse your soul of these instruments of death. Honor the God whose incarnation was heralded with joyful cries of “Peace on earth!”

Be, as St. Francis of Assisi said, an instrument of peace by breaking the instruments of death.

Fr. Kerry Walters pastors Holy Spirit American National Catholic Church. His video essays may be found on Holy Spirit Moments, with Fr. Kerry Walters.