Gun Culture Versus Human Life and Dignity

U.S. Catholic bishops have been criticized for many things in recent years, among them an over emphasis on abortion issues to the exclusion of other issues. Is this a fair criticism? What other 'life' issues do the bishops address?
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The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade has now passed, and those that continue to argue for overturning the Supreme Court Decision that made abortion legal continue to be proud to call themselves pro-life. But does it make any sense for this term to be reserved exclusively for opposition to abortion? Such narrow use may be especially offensive to Catholics and other Christians who defend the value and dignity of every human life, not solely that of a fetus. U.S. Catholic bishops have been criticized for many things in recent years, among them an over emphasis on abortion issues to the exclusion of other issues. Is this a fair criticism? What other 'life' issues do the bishops address?

Careful examination of the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers details on an extraordinarily large number of issues addressed by the bishops in their defense of "human life and dignity." They defend a culture of life that requires abolition of the death penalty, of the use of torture (which they define as intrinsically evil, and thus never permitted, no matter its allegedly beneficial consequences), and of landmines. They insist on the need for economic justice that includes a living wage for workers and a secure safety net for the poor; they call for immigration reform that welcomes and cares for diverse immigrants; they call for more accessible health care, including in the area of mental health. They deplore the cruelty in many prisons and call for humane conditions and a focus on rehabilitation. They call for "confronting a culture of violence" by "curbing the availability of deadly weapons," and they oppose the international arms trade.

Inspired by the bishops' zeal, I would like to point out some ways in which the culture of violence and especially its exaltation of guns may be confronted. When I was a growing up in the 1960s, cigarettes were promoted and advertised everywhere, they could be lit up almost anywhere, they cost barely a quarter for a pack, they were portrayed as glamorous and sexy in almost every film, and they dominated much of television advertising. Smokers had all the rights and considered themselves entitled to smoke when and where and as often as they pleased, no matter what others thought. Non-smokers were expected to endure in silence a nearly perpetual, stinking, carcinogenic cloud, including on public transportation, and in stores and offices. The primary care physician for my family even smoked cigarettes while he examined patients and exhorted them to adopt healthy lifestyles. But dramatic change is possible! Fifty years later things have changed enormously; there has been some progress. Non-smokers now have the right to be free of second-hand smoke, and public places where smoking is permitted have all but disappeared. Smoking has come to be seen as un-healthy, life-shortening, anti-social behavior, as something unattractive for men or women, and as something embarrassing, a kind of weakness, something disgusting and to be confined to carefully circumscribed, private spaces. Tobacco is more heavily taxed all the time, and thus while smokers retain a right to smoke, it is now an expensive, limited, controlled right.

Later in 2013 we will mark a half century since the assassination of President John Kennedy. Have we made any progress since 1963 in curbing gun violence? Or are things perhaps even worse than they were fifty years ago? Might this sad anniversary be useful by taking the opportunity to act decisively to end glorification of guns and gun violence in the visual media? How can a culture of life replace a culture that wallows in a wild-west fantasy of well-armed 'heroes' who express themselves above all by maiming and killing others? How may we replace the crudeness of conflict resolution by a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy by one that respects the dignity of every human life? Surely firearms and ammunition should be taxed heavily, as are cigarettes. The revenue collected could help to cover the enormous expenses of the many innocent victims of gun violence. The idolatry that is gun culture must be terminated. The churches do their part by calling for conversion from gun culture to a culture of life. Just as one may not worship God and money, so too an authentic Christian may not worship God and guns. Iconoclasm is urgently needed: the false god that is a gun must be smashed once and for all.

Some Americans, indeed some Supreme Court justices, argue that the original intent of the authors of the Constitution and its amendments must always be respected. But surely no one can seriously argue that the second amendment was intended to permit ownership of assault rifles, as such weapons did not exist in the late eighteenth century. Thus, if original intent is to be followed, only the kinds of weapons extant at the time an amendment or article of the Constitution was written are included in a Constitutional right to bear arms. But even those arms, along with all others, should be heavily taxed, and their owners relentlessly urged to acknowledge the destructiveness of an addiction to firearms. Not every gun owner is a gun addict, but many are. These addicts should be provided with twelve-step programs similar to those that have helped many alcoholics and drug addicts break their destructive habits.

Nothing less than a dramatic change in mentality is needed, from inordinate attachment to guns to a culture of life that rejects firearms and the slaughter of innocents they make possible. The mentality of a right, or an entitlement, to possess and use deadly weapons must give way to a mentality of respect for and cherishing of life. Though American Catholics may rightly disagree with President Obama in some matters, surely when it comes to restricting access to guns and to taking on the pernicious power of the National Rifle Association, they should stand firmly and proudly with the president and with the bishops. The tobacco lobby has been marginalized and for most part defeated. May we soon be able to say the same about the gun lobby.

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