"Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood."
So said the pope during his recent address to Congress. His comments principally targeted the global arms trade — where the U.S. plays a major role — but bore extra meaning given this country's epidemic of gun violence.
Next week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet in Baltimore to update its "quadrennial statement on political responsibility, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." The document, which is essentially a voters guide for American Catholics circulated before presidential elections, outlines key church teachings, areas of emphasis that should inform how Catholics decide upon various candidates. The bishops must urge the faithful to support candidates who stand up to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and advance the cause of gun control.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich agrees. In a recent, and passionate, statement, he argued that addressing the nation's gun violence epidemic is no longer a sideline issue for the church but a priority because the church calls us to "act in ways that promote the dignity and value of human life." The society that the gun rights movement urges on us does not respect life — it makes it all too easy to destroy life. What's more, the absurd proliferation of guns in American society victimizes populations that are a special concern for the church.
Gun violence in America disproportionately afflicts the poor and marginalized, especially impoverished black communities in our cities. Jeffrey Goldberg writes in the Atlantic that between "1980 and 2013, 262,000 black males were killed in America," the vast majority from guns. The murder rate for African Americans is eight times higher than it is for white Americans and 12 times higher than other developed nations, reports statistician and blogger Nate Silver; the closest comparable murder rates are found in the developing world. Urban murder rates have soared again this year — especially here in Baltimore, right under the bishops' noses.
A variety of factors are behind the violence that terrorizes poor, urban areas, but a perennial ingredient is easy access to guns. Some cities have passed strong laws limiting access to guns, but their efforts are undermined by permissive gun laws in surrounding jurisdictions. Maryland's recently strengthened gun laws have not spared Baltimore its misery so long as guns flow from nearby states that lack universal background checks and from the robust trade in illegal guns. The NRA has fought universal background checks and ensured that the federal agency charged with stemming the flow of illegal guns — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — is greatly undermined, its funding and powers curtailed.
The Catholic church urges us to take special care for the vulnerable, but thanks to abundant guns and loose gun laws, "over 7,000 children are hospitalized or killed due to gun violence every year," the medical journal Pediatrics reports. Many children die by mishandling guns that are too easily accessed in the home. The rate of such deaths is nine times higher here than elsewhere in the developed world, but the gun lobby has fought safe storage laws, which would mandate that guns be locked up and unloaded, for example. Inexplicably, the NRA has also blocked "smart gun technology," which would make guns operable only by their owners.
Nearly two-thirds of gun fatalities in America are suicides. Public health researchers have long maintained that guns are too easy to access for people who are troubled and contemplating suicide; our suicide rate could be much lower if we made it harder for people, especially those with records of mental illness, to get their hands on guns. But the NRA objects; it says such people were going to kill themselves anyway. That is not true: When you make it harder for people to kill themselves, many will reconsider or resist, sparing family and friends deep grief. The gun rights position is overly simplistic and intolerably callous. The church must counter it, and work to curtail easy access to guns, as an act of mercy for all those who suffer from depression.
After the Umpqua shooting, President Obama expressed uncharacteristic ire, lamenting the nation's inaction on gun violence. This inaction is especially galling when you consider that a strong majority of Americans favor gun control — over 90 percent support background checks. The nation can be mobilized behind stronger gun control — it needs a push.
The Catholic church can give it that push. Catholics form a critical voting bloc, though it is hardly unified or uniform. The Catholic vote is a bellwether of the political times: Over the last 40 years, the winning presidential candidate (with one exception) has captured a majority of the Catholic vote. When Catholics vote — when they choose to get behind a person or policy — it matters, it makes a difference.
The bishops must press upon the nation's 70 million Catholics that gun control is, as Archbishop Cupich insists, a high priority issue for the church. Or, as Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of Media Relations for the Bishops conference, put it, "protecting innocent life also means limiting the means of taking it."