NEW YORK — As Connecticut prepared to strengthen its gun control laws in response to the tragedy last year in Newtown, Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM, shared his views on gun violence with friars in a letter distributed shortly before Easter.
“I personally am not against guns. I grew up with guns in my family. I was an avid hunter and shooter,” John said. “However, the tragedy of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School demands that we hold different conversations in an effort to find new ways to deal with gun violence.”
In the letter, John states that gun violence has killed almost 3,000 people in the United States since the Sandy Hook killings on Dec. 14 and laments the way society has become desensitized.
“While each victim may be judged as good or bad in the eyes of society, each is of an inestimable value to God,” he said. “God weeps at each death, much as he wept over Jerusalem prior to his passion. We, too, must allow ourselves to feel this brokenness and then invite God to enter into us as we reflect on a way forward.”
During the conversation about gun violence, John believes two questions must be taken into consideration: What factors make the widespread presence of guns such a challenge to the United States? How do we, as Catholics, understand rights?
Factors of Violence
There are several factors “that must temper and mediate our thinking about guns in the U.S.,” according to the Provincial Minister, whose letter was published by several ministries in bulletins and on Facebook pages.
First, John draws on the fact that guns and ammunition have become even more lethal over the past 200 years. “What has resulted is the increased ability to harm and kill with guns. However, the human capacity to restrain their usage has not improved. The power of weapons of war move into our streets and communities.”
The friar also calls attention to the reduction of services for those with psychological disorders. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady decline in services that care for persons with mental illness, resulting in some individuals slipping through “the cracks of the overburdened system with tragic results.”
Another factor is the desensitization and dehumanization of violence through popular culture and the news media, which often turns killers into public personalities. “Such a deadening of our humanity enables us to see the killing of others as ‘normal.’ This normalization of violent death should jolt us into renewed action to bring about change.”
Rights and Responsibilities
In order to approach the gun control conversation, John suggests that we review the Catholic approach to rights. “As people of faith we are reminded that rights are always balanced with responsibilities,” wrote John, who began his term in 2005.
The right to free speech is not absolute, he points out. “It is tempered by the fact that it cannot be allowed to cause inordinate harm to others. Similar balancing is seen with regard to the freedom of religion.
“To me,” he continued, “living out these rights, whether they are understood as our human rights or Constitutional rights, is tied to a balance between individual and community good that evolves as history and factors change.”
To reduce the incidences of harm due to gun violence, John suggests the following changes in policy to limit the presence of guns in the nation:
1. Require those who wish to purchase a gun to submit to a background check with a mental illness component.
2. Include stiff penalties for those who allow someone who would not be able to pass a background check to access a gun.
3. Remove the most lethal guns from our nation, especially if the weapon is something that would be used for military service or similar in design.
4. Increase support and structures to care for those with mental illness.
5. Regulate the amount of violence in the popular and news media as consumers, being “judicious in what we and our families consume.”
This approach, John said, “reminds us of the need to place human well-being as a central determinant in public policy decisions.”
Over the past few years, the Provincial Minister, often in collaboration with the Provincial Council and other OFM leaders, has issued statements on other topics of national interest. They include the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in May of last year, and the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.