After my last post about guns, I received a comment from an old Special Forces buddy of mine. It was succinct: “I disagree.”

Of course I invited him over to the house to disagree over some beer, but he is currently out Special Forcing somewhere and wasn’t able to stop by. However, we did exchange some texts in which he shared some of his thoughts, and they were enlightening enough that I thought I would address them in a second blog.

Without quoting our conversation in its entirety, his main points were:

  1. He disagreed with my statistic, pointing out that I used the word “accidental” to refer to all gun and vehicle fatalities that were not intentional. In response he screenshotted an insurance manual (yes, he really did) the relevant passage being: “The common term for crashes, wrecks, and collisions is ‘accidents.’ However, the word ‘accident’ is misleading. If you crash because you were distracted, tired, or not driving defensively, it is a preventable crash, not an accident.”
    1. I accept point one in its entirety. Indeed, the distinction is captured in the firearms world by the terms Negligent Discharge (ND), which is an unintentional discharge of a weapon due to unsafe handling or other operator error; and Accidental Discharge (AD), which is an unintentional discharge due to mechanical malfunction of the weapon. I have seen many unintentional discharges in my more than a decade career in the military. Only one was an AD. It was a machinegun that spontaneously went off while the operator was clearing it and we determined that it might have been caused by a worn out sear pin. Of note, no one was hurt because the operator was doing everything right. The two unintentional discharges I have seen hurt people were both negligent, and directly resulted from the operator violating basic safety rules.
      You might make the argument that the majority of MVC’s are negligent rather than accidental, and without doing the research I suspect you would be right. That being said, the distinction between intentional vs. unintentional stands, and the fact that the majority of gun deaths are intentional, while the majority of MVC’s are unintentional.
  2. “I would completely agree with what you wrote if having firearms was a privilege like driving… [but] since your suggested rules would apply to a constitutional right, then they could easily be applied to free speech (wouldn’t be a bad idea!) I think words are more powerful than any amount of weapons.”
    1. This is the issue we find surrounding gun laws in America, is that all of them have to contend with the 2nd Amendment. Some support it saying that it is as necessary now as it was when the ink was wet (with the blood of patriots, no less). Others abhor it as a barbaric remnant of a bygone era, happily forgotten by us enlightened moderns; better angels of our nature and all that. This debate is big enough to warrant its own blog, and I may revisit it in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that I think that those who support increasing gun laws have the burden of proof to show that those laws do not violate the 2nd Amendment. And for those who say “F*** the 2nd Amendment” I say, be careful of that logic. The rule of law is not a thing to be cast aside lightly. The same document that contains the 2nd Amendment also contains the 1st Amendment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUqytjlHNIM
  3. The power of speech (via social media and the internet) and the power of guns (via analogous advances in technology) have both increased since the enactment of the Bill of Rights. “If retards [sic] should be restricted from having a gun, then shouldn’t a retard [sic] be restricted from speaking?”
    1. The comparison between restriction of weapons and censorship of speech is a good one, if only because both are complicated issues. In reality, he is right, words are powerful. Both words and weapons are guaranteed to us as a means of defending ourselves against neighbors, and against the power of those particular neighbors who get themselves put in charge of things (since that is all “The Government” really is). I find it interesting that the same forces that seek to limit guns in America also tend towards seeking to stifle “hate speech” and “racist language” and “white supremacist rhetoric.” They are right to resist these things, but I am not so sure they are right to restrict these things. If they are it can only be on the assumption that violent words have power to lead to violent actions. (It is also worth pointing out that many of the forces that push for more and more guns as the answer to The Problem often tend to be the same forces that push for the right to be, in common parlance, whatever kind of @88hole they want to be in the public sphere).
  4. He agrees with universal carry permit, but thinks gun laws should be diverse and regional. If you don’t like the laws in your area, then move.
    1. I can’t really argue with that without accepting that the Federal Government should trump State rights, which I do not accept. Looks like we are left with a conundrum here.
  5. “Guns are a sense of security for people, just like doors on their home. It’s a false sense, but they deserve the comfort.”
    1. This is 100% true that it is a false security, but I disagree that people deserve that false comfort. The reality is there are very few people I would trust to watch my back in a shootout. Of those, for many of them their ability to shoot is not what sets them apart, so much as their ability to not shoot when it is not appropriate. But more importantly, a gun is not a magic bullet (no pun intend… wait, yes it was) and it can easily become a security blanket. There are very, very few situations in which a gun is the right tool for the job. However, those situations tend to loom large and powerful in our minds. When someone has a gun, they may get a false sense of security from it and begin to think that it covers them for other, much more common situations. It may lead to unnecessary risks. It may lead to a person neglecting other skills, such as people reading, diplomacy, situational awareness, humility, etc. which can prevent the need for a gun from arising in the first place. Finally, it can cause people grossly to overestimate their own combat effectiveness, based on a few rounds on a static paper target in an air conditioned range on a relaxing Saturday afternoon.
      This is not an argument to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns. It is just a reiteration that the power of having a gun demands maturity. The majority of gun owners are at least rudimentarily aware of this and work towards it. In the same way, the power of having a blog, or a twitter feed, or a facebook page, demands maturity, but I should say, by and large, with far less satisfactory results.
  6. People with mental illness should not be allowed to own a gun, but who gets to decide what constitutes mental illness?
    1. This, of course, is far too big a question for the tale end of an already-too-long post that is running past my bedtime. This one gets really thorny, people. For instance, some people consider the lifetime prevalence of mental illness in the U.S. to be a staggering 50%! (I did not make that up. I don’t agree with it, but some people do think that.) Anyone with depression, anxiety, bipolar, seasonal affective mood disorder, OCD, (to name a few of the more common), no matter how stable or well-medicated they may be, technically is considered to have a mental disorder. Lest you say glibly, “Well they shouldn’t have guns then,” the rates may actually be higher in the military… where we have the really big guns.
      Chew on that for a while.

All of this to say that the issue is a thorny one, and forming a clear position on it requires hard looking from a multitude of angles. I will continue to come back to it periodically, always revising my position, trying to accommodate the greatest good. However, I want to bear in mind that this is a matter of prudential judgment, and as such, there may be no definitive, objectively right answer. This can be frustrating for those who demand black-and-white; or it can be viewed with a sigh of relief, since it means that two people of good sense and better will may legitimately hold opposing views, without necessitating either one to consign the other to perdition.

 

I have written before about guns and the gun control debate. I have never actually come out and stated what I think gun control should look like in America, mostly because I was not sure where I stood. After thinking about it for a few years, here is what I have come up with.

concealed-pistol
Carrying a pistol entails absolute responsibility for everything that happens with that pistol, with no exceptions.

There is merit to the argument that we license people to drive cars, but not all states require licenses to purchase firearms. Of course the number of deaths per capita caused by cars is roughly equal to the number of deaths caused by firearms (see the CDC’s 2014 report here, the most recent year for which the report has been published.) There are some discrepancies, however, that make the comparison less apt than you might think. Most notably, while the CDC report does not give a number, we may assume that the vast majority of motor vehicle deaths were accidental (that is, only a very small minority were the result of intentional homicide or suicide), while 96.5% of the gun deaths were either suicide or homicide, leaving only 3.5% accidental. Thus, when talking about car deaths, we can talk about safety features, driver education and other public health measures, while with gun deaths we must discuss all of those, plus one other factor: namely, the intent to cause harm.

A gun is a weapon. They are designed to kill living creatures. Some are designed to kill living creatures that are trying to kill you, by being optimized for speed of acquisition and rapid follow-on shots. However, even your grand-daddy’s old smooth bore breech loader is designed to kill something, and can easily kill a human. I suspect it is precisely because of this knowledge of guns as dangerous things, explicitly designed to kill, that they are so much less prone to being the means of accidental death than motor vehicles.

We do not think of a motor vehicle as a dangerous weapon. It is a means of transportation, an extension of the office, a place that we spend too much time in, or even a hobby. We can talk while we drive, eat while we drive, drink (non-alcoholic beverages) while we drive, talk on the phone, listen to music or books, etc.

You cannot do any of these things while operating a firearm. Any self-respecting range master will kick you off the range in a heartbeat. Inherent in the use and ownership of firearms is the understanding that they are lethal.

Hence, gun safety and car safety are not exactly identical. When you talk about the public health measures that would reduce gun deaths you must deal with the fact that in 96% of those deaths, the death was intentional.

This does not mean that the measures that have been successful with cars won’t be successful with guns. I think that if you wish to be a gun owner you must have, at a bare minimum, a knowledge of the relevant laws in your state (which would be a lot easier if they were not such a hodgepodge) and the physical and mental capacity to load, unload, aim and fire the weapon in a safe and accurate manner. I would have no problem with the government mandating such a system, with a few caveats, mostly that it should no more be a means of disarming citizens than the DMV is a means of taking away their licenses.

So I think:

  1. There should be a universal standard concealed carry permit across all states, just like there is a universal driver’s license.
  2. Anyone wanting to own a firearm should have to pass a written test about the rules of carrying a gun (a.k.a. the rules of the road).
  3. They should then pass a shooting test. There might even be several tests, such as tests for standard rifles and shotguns, a test for semi-auto rifles and shotguns, and a test for handguns. This would be similar to having a license for cars, and a separate rating for a motorcycle, or heavy machinery or a tractor trailer.
  4. After that they get their license and can own as many guns as they want.

However, as I have said before, owning a gun and taking it to the range or hunting is one thing, carrying it every day in crowded areas with the expectation of being able to use it in a violent encounter is something else entirely. It is, of course, your right to defend yourself. However, it isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies, and in the real world it always ends badly for someone. If you have not educated yourself on the legal aspects of lethal force encounters, and then gone out and gotten training which included more than simply hitting a paper bullseye from a static position at 7 yards, you should not be carrying a gun.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ephesians 6:12.

50d0063d85f84.preview-620
Tucson Police conduct a Mass Shooting Response exercise.

The truly disturbing thing about mass shootings is how powerfully they fascinate us. We talk about them, blog about them, run news segments on them, act as if they are a growing threat, when in fact they are not actually known to be on the rise, (although they happen a lot more often than we here about on the national news) and only account for about 1% of all murders.

Why do they shock us so much?

By “shock” I do not mean that all too familiar sickening feeling of disgust, pity and discouragement. I mean the feeling “I can’t believe this is happening in (America, the 21st Century, my state, my town, etc.).” Even worse is when something happens to us personally, and we are surprised.

Why? Why do we spend so much time and energy debating about these incidents? We should expect them by now.

We are surprised because we have forgotten that we are at war.

I am not speaking of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are no more than confused scuffles compared to the Great War. The real war is the spiritual war.

When the spiritual warfare gets real, yo!
When the spiritual warfare gets real, yo!

Even acknowledging this does not help most Catholics get it. “Okay, so it’s a spiritual war, you say? I don’t know, those bullets seemed awfully real to me! We aren’t talking about praying and going to confession and arguing with atheists on the internet. Maybe giving up chocolate for lent, if you want to get real crazy about it. But this is too real. Someone is shooting at us!”

Do you see the subtle deception? The spiritual war isn’t real to us, not real in the way a stubbed toe is real, or a caffeine withdrawal headache is real. When we say “real” we mean physical, and we are very much shocked and upset to find that our spiritual (by which we mean imaginary) faith has suddenly started having physical ramifications.

Have we forgotten the martyrs? Have we forgotten that a readiness to die for Christ is not just a cool extra, but a positive requirement of the faith?

The truth is that even in the physical realm all violence exists on a single continuum, from that snide remark I made under my breath yesterday to the holocaust. It is all of one piece. This may seem a bit exaggerated, but it is actually easy to see if you do not get hung up on the overt act, and instead look deeper into the motives for violence.

There are two main reasons why people engage in violence. The ordinary reason is as a means to some other end. I want something and I don’t care what I have to do to get it. You are either a means or an obstacle. The other reason is the sheer, nasty desire to hurt someone else, whether for revenge, for power or for fun.

Once you break it down like that, however, it becomes obvious that those motives apply to far more than simply pulling out a gun and shooting someone. Who doesn’t know a person who will not hesitate to make a scene at a family gathering, knowing that everyone else will let them have their way just to “keep the peace?” That is terrorism on a small scale. Even worse, who has not known someone who seemed intent upon insulting and degrading everyone around them, for no other reason that that they seemed to find it fun?

Who has not been that person?

“In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance.” CCC #2262.

A parent verbally abusing a child, a child saying “I hate you!” to its parent, these are acts of violence, just as surely as slapping, punching, stabbing or shooting the other. They are acts of anger directed at causing pain, or misguided attempts to force the other person to change their behavior, which is still violence.

Oh but these are just words. They don’t really mean them, they are just so angry.

That does not matter. When I carry a gun, do you think I can excuse myself from responsibility for every single bullet that leaves the barrel of that gun? Do you think, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that,” is going to make my target any less shot? “I was just so angry!” Well, if you don’t know how to control your anger you have no business carrying a gun. If you cannot control your words in any given situation, then you should not speak at all.

In the legal sense it is useful to make the distinction between physical and other kinds of violence, because the law can only see and punish the physical type. But in the spiritual warfare, there is no difference, and in fact, the physical violence may even be the least damaging type. Words are more damaging than bullets. Bullets destroy tissue, bone and flesh, but a resilient spirit will continue to function and thrive. Words attack the mind, heart and soul. Any attempt to diminish or limit the physical, mental, emotional or spiritual life or health of a person, whether that person is yourself or another self. This includes thoughts, words and deeds.

This is why I say that violence exists on a continuum. The visible acts that make the news, such as mass murders, serial rapes, genocides; and those that don’t make the news, such as abortion and the vast majority of instances of all of the above; all of these are continuations of thoughts, words and deeds of violence. The visible acts catch our attention, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. To focus on guns is to miss the real issue. Even to debate over whether or not Catholics should carry guns is to miss the issue. A gun is a viable response for only the very extreme outer percent of a percent of violent acts, which most of us will never see. A gun may help to end that particular situation if it arises, but it will do nothing to address the culture of violence out of which those acts arise.

In reality, each of us witnesses countless acts of violence every day. We see husbands degrading wives and wives mocking husbands. We see co-workers gossiping and backstabbing each other. We watch parents publicly shame their children, and children disrespecting their parents. What is worse, we engage in all of this ourselves. We snap out sarcastic, hurtful responses to minor inconveniences. We fantasize about all the things we could say to that person if we weren’t afraid of getting fired. We get angry and enjoy it.

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.

All of this is violence, and all of it contributes to the overall level of hate in the world, which in turn enables mass shootings. This is both a natural consequence of cause and effect (people who are hurt become angry and depressed and are more likely to hurt other people, continuing the cycle). But it also occurs on a spiritual level. When I deliver that really biting, malicious put-down, I am opening up a pocket in the spiritual battlefield to a little bit more demonic influence. That will have consequences, and the consequences may be physical. Or the consequence might be enable someone else to commit a mortal sin.

Which is worse?

But the good news is that if violence exists on a continuum, so does heroism. Every act of standing up for another person, at work, at home, at school, really does shift the balance back the other way. Carry a concealed weapon, if you wish, (and if you are willing to put in the work) but do not think your responsibility as a protector ends there. You have declared your willingness to engage the battle at its most physical. Now put even more time and energy into engaging it at its most mundane, and most critical.

And never forget… (spoiler alert)

Christos Anesti! Alithos Anestis!
Christos Anesti! Alithos Anestis!

Jesus wins.

*This is the sixth and final part of a discussion on guns and violence. You can link to the other parts below, but this conclusion is really a stand-alone piece. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Over the last four posts

Carrying a pistol entails absolute responsibility for everything that happens with that pistol, with no exceptions.
Carrying a pistol entails absolute responsibility for everything that happens with that pistol, with no exceptions.

I have tried to elaborate on what I perceive to be the inadequacies of the gun control debate, and left off the third post with a rather bleak view of the situation. Unfortunately I do not feel qualified to propose a legislative solution to the problem, mostly because I do not think such a solution exists. I cannot think of an example in history in which a government has ever been able to prevent violence by legislation (I am not a historian, though. If you can think of such an example, let me know and I will add it to my list of things to research). I can think of any number of examples of cases in which such attempts have had the opposite effect.

This may seem pessimistic, but I do not think there is a solution to the problem of mass murder. There are only responses, which can decrease or increase the likelihood of such an event occurring, or increase or decrease the average person’s chances of surviving such an event if it occurs. A solution is not within the realm of human possibility.

A response, however, is possible and necessary, but a response is first and foremost, personal. Individuals respond by changing their behavior as a result of new knowledge, new outlooks, or a renewed determination to act upon old knowledge and outlooks. I will not say what anyone else’s response should be, but I will share my response with you.

To start with, I have a concealed carry permit, and I very often carry a pistol. I do this because I consider myself responsible to intervene to stop acts of violence that occur in front of me. Armed or unarmed, not acting is not an option for me. I am too strong, too well trained, I have too much experience, all of this specifically designed to make me able to deal with violence. I have the power, and therefore I have the responsibility, to act. I have seen situations in which I was powerless to act because of realities beyond my control, and I know from experience how they have eaten at me. Some of them still do. I cannot imagine living through the knowledge that I could have acted, and chose not to. It would be better to take a bullet.

This is a moral responsibility, not a legal responsibility. I take it on myself personally, unlike policemen who have an oath to act. Physically and mentally I am a Special Operations soldier, but legally I am a private citizen. This shapes how I respond and seriously limits the amount of force I may use, and the legal system’s tolerance of my use of force.

I am also a husband and father, and that, more than any other single factor, determines that I carry a pistol. My reasoning goes like this:

If I find myself in the middle of a lethal force encounter, I must act to save innocent lives.

Ideally I would like to save the perpetrator’s life as well, but that places me at a significantly higher risk of dying. If I die I can’t protect my family anymore, my wife is a widow and my daughter grows up without her father. I cannot, in good faith, take the same risks for the sake of a violent criminal as I could if I were single. Having a pistol means that I don’t have to get as close, I can act faster and from a greater distance to end the situation and save lives. So I carry one.

Everyone carrying a gun should read this book. It will help prevent you from using it.
Everyone carrying a gun should read this book. It will help prevent you from using it.

However, carrying a pistol entails a responsibility to be safe, fast and accurate with it, so that I do not add to the danger for everyone else. This means I have to spend time training in handling it, drawing, aiming at small targets, shooting under stress. Safe handling, and proper storage and transportation must be second nature, and I must never allow myself any shortcuts on them. I have seen two very experience shooters shoot themselves in the leg because they took shortcuts. All the nuts and bolts of concealed carry are way beyond the scope of this blog, but they absolutely are incumbent upon anyone who makes the decision to own a gun, much less carry one. The government cannot legislate this, or enforce it if they did legislate it. That is my personal moral responsibility, and I pass it to no one.

Carrying a gun also has a tendency to psychologically limit the person carrying it. I call this the “Hammer problem.” If you only have a hammer in your hand, every problem starts to look like a nail. Under stress, perfectly ordinary people can make surprisingly stupid decisions if they get tunneled in on the idea, “If anything happens I’ll just shoot him.” This leads to people getting shot who don’t need to get shot. If you have not practiced thinking clearly under stress, defusing situations and de-escalating potential violence, you should not be carrying a gun.

This book will give you a great overview of many of the things you need to consider before you think about arming yourself with a lethal weapon.
This book will give you a great overview of many of the things you need to consider before you think about arming yourself with a lethal weapon.

Carrying a gun has legal ramifications. If you choose to draw and fire a weapon in any situation, you will answer to the police and the legal system for it. Even if it was the most justified use of force since David and Goliath, you will have to explain yourself, and odds are good that you will be dragged across the coals by the DA’s office. You need to be ready for that, know a good lawyer or know how to find one, or at the least, know how to prep a lawyer to defend you. You need to know what does and does not constitute self-defense, and how to stay within that legal definition. You need to know how to make sure that everyone around you sees you doing just that, so that when they are called as witnesses (and they will be) their testimony will match yours.

Finally, do not fall for the temptation to dwell on the possibility of violent crime. Your odds of being in a mass shooting incident are very low, about on the level of your odds of getting struck by lightning. Dwelling on them and spending all your time planning and prepping for disaster is a short route to paranoia and making yourself and everyone around you miserable. My technique for that is, every time I do a scan for threats, I also do a scan for beautiful, funny or interesting things. This keeps me from getting fixated on violence, and keeps my expectations realistic, since I hardly ever find a real threat, and always find something beautiful, funny or interesting.

Mass shootings catch our attention because they are visible and frightening and highly reported by the media, but they are not the real problem. The real problem is much worse, and much more common.

That is Monday’s topic, and the last post in this series.

Warning: This post attempts to be in harmony with the teaching of the Church.
Warning: This post attempts to be in harmony with the teaching of the Church.

This is going to be a short post, because the answer has actually already been settled for us, as far as I can see. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”65

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

“If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

Don't let the fluffy pajamas fool you, these guys are actually badasses.
Don’t let the fluffy pajamas fool you, these guys are actually badasses.

The right to act in self-defense, even using lethal means, has never been denied to Catholics. By correlation, the right to make all reasonable preparations to defend oneself and other innocent people, may be assumed. This includes the ownership, maintenance and practice of arms.

However, the rugged individualist interpretation of that right which is most natural to Americans is not actually in keeping with the way the Church has traditionally encouraged warriors to proceed. The lone warrior acting on a renegade  basis, loyal only to his own conscience and to the demands of de-personalized “morality” is not the normal state of arms in the Christian worldview. This is the lowest common denominator, and the final battle line, to be willing to fight for the right (or more likely to suffer and die for it at that point) when you are the last one left. It is the last resort, not the norm.

Recognizing that secular states may not be moral or effective guardians of the lives and dignity of people, nevertheless, the Church has always encouraged those who would use force to curtail violence to do so under the auspices of the government as much as possible. This holds true from St. Paul’s admonition in Roman’s 13:4 not to fear the magistrate who “bears not the sword in vain,” to the attempts to organize and restrain the warriors of the Middle Ages by the code of Chivalry, to the Church’s modern statements on capital punishment and just war.

Professional warriors have always been strong individuals, but professional warfare has never been anything other than a team event.
Professional warriors have always been strong individuals, but professional warfare has never been anything other than a team event.

Therefore, the private citizen who wishes to bear and maintain arms for self-defence should not act as if he were an isolated hermit, answerable to no one but himself for their usage. Instead, he should make a good faith effort to comply with all just laws regarding their use, and abide by restrictions placed on them.

Beyond that, while the Catholic is always obliged to resist evil*, the only people who are obliged to use force to do so are those “responsible for the lives of others.” The Church further defines these as “Those in legitimate authority,” which seems to indicate the police and military forces sanctioned by the state (let’s ignore for the moment questions about what to do when these forces are corrupt and evil). This could be extended to include parents, who are certainly responsible for the lives of their children, and in legitimate authority over them. However, the way the passage is phrased seems to indicate the civil government, which has legitimate authority over both the aggressor and the victims. I think we can say confidentially that under Church teaching no private citizen is ever obliged to use lethal force.

I make no empty threats!
I make no empty threats!

However, as I mentioned above, all Catholics are obligated to resist evil at all times. One of the options for doing so, which seems strikingly absent from the popular debate, is that of willingly laying down one’s life for someone else. While not technically martyrdom (except in cases where the killer may explicitly kill those who profess faith, as in Oregon recently) “No greater love has any man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friend.” The men and women who, in mass shooting incidents, have willingly exposed themselves to getting shot either to shield other people or in an attempt to take down the attacker undoubtedly displayed a high degree of the virtue of fortitude.

For Catholics, however, we have an option even more profound, St. Paul says “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:7-8. The choice not to use lethal force, but instead to seek to restrain the attacker by some other means, even at the risk of one’s own life, could be an act of ultimate heroism. By not killing the man in the midst of his sins, you give him both a powerful witness to the value of all life, including his own and the nature mercy, as well as the time for that lesson to sink in, and hopefully for him to come to repentance and save his own soul. While we may debate about the feasibility or prudence of this course of action in any given situation, I submit that to suffer and even die for your enemy is the most Catholic response of all.

This is our model. Be suspicious of any ideology that would use holding a gun as an excuse to let go of the cross.
This is our model. Be suspicious of any ideology that would use holding a gun as an excuse to let go of the cross.

To those who say, “Don’t be a hero. Keep your head down, or just shoot him and be done with it,” I ask, if not us, then who? We are Catholics. Heroic love is part of the job description. To the extent that we do not love heroically, we fail as Catholics. If we get to heaven it will be because, in His mercy, He has enabled us to love heroically. The only question is whether only God will know about it, or whether other people will hear about it too.

Guns are both a potential problem and a potential solution, but what both sides of the debate seem not to realize (with some exceptions) is that they are only ever an immediate problem or an immediate solution. That is, a gun is only ever the threat in a very specific time and place when a tactical situation is threatened or ongoing. They are solutions only in the same kinds of situations that they are also problems.

First, guns as immediate problems. It is an internet trope by now, the person who says, “I left all my guns lying on the living room floor all day, and they never killed anyone.” It is flippant and simplistic, but it does illustrate a point which many anti-gun advocates simply do not understand, which is, that guns are only dangerous when someone is pointing them at you.

I don’t suppose anyone can fully understand this point unless you have lived in an armed society. I have. I was active duty military for over a decade. I walked around with guns, surrounded by men with guns, and didn’t get shot by them, and didn’t shoot any of them. I walked up and down the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, with both American and Iraqi/Afghani forces, all armed, all looking for a fight or dreading a fight. We got into major arguments, fistfights, feuds, outright hatred sometimes, and yet we did not shoot each other. I was not worried about getting shot, unless someone pointed a gun at me.

America has been criticized for embracing
America has been criticized for embracing “rugged individualism” but what those critics often neglect is that the heart of this individualism at its best is the absolute acceptance of personal responsibility for your own well-being and fulfillment, and that or your family.

This is because we accepted a certain level of risk, but also a certain level of responsibility. This is the heart of the liberal anti-gun position, the unwillingness to accept risk or take responsibility. They want to be safe, to live in a world where people cannot do things like shoot up a school, and they refuse to acknowledge that that is not the world we live in. It is tainted by sin, full of evil and heartbreak and sadness and suffering and death. To think that if we just get rid of all the nasty guns then all that suffering and death will go away is childish. Worse, it is false, and it gets people killed.

Along with the unwillingness to acknowledge that we live in a dangerous world, comes the unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own safety. It is the job of the police to protect me, the government’s job to protect me, the law, the lawyers, the media. Everyone else needs to keep the scary bad guys away, and people who won’t join me in pretending that we live in a safe world are mean. The ones who remind me of the fact that I might die today are bad guys themselves, just as bad as the mass murderers.

The people who adjust to combat the best are intelligent risk takers. They know they might die, and they accept that fact, even embrace it. They also want to live, and know that in order to live, paradoxically, they have to be willing to die. They are willing to die, if there is a good enough reason, e.g. to save their friends’ lives, but not for some BS politics or oil money. They think it’s just great when higher ups send us cool things like air support and artillery to help out, but they don’t count on it. They go in knowing that when it comes right down to it, no one can save us but ourselves. Even if help does come, we have to survive long enough for it to get here.

People fear what they do not understand. I have seen some people who almost have a panic attack just looking at a gun. I know a lot more who get uncomfortable and visibly nervous. This often seems to be the attitude behind gun control activism, fear writ large. We can’t keep bad guys from being bad guys, but they have guns and guns make me nervous, so get rid of guns.

(As I said before, if I thought this policy would work I would be more inclined to support it.)

By the same token, gun rights activists often fall into the opposite trap. They are comfortable taking care of themselves, and perhaps a bit too comfortable. They also want violent situations to end, but they expect to have to end them themselves, rather than cower in a corner and wait for the police to show up. This is a reasonable view of violent incidents. Any level of acceptance of personal responsibility to act is better than the futile, self-defeating complaint of “Why is this happening to me?”

The Hatfield-McCoy vendetta is one famous example of violence begetting violence, but the same reality occurs even when the use of force is justified.
The Hatfield-McCoy vendetta is one famous example of violence begetting violence, but the same reality occurs even when the use of force is justified.

Where this view fails is in thinking that by ending the incident they have resolved the issue. That is not the case. Ending the incident rarely even ends the incident. Legal, social, psychological and emotional consequences are unavoidable, even if you have the food fortune to survive uninjured. More to the point of this blog, even in the best case scenario, the underlying cause of that violent incident is still very much intact.

It may even be stronger.

This is because violence begets violence. It is easiest to see in honor cultures, such as gangs or the tribal codes of the Middle East, where an act of violence calls forth reprisals, which calls forth further reprisals, which perpetuates and endless cycle of violence.

A subtler and more insidious version of this dynamic is at work in our society, where a mass shooting occurs and dominates the headlines for weeks. Others with similar desires and issues see this and are inspired to plan their own mass shooting. Meanwhile, anti-gun activists lash out in frustration, insinuating that gun rights activists are little better than accessories to mass murder. Gun rights activists lash back in fear of having their gun rights infringed upon and being left defenseless, accusing the other side of exploiting tragedies for political gain, and of attempting to disarm the population in preparation for government takeover. Anger begets anger, fear begets fear, violence begets violence.

A use of force, even of lethal force, is a justifiable means of ending a violent encounter in which one person is killing other people. I have no wish to diminish awareness of that fact. However, the point I am trying to make stands, that merely to focus on having the ability to end such an encounter, is to miss the larger issue entirely. The larger issue is the violence inherent in the hearts of men, and even a justified use of force may end the incident, but worsen that underlying situation.

The question for next time is: what can we do about it?

Just as it seems, from the way liberals talk, that they think that guns are the root problem behind mass shootings, it would seem from the way gun activists talk that they think guns are the solution to mass shootings. And they have a point. The overwhelming majority of mass shooting incidents are resolved with a gun. Either:

  1. The shooter shoots himself.
  2. The Police shoot him.
  3. An armed citizen shoots him. (See edit below).

To date, I can think of only one exception to this general rule, that of the shooter taken down by unarmed passengers on a French train. In one sense this case is instructive because it shows what courage and a willingness to risk one’s life for others can accomplish. However, it is important also to point out that this was a special case for a couple of reasons.

The importance of an existing team dynamic cannot be overstated.
The importance of an existing team dynamic cannot be overstated.
  1. First, the shooter had not had time to get started shooting before he was tackled. Frankly, he was a rank amateur.
  2. Secondly, it was a train car which is a highly enclosed space, so the when he pulled a gun out, he was close enough to be taken down before he could make effective use of it.
  3. Third, there happened to be a group of friends, sitting together, two with military training. This is an incredibly rare circumstance. One person alone would probably not have been able to take him down successfully, but they already had a team dynamic in place, with an aggressive leader and that made all the difference.
Courage is never useless, but sometimes it isn't enough to get you past the bullets.
Courage is never useless, but sometimes it isn’t enough to get you past the bullets.

The majority of the time, people who attempt to bumrush a gunman end up getting shot and incapacitated before they can get close enough.  That is kind of the point of a gun.

So are guns the answer then? Are the “arm and train all the teachers, hire unemployed veterans to guard our schools,” memes a viable option? Would the world be a safer place if everyone had a gun on his hip?

Just as it is mostly wrong, but partly right, to say that guns are the problem, I think it is also mostly wrong, and partly right, to say that they are the solution.

First, the problems with that position: have you ever tried to shoot one single bad guy with a pistol in a crowded room full of innocent people? What if he is moving, you are moving, and the innocent people are moving? It is not easy. In Special Forces we would conduct a training exercise every year to get us up to speed on that task. It takes a full month of training, 40 hours a week for four weeks, every year, before we are considered up and current on close quarter battle tactics.

This is the product of years of experience, and a full month of full time practice. It is not available to the average civilian.
This is the product of years of experience, and a full month of full time practice. It is not available to the average civilian.

This is not to say that every person who wants to carry a concealed weapon needs to reach a professional level of tactical marksmanship, but it does illustrate just how difficult tactical marksmanship is. It is not a question of hitting your target. The trick is not hitting anything else.

For the average concealed carry civilian, it is enough that they have a realistic appraisal of their skills, and not to exceed them (in itself a very difficult and complicated task). This means that you need to train at least once a month, with the weapon you plan on carrying and the holster you plan on wearing. You need to practice shooting under stress so you know how far away you can realistically hit a target without missing. And if you find yourself in a lethal force situation, you have to be willing to hold your fire if you cannot shoot without risking hitting an innocent bystander. Simply having a gun is not the same as having a clear shot.

This is why I do not consider the average concealed carry civilian to be a viable solution to mass shootings. Most people are just not up to the task. They could be, but they aren’t willing to put in the effort. The mere fact of having a gun acts as a mental magic bullet, which is worse than not carrying one (more on that later).

This is what most average civilians look like at the range. This is just enough training to get yourself killed, or accidentally shoot an innocent bystander. This does not cut it.
This is what most average civilians look like at the range. This is just enough training to get yourself killed, or accidentally shoot an innocent bystander. This does not cut it.

That being said, a general population in which a third or half of the people you meet are carrying a pistol could definitely have a deterrent effect. One person out of a thousand with a pistol is like one person with a vaccine. The odds of him being in the right place at the right time with a clear shot are pretty low. 300 people out of a thousand, and now the odds are stacked against anyone trying to commit a violent crime. A general presence of guns could (theoretically) act as a sort of herd immunity against mass shootings.

However, we must be clear that this is not a solution. It does not prevent violence, it best it merely levels the playing field between psychopaths and ordinary folks. At worst it invites a “Wild West” kind of society where a high level of mutual interpersonal violence is common and accepted as status quo.

The most important problem with the “guns are the solution” position is the same as the main problem with the “guns are the problem” position. That is, both of them miss the point.

The point is that guns are only ever immediate, as problems or solutions. But that is the topic for tomorrow.

*Edit: Many thanks to Joe Wagner for fact checking my lack of awareness. In a 2014 FBI study of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 – 2013, they identified that in 37 (21%) of the incidents, unarmed citizens “successfully and safely” restrained the shooter before law enforcement arrived. By contrast, only 5 incidents (3.1%) were resolved after an armed civilian engaged the shooter with gunfire. Further, of those 5 incidents, the armed civilian killed the shooter in only 3 incidents, while 1 shooter was wounded and the fifth committed suicide.

While this does not substantially change my assertion that the majority of incidents are resolved by the shooter killing himself or being killed by law enforcement, it does add a fourth category, that of shooing incidents resolved by unarmed civilian intervention, which I had previously thought was a fluke. Additionally, given the fact that unarmed civilians overwhelmingly outnumber armed civilians, it should be noted that the higher numbers of unarmed intervention versus armed intervention (by a civilian) reflects statistical variance. It does not indicate that an unarmed civilian is as likely to be able to end and encounter as an armed civilian.

In the wake of the recent College shooting at Umpqua Community College in Southern Oregon, once again guns are in the news and all over facebook. I cannot open my facebook without seeing someone making a triumphant rebuttal to everything the other side says in one quick phrase or picture. It appears we no longer make arguments, we make catch phrases.

I want to share a few of thoughts on the issue, not because I believe that they will destroy everything the other side says, but because they might help to illustrate just how the catch phrase mentality dominates the debate, while being utterly inadequate to it.

Are Guns the Problem?

In the wake of any shooting in the news there are always three catch phrases that get tossed out before the bleeding even stops.

From the left we hear, “How many times does this have to happen before gun rights people will take action to prevent murder!”

From the right we hear, “If only it hadn’t been a gun free zone, someone with a gun might have stopped it immediately and saved countless lives.”

From both sides we hear, “The left/right immediately began exploiting this tragedy for their own political agendas.”

These catch phrases are powerful because they resonate strongly along tribal lines, polarizing those who already agree and getting in some jabs at the “flaming liberals” or “conservative gun nuts.” They are great rallying cries. They are not so good for compromise, working on solutions, or even just trying to understand each other.

Both sides agree that people shooting innocent people in schools (or anywhere else) is bad. However, both sides are latching onto a simplistic, childish understanding of the issue. The left sees guns as the problem. The right sees guns as the solution. Both are wrong. I want to address these two points in separate posts, and then go on to consider what the Catholic response to the gun question is.

From the way Democrats talk, it seems they think that guns are the problem. I say this because the solution they propose is essentially “Get rid of guns,” so I reason that the problem they have identified is the guns.

The response from the right is predictable. It has been plastered all over the internet that “guns don’t kill people.” Interpreted strictly, I think we can agree with that. The person firing the gun does the killing, the gun is just a tool. The gun rights crowd will go on to make the valid point that people who want to kill other people will find a way to do it. They will often point to statistics seeming to indicate that Britain, where nearly all personal ownership of guns is illegal, has a higher aggravated assault rate. The argument is that even though they have fewer murders, they have more violent crime, because violent criminals still find ways to attack people, and those people don’t have guns and so can’t defend themselves.

However, a more careful look at the data shows that because of differences in definition, the data doesn’t actually support that interpretation. Instead, it seems that Britain has only slightly higher or slightly lower rates for nearly all violent crime, except murder, in which we have nearly a four times higher rate.

Even if Britain did have a higher assault rate that would not be a ringing endorsement of gun ownership. It would mean that the overall situation in America is more lethal, meaning that more of the assaults actually kill their victim, instead of just wounding them.

Secondly, while I think we can all agree that guns do not make people mentally ill or homicidal, the fact remains that it is much easier to kill with a gun than with a knife. I don’t mean physically easier. If you know how it’s pretty simple either way, although a gun gives you more tactical options.

More to the point, it is psychologically easier to kill with a gun. It is psychologically easier to terrorize with a gun. Psychologist and Army Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Dave Grossman theorizes in his seminal work “On Killing,” about the existence of what he calls “Killing Enabling Factors.” Briefly put his theory (which has not been subjected to rigorous research) is that the average healthy human has an innate repugnance to killing. Killing enabling factors are factors which make it easier to overcome that resistance. Guns enable by:

  • Creating distance. It is much easier to kill someone outside of physical contact range. It is harder to dehumanize someone who is up close and personal.
  • Minimizing risk. It is easier to kill when you are in predator mode as opposed to fight mode, and low risk makes you the predator and everyone else the prey.
  • Making noise. The noise and flash of gunfire in an enclosed area creates panic, and panicked people are easier to dehumanize. They become prey, which makes them psychologically easier to kill.

While guns may not technically be the problem, the liberals are right to the extent that they are an enabler of the problem. Guns do not kill people. We can agree on that. However, equally indisputably, guns enable people to kill other people more efficiently, and with less psychological resistance. In a society with guns, people who are assaulted will die more often than in a society without them.

Given the society we live in, in which people are can become isolated and full of hate, and in which mass murderers achieve instant national notoriety, such a person with a gun is more dangerous than such a person with, say, a knife or a club.

Because of that, I am cautious of any knee-jerk “I’ve got a constitutional right!” response to proposed gun control legislation. I think that if we had a reasonable basis for believing that stricter gun legislation would reduce gun violence then it would be very hard for a Catholic to argue against it.

The main reason I do not support disarming America, or even really increasing our gun control legislation, is because I don’t think it really has any very great chance of working. It won’t work because there are already too many guns. Trust me on this one. we have spent a good deal of time trying to disarm both Iraq and Afghanistan, and it hasn’t worked there. I remember the frustration of realizing that no matter how many caches we seized and destroyed, there were always more guns and explosives. That is exactly what would happen if the government attempted to disarm America.

Expanding gun control legislation doesn’t seem to work either. The largest cities in America, with the heaviest anti-gun laws, also have the highest rates of gun violence in the nation and in the world. This does not indicate that “more guns equal less crime” as many gun rights activists will claim. It does, however, prove that “less guns does not equal less crime.”

So I do not support gun restriction policies because I see no reason to believe that they will in any way reduce the level of gun violence in our nation. I wish it were that simple, but it isn’t.