Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Catholics and firearms regulation: A response to Rob Vischer

Just a few quick thoughts, in response to Rob's recent post, "Catholics and gun control."  I should start by disclosing that I do not own any firearms (though, growing up in Alaska, my family had several guns), am not a hunter, and do not engage in recreational shooting.  My sense is that these facts put me in the same boat as post of those who support -- or, in the public debate, demand -- increased regulation of guns.  And, I think it's important to be careful, when we are considering regulatory responses to serious problems or horrible events, which themselves have many and complicated causes, that we don't focus only on those responses that don't affect us or activities that we enjoy.  (As others have noted around the blogosphere, it is common, in response to shocking and harmful events, to call for the "giving up" or the "limiting" of rights -- whether we are talking about the right to own firearms or the right to play violent video games -- that those doing the calling do not value very much.)

So, Rob asks, "why a Catholic worldview is consistent with the private ownership of guns designed for killing at a high rate of speed."  Again, I don't have any interest in owning such guns, but my understanding is that there are people who enjoy collecting such weapons, and shooting them recreationally, and that -- while these people's hobby seems weird to most law professors -- they do so safely and without incident, and not because they are plotting mass violence.  Is it un-Catholic to enjoy doing these things?  I guess it could be -- again, I don't "get" the appeal of doing those things -- but my sense it isn't necessarily.

Rob also suggests that that "there is a Catholic understanding of freedom that is in considerable tension with the understanding of freedom that seems to animate the arguments of some gun rights advocates."  This seems right, though there is also a "communitarian", "republican" argument (see, e.g., Sandy Levinson and Akhil Amar) for the ("embarassing") Second Amendment that might not create this tension.

John Courtney Murray emphasized the "principle of the free society," which "affirms that man in society must be accorded as much freedom as possible, and that that freedom is not to be restricted unless and insofar as is necessary.  By necessary I mean the restraint needed to preserve society's very existence or—to use the concept and terms of the Declaration itself—necessary for preserving the public order in its juridical, political, and moral aspects."  It seems to me that this "principle" points toward a policy with respect to the ownership and safe use of firearms under which reasonable, close regulation is both permissible and called for, but only insofar as it is "necessary" to protect people and the common good.  (Actually, Murray's "necessary" probably sets the bar too high,  But, some inquiry into the utility of the constraint, and the extent to which it actually accomplishes appropriate government purposes, seems called for.)  Regulations that are symbolic, but extremely unlikely to have any real effect on violent crime or accidental gun deaths, and perhaps motivated primarily or facilitated by the dislike of some parts of society for the hobbies or "culture" of other parts, do not seem consistent with this principle.   


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Although the Catechism does provide for a legitimate right to self-defense, the catechism also says,in # 2316 "The production and the sale of arms affect the common good of nations and of the international community. Hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them."

When I have pointed this out, others have suggested that this only applies to international treaties (b/c the passage goes on to talk about the relationship between nations as well as the promotion of the common good in nations by "public authorities"). This interpretation doesn't make sense to me, however, because in my understanding, the church doesn't tend to make specific rulings that micromanage particular problems (like legislators and lawyers do--apologies) but rather lays out basic principles that have universal applications and must be interpreted and applied (more like judges work, I suppose).

Considering this understanding, it would seem to me that the most supportable argument from the catechism is that private gun ownership is certainly permissible but that this right must not be considered absolute as some form of regulation is necessary for the promotion of the common good. Just my .02

Posted by: Greg Popcak | Dec 19, 2012 2:44:20 PM

That language is, I think, consistent with what I suspect the Second Amendment will end up being. And, I don't think it needs to be read in a way that is in any tension with Murray's "principle".

Posted by: Rgarnett@nd.edu | Dec 19, 2012 2:59:54 PM

Although we have an inherent Right to defend ourselves from those who wish to do us harm, it is not necessary for anyone to have access to assault weapons except our Military. The violence in our society is the result of many factors that can create the perfect storm, beginning with a lack of respect for the inherent Dignity of the human person, often seen reflected in our Media, in music, the arts, in books, in video games, in the act of abortion, which objectifies the human person, in the failure to provide proper care for those suffering from mental, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse, in the break down of the Family, and the absence of a responsible mother or father, in the sexual objectification of the human person and the condoning of obscenity...which is why we need a comprehensive solution, and not just gun control.

Our hearts are breaking as a result of this terrible tragedy, the loss of innocent Life, and the suffering of the bereaved families.

Posted by: N.D. | Dec 19, 2012 3:38:48 PM

I know people who have concluded that a high powered, large capacity semi-automatic weapon is indeed necessary to prudently protect their home and family. They have biometric safes to protect the weapons from being stolen. It isn't clear to me why they are wrong.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Dec 19, 2012 3:53:14 PM

"I know people who have concluded that a high powered, large capacity semi-automatic weapon is indeed necessary to prudently protect their home and family. They have biometric safes to protect the weapons from being stolen. It isn't clear to me why they are wrong."

Many of these people that I know that hold such weapons are Marines, former Marines, and cops. As for myself, I love to go shooting in the range or out in the desert.

Posted by: CK | Dec 19, 2012 6:16:32 PM

"Hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them."

They do, under their particular laws. Our law as documented in the Bill of Rights puts limits on such regulation.

Posted by: CK | Dec 19, 2012 6:24:14 PM

I'd like to see the consideration of Switzerland in these discussions. All Swiss men have high powered rifles in their homes. This is because all Swiss men comprise of a well regulated militia. Hypothecially we should have the same here. Further, many of these Swiss men are Catholic, and some of them have served directly defending Holy Mother Church and the Pope.

Is it un-Catholic for such Swiss men to enjoy practicing and utilizing their SIG SG 500's? And the Swiss don't leave these weapons in the armory, they take them home.


"Nearly every eligible Swiss Male serves in the Swiss Army as a regular, or reservist until he is 40. Each one of these soldiers is issued a rifle and two sealed boxes of ammo to take home with him. The goal: complete mobilization of Switzerland with 48 hours. Indeed many feel, complete mobilization can occur with one afternoon."

Posted by: CK | Dec 19, 2012 6:30:39 PM

Consider a man named George. George’s hobby strikes many people as odd, but he enjoys it very much. It is shooting remote-controlled airplanes out of the air with surface-to-air missiles He targets the RC airplanes at various altitudes and speeds and with various heat signatures. It is painstaking and challenging work, like many hobbies. George realizes that the weapons he uses, a form of “arms” in the 2nd Amendment’s phrasing, may be used by some people to shoot down commercial airliners around US airports, but he is very careful to lock his up and keep them safe. He is a responsible and law-abiding citizen who enjoys his hobby as any freedom-loving American has the right to do, and so he opposes any law that would restrict the right to sell surface-to-air-missiles to private citizens. As a good Catholic, he sees no reason why his right to pursue his hobby should be infringed because some less responsible people may abuse these same instruments to inflict terror and kill scores of innocent people. The fault lies with these people and their poor moral formation, not with a policy making surface-to-air missiles widely available to the public.

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Dec 19, 2012 11:45:59 PM

There is a lot to be said in regard to Catholic morals and guns, but not much of it seems to get said. I am no reliable source either, but a few notes may bring us a little closer

1. The "guns" that the president wants to eliminate -- "control" is a rather feeble fig leaf -- have almost nothing to do with "America's gun obsession." We aren't obsessed, be we do own a lot of Pistols, and some people use them to rob and kill their neighbors. Why is the president obsessed with AK47s? This is very cheap virtue: to leave the theives well armed.

2. A lot of citizens are obsessed with the thought that the government wants to make itself the enemy. That is a bad thing certainly. They are everywhere on the blogs. These are otherwise peacible citizens, but the get very hostile when, in their view, threatened. Why do we insist on threatening them? Is that a goood example of CST: if there is some guy out there who is inclined not to like you, but who therwise leaves you alone, attack him every chance you get to provoke a bloody confrontation, to justify your hostility?

3. Some gun owners use them for evil. Most gun owners do not, by a wide margin. A few are guilty, most are innocent. Again, is it a tenet of CST the distinction between guilt and innocence is an outdated holdover from colonial times? Are we instructed to treat the innocent and the guilty alike?

Or are we fobidden in the most forceful terms to treat the innocent like the guilty?

To treat the innocent and the guilty alike is not merely a particular injustice -- comparable to knowlingly convicting an innocent man in order to secure some other benefit -- it is a systematic injustice. It is a policy of injustice; it is the choice of injustice as a good end in itself. It is the rejection of the concept of justice itself.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Dec 20, 2012 10:24:45 AM

Rick, although I don't doubt I'm more supportive of gun control than you are, I suspect that there is some common ground between us, insofar as I don't think that every regulation is a good idea per se. I was thrown, however, by your last sentence. My sense was that, on abortion, you support largely symbolic regulations that are unlikely to seriously impact the number of abortions, and would rather vocally champion political candidates who take that approach than those who do not oppose, or even support, abortion rights but are willing to commit themselves to public policies that might actually reduce the number of abortions. I don't think that's a direct contradiction. But let's call it a tension.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 23, 2012 2:03:07 PM