Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Changing Not Only Laws, But Hearts

Trying to climb this mountain of wickedness is like trying to climb a glass wall with your bare hands. What happened there is pure evil, and evil, unlike common badness, gives an ordinary mind no foothold.

Megan McArdle, Daily Beast (Dec. 17, 2012).

Now that a decent interval has been observed since the atrocity in Connecticut, the members of our Mirror of Justice family — as people of faith and well-educated legal scholars — are asking “what do we do now?”

Many have proposed new gun-control laws or increased funding for mental health care as the answer.  I am willing to support every reasonable proposal in that regard — and likely would refrain from objecting to quite a few less-than-reasonable proposals.  I do fear, however, that too many are deluding themselves if they really believe that a truly effective and comprehensive political or legal solution is feasible.  What happened in Connecticut — and elsewhere — may or may not represent a failure of law and politics.  But such atrocities surely do reflect a failure of character and culture.

Encouraging moral deliberation in our society and being committed to changing the American culture of death is much more difficult work than passing a new set of laws or initiating or expanding government spending programs.  Our mission cannot be quantified by a check-list; it is more painstaking and demands more of us personally than a political campaign or legislative agenda; it insists that we be patient, perhaps never knowing in this life how the seeds we plant will grow.

Fortunately, that harder — and more important — work connects directly to our particular vocation as people of faith teaching future problem-solvers, policy advocates, legislators and judges, and community leaders and, for most of us, doing so in an environment where faith and moral reasoning are valued and lived out each day.

With respect to the immediate political or legal proposals, Professor James Alan Fox writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week:

Sensible gun laws, affordable mental-health care, and reasonable security measures are all worthwhile, and would enhance the well being of millions of Americans. We shouldn’t, however, expect such efforts to take a big bite out of mass murder. Of course, a nibble or two would be reason enough.

So enact a ban on “assault weapons.”  I may not lead the way, but I certainly won't stand in the way.  No civilian needs a military-style weapon for personal defense or sport hunting.  But let us not congratulate ourselves that through such a law we will have accomplished very much.

Genuine automatic military-grade weapons have long been outlawed.  Bans on “assault weapons” do not bar sale of semi-automatic weapons (that is, weapons that shoot a bullet with each pull of the trigger).  In fact, many sporting rifles and all handguns other than revolvers are semi-automatic.

The once and future ban on “assault weapons” is directed primarily at the cosmetic appearance of certain long firearms.  For the most part, these weapons are not more dangerous than other long firearms (and indeed are often less powerful); they only look more dangerous.

Still, there could be some value in limiting the availability of a weapon that by style and form might appeal to a demented person contemplating a massacre.  And, in my view, there is little cost in doing so (other than the risk of self-delusion), as alternative rifles for sporting purposes and both long firearms and handguns for self-defense are readily available.

Some suggest supplementing such a ban on "assault weapons" with a ban on high-capacity magazines that permit firing dozens of shots without replacing the gun’s clip.  Here too, though, we should not expect too much from such a step.  Since a high-capacity magazine is easy to jury-rig with a metal box and springs, the most committed of murderers (and most mass killers have planned their acts for some period of time) will not be much impeded.  Moreover, replacing a clip does not take the experienced person more than a second or two.  And, of course, the more typical firearm killing is done with a handgun with a small clip.

Still, such a limitation of the number of bullets in a clip may make it more difficult for the impulsive shooter to kill as many people in a single episode — which may be more than enough reason to enact such a control.

Expanding the scope of mandatory background checks for gun sales and closing off any loopholes would elicit no objection from this law-abiding gun owner.  Remember, however, that only those with a criminal record are likely to be excluded (unless such a process become subject to abuses by petty bureaucrats).  Still, at least a small number of those planning malicious acts would be stymied — making tighter background checks a worthwhile if modest step.

Likewise, we should reexamine our mental health care laws to see if there are ways to better identify and treat people who may pose a grave danger to others, while not violating the civil rights of those who simply strike others as odd or nonconforming.  Given that we must take care to protect the civil liberties of all, our ability to use such laws effectively to shield the innocents against murderous rampages is limited.  Expanding the availability of mental health care is especially unlikely to reach those who are the most dangerous by reason of mental illness, as they also tend to be the most resistant to seeking any medical treatment.

In sum, we should not be much surprised or frustrated that a political or legal remedy may have modest effect.  To be sure, that a complete political or legal solution is unavailing is no reason to do nothing.  But we should take those steps with a clear head and not expect too much.  If we foolishly believe that we have done great good by passing new laws and appropriating new funds, we then may be blinded to the greater need still left unaddressed.

In her posting earlier this week, Megan McArdle reminds us of Samuel Johnson’s epigram:

How small, of all that human hearts endure

That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!

Which returns us to moral deliberation, fostering of character, faithful teaching — and prayer.

To say that prayer is vital part of the answer should not be denigrated as some simplistic suggestion that the obscenity in Sandy Hook would have been forestalled by, say, organized prayer in the public schools.  No one can say with any certainty that any measures — political, legal, medical, cultural, or spiritual — would have prevented any particular eruption of evil.  But we do believe that prayer matters

The primary purpose of prayer is not to obtain one’s desires, as though God is a Genie in a bottle who grants us wishes.  The Catholic understanding of prayer is of something that transforms the one who prays and only incidentally, if at all, changes the surrounding circumstances.  The conscientious act of prayer for a Catholic with a proper attitude changes the heart from within.

When you truly pray for a person, however much you may be disaffected in some way, you must let go of enmity.  When you earnestly pray for a person, you can no longer wish them anything other than the best that God offers to them.   A lifetime habit of prayer builds character and compassion and empathy.  Prayer for others reminds us of universal human dignity.

For those of us who teach in law schools, our prayers for and with our students will change us and them.  By encouraging our students to not only aspire to a legally-efficacious practice but also to a morally-fulfilling life, we do much to strengthen the society in which they will live.

And attention to moral character and cultural healing is imperative if we take seriously the calling to create the best environment for human thriving.  And, at present, we have ample reason to doubt that American culture is bringing out the best in our people.  Indeed, that is an understatement.  As Christina Hoff Summers wrote this week, “There have always been sociopaths among us. But we seem to have created a society where they feel empowered to act.”

We live in a society where moral character and personal responsibility appear to be in a steep decline, where violence and obscenity permeate the popular culture and media, where disintegrating families and children growing up without fathers are sharply rising, where the annual slaughter of hundreds of thousands of unborn children is aggressively defended as a right, where healthy mediating institutions sometimes appear to be under assault.

Am I suggesting that one or all of these factors caused the horrific events in Connecticut?  That would be presumptuous and simplistic.  Do I think that the unacceptably high level of violence that punctuates so many sectors of American society is attributable, at least in part, to a cultural decline?  That is a conclusion difficult to contest.  The past week's events raise troubling moral and spiritual questions.

We are called to be counter-cultural witnesses to this society.  We have much work to do.  I thank God that we have been called this work.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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