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Catholics and Firearms
Starting (or Refocusing) the Conversation
NOTE: THIS EPISODE WAS PUBLISHED BEFORE OUR REBOOT. willwrightcatholic.com is now gooddistinctions.com
Note: I know that you all are from 23 different countries. I want to thank you for reading/listening and for being subscribers to Good Distinctions! I am grateful for you. Today’s article is written from an American perspective because it deals with American policy issues. That being said, I hope that all of you, regardless of country, can appreciate the explanations, arguments, and distinctions!
Gun control debates have dominated the news cycle with increasing intensity in the United States. This is not without good reason, of course. Numerous horrendous acts of violence against the innocent perpetrated by individuals using firearms have taken place with unfortunately frequent occurrence, as of late. Inevitably, there are two outcomes in the wake of such events. Either we continue to speak past one another on related issues and nothing gets done, or we work together to make these events less likely in the future. I see an awful lot of the former but little to none of the latter.
So, why am I taking the time to write about this here on Will Wright Catholic? Because the vast majority of you are lay people. And it is our job to sanctify the temporal order. It is our job to bring the Catholic principles of Faith and Morals to bear on the world around us. We are called to apply prudence in calling for reform, seeking justice, and advocating for various policy stances.
With such devastating loss of life and unthinkable violence, it is hard to keep our emotions in check and focus on principles. I want to get the conversation started or refocus it. I believe that this begins with a basic understanding of how we understand a moral act (I will be doing a full episode on the Podcast in the next couple of months on this). I also think it is important to discuss the principle of double effect to understand why we are free to defend our lives or the lives of other innocent people. And I think it is worth understanding the Second Amendment a bit beyond memes and soundbites. I hope this article is a help to you!
Basis of Moral Theology – Object, Intention, and Circumstance
Human acts are freely chosen because God has given us the gift of freedom. When we act deliberately, we are the author of our actions. If we act, then those actions can be morally evaluated as good or evil.
The sources of human morality depends on three things: 1) the object chosen, 2) the end in view or the intention, 3) and the circumstances of the action (cf. CCC 1750).
The object is the good which is chosen. Of course, all that God has made is good. Thus, even sins could be seen as the choosing of a lesser good in the place of a greater good. The object of an action is external to the person choosing it. In other words, the object of the act can be in itself good or evil (cf. CCC 1751). If it is evil from the outset (intrinsic evil), then we can say the act is evil only by looking at the object.
The intention is in the person acting and helps us evaluate if an act is good or evil by determining the end towards which someone is aiming by acting. However, if an object deliberately chosen is bad, then no intention can make it a good act. On the same token, you may have an objectively good act, such as almsgiving, which is subverted by a bad intention such as vanity (cf. CCC 1752-3).
The circumstances, including the consequences of the act, are secondary to object and intention. The circumstances may increase or diminish the goodness or evil of human acts. They cannot change the quality of the moral act to make it good or evil (cf. CCC 1754).
The Principle of Double Effect
The Principle of Double Effect comes into play when a given moral act has both a good effect and an evil effect. This principle allows us to determine if such an act may be chosen without falling into sin. Primarily, St. Thomas Aquinas articulates this point to demonstrate that killing is self-defense can be justified.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states the conditions for the application of the Principle of Double Effect in this way:
The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.
Condition 1 – Morally Good or Indifferent Act
The object of the act, which is external to the person acting, must be good or at least indifferent. This is because no amount of good intention can make an evil act good. And because the effect of an act belongs to the circumstances, it cannot make a good act evil or an evil act good.
In other words, the ends never justify the means. The object of the act cannot ever be evil or it is sinful to be chosen. For example, deliberate and willful murder as the deliberate killing of an innocent human person will never be an acceptable action. Likewise, rape and adultery are never justified by intention or circumstances. We can call these intrinsic evils.
Condition 2 – Cannot Will the Bad Effect
Permitting the bad effect is a toleration, not an endorsement. If it is foreseen that there is another course of action which would achieve the good effect without causing the bad effect, then the person would be obliged to choose that course of action. By choosing an good or indifferent act with a good and bad effect, the bad effect stands next to the good effect, it is not being deliberately chosen.
Condition 3 – The Good and Bad Effect Must Happen Together
Again, it must be stated, in Catholic theology, the ends can never justify the means. You cannot choose an evil act in order to achieve a good effect. Truly, God will always draw a good out of every evil, but woe to us if we are the author of the evil.
The good effect and bad effect must happen at the same time or, at least, be caused by the action itself. In other words, the good effect cannot be a direct result of the bad effect. If that is the case, then the bad effect is actually an evil act that is being chosen and the Principle of Double Effect does not apply.
Condition 4 – Commensurate Good Alongside the Bad Effect
There must be a very serious reason that the evil effect is tolerated. The good effect that is directly intended must be significantly more dire to attain than the bad effect that is accepted. Again, we are assuming that there is no other way to achieve the gravely necessary good that is desired.
This is Not Consequentialism or Proportionalism
There are two main areas that Pope St. John Paul II warns about in his masterwork Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth): consequentialism and proportionalism.
Consequentialism seeks to determine if an act will do a maximal amount of foreseeable good. This theory of morality is wrong because it allows for evil acts to be chosen in anticipation of a good effect for a maximal number of people. This falls under intention and circumstance, which cannot affect the object of the act, which is always good, evil, or neutral. If an evil object is chosen, then it is an evil act, no matter how much good is eventually drawn from it.
Proportionalism weighs the various goods and values being sought and then focuses on the proportion between the good and bad effects of that choice, which leads to a “greater good” or “lesser evil” outcome.
Both consequentialism and proportionalism ultimately fail because it is not possible to glean from them any notion of an intrinsically good object or an intrinsically evil object. Yet, there are certain kinds of behavior which are always evil or always good, regardless of time, place, culture, people, intention, and circumstance.
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution
The Constitution is not a Catholic principle, but it is vital to any conversation about firearms in the United States. I think it worthwhile to put on our historical and political hats for a moment and investigate this aspect, too. The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America reads:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
How are we to read this? The preparatory clause “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” seems to imply that the operative clause of the right of the people pertains only to militias. Thai would make the Second Amendment obsolete and limiting because militias are largely illegal in the United States today.
District of Columbia v. Heller
In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia writes in the majority opinion the guiding interpreting hermeneutic is that “the Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical meaning.” The normal meaning would not be secretive or technical, and it could even be idiomatic. In 2008, the two sides in the case were 1) the 2nd Amendment only protects “the right to possess and carry a firearm in connection with militia service” and 2) the 2nd Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home (DC v Heller, Majority Opinion).”
Justice Scalia explained later that the right of the people pertained to all the people. And a militia in Colonial America was merely a subset of these people. It referred to people who were male, able bodied, and within a certain age range. The presumption, therefore, is that the right reserved to the people is reserved to all the people as an individual right that extends beyond any particular instantiation of a militia.
To keep something is to hold it, retain it, and not lose the power of possession over it. And to bear means to wear, bear, carry. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in the dissenting opinion of DC v. Heller of “carries a firearm” as:
“[s]urely a most familiar meaning is, as the Constitution’s Second Amendment … indicate[s]: ‘wear, bear, or carry … upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose … of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.’
Whether for offensive or defensive action, there is no connotation of a structured military organization. Even State Constitutions from the time kept this meaning. Many spoke of keeping and bearing arms in defense of himself or the state. It was a recognition of the natural right to defense “of one’s person or house” according to Justice James Wilson in the late 18th Century.
Justice Scalia goes on to say, though, that:
“There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not, see, e.g., United States v. Williams, 553 U. S. ___ (2008). Thus, we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.”
If a militia, in the colonial sense, is the subset of military-aged, white males, then why were militia’s seen as “necessary to the security of a free state?” Scalia explains:
“There are many reasons why the militia was thought to be “necessary to the security of a free state.” See 3 Story §1890. First, of course, it is useful in repelling invasions and suppressing insurrections. Second, it renders large standing armies unnecessary—an argument that Alexander Hamilton made in favor of federal control over the militia. The Federalist No. 29, pp. 226, 227 (B. Wright ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton). Third, when the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.”
Does the Second Amendment create an individual right to keep and bear arms or is it limited to militias? Scalia explains clearly that:
“It fits perfectly, once one knows the history that the founding generation knew and that we have described above. That history showed that the way tyrants had eliminated a militia consisting of all the able-bodied men was not by banning the militia but simply by taking away the people’s arms, enabling a select militia or standing army to suppress political opponents. This is what had occurred in England that prompted codification of the right to have arms in the English Bill of Rights.”
St. George Tucker (1752 - 1827) is quoted by Scalia, giving a robust argument for gun ownership:
“The right to self-defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine the right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”
One of the preeminent examples of this happening is Nazi Germany registering gun owners and then confiscating their weapons. But I think an even more poignant example is the Communist Revolution in China, in which 65 million Chinese died as a result of Mao Zedong’s efforts to create a socialist China. The first act of control in 1949 was to take away all the guns from the Chinese population. Mao said:
“All political power comes from the barrel of a gun. The Communist Party must command all the guns; that way, no guns can ever be used to command the party.”
Limitations to the Second Amendment
In speaking of limitations, Scalia writes:
“Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
In discussing handguns, Scalia writes:
“It is no answer to say, as petitioners do, that it is permissible to ban the possession of handguns so long as the possession of other firearms (i.e., long guns) is allowed. It is enough to note, as we have observed, that the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon. There are many reasons that a citizen may prefer a handgun for home defense: It is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper-body strength to lift and aim a long gun; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police. Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”
There is also not a clear cut distinction between weapons of war (such as the M-16) and self-defense weapons. What is a weapon worthwhile to be used in a militia after all? But no small arm would be able to combat a tank or a bomber. So, the different classes of firearms are not always clearly delineated.
The case which we have been investigating was about the handgun ban present in the District of Columbia. This case ruled that ban unconstitutional. Scalia ends his opinion in this way:
“We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution. The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns, see supra, at 54–55, and n. 26. But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”
Who Can’t Own a Gun?
It is also worth noting who may not possess a firearm or ammunition. These include:
anyone who’s been convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence or is under a domestic violence restraining order
people who’ve been committed to a psychiatric institution or labeled mentally ill under a court ruling
undocumented immigrants and those in the country under nonimmigrant visas
illegal drug users, and
former military members who had a dishonorable discharge
One of the major problems with gun control debates is the figment of our imagination that making something illegal makes it go away. Each of the six categories of people listed above possess illegal firearms, without a doubt.
What Guns are Illegal?
Some people erroneously believe that the Second Amendment is unlimited, that you can own whatever kind of gun you would like. This is not true. For example, some states limit the capacity of magazines. Short-barreled shotguns with a barrel length of less than 18 inches is illegal (the reason for this was originally because gangsters would conceal them easier, but it is also because the shot pellets are sprayed out in an uncontrolled way). Fully automatic weapons are entirely banned or severely restricted and new fully automatic firearms cannot be made in the U.S.
In certain states, “assault weapons” are banned (California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts). The main problem with such a ban is alluded to in Scalia’s 2008 opinion. What is the difference between what one person might call an “assault” weapon and a militia weapon or a self-defense weapon? The AR-15 is often called an assault weapon as are any semi-automatic guns intended for military use. The problem is that the definitions are ambiguous and end up overlapping with weapons that are not banned. For example, the AR-15 and the common handgun are just as deadly. Perhaps the AR-15 has a higher capacity but handguns are far more concealable.
Putting It All Together
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, based on the principle of double effect, teaches the following:
“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.’
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 (CCC 2263-4).”
Self-defense is perfectly legitimate and is a viable moral action. However, the Church unequivocally recognizes that:
“Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God.
The murder of a human being is gravely contrary to the dignity of the person and the holiness of the Creator (CCC 2319-20).”
It seems to me that responsible gun ownership, in the context of modern-day United States, is in keeping with the preservation of innocent human life. Massacres perpetrated by mentally ill individuals are a misapplication of a tool. I did not even get into that aspect of this debate because it is another quagmire. But I will say that it is obvious that those who commit mass shootings are mentally ill. I do not need a medical degree to make this statement. Many of these horrible individuals write manifestos detailing their twisted reasoning.
However, it seems that further reforms are needed for the common good. The laws and regulations we have are insufficient to stop gun violence. I am not in favor of a ban because criminals and mentally ill people will still get firearms and use them to do evil, despite the restrictions. The solution will absolutely be multi-faceted and will not be a quick fix.
Many others, in other countries and anti-gun folks in the US, naively believe that a weapons ban will fix the problem. Regardless of the present or future situation, there are already more unregistered guns than most people would imagine. Taking them away is impossible. And the overwhelming majority of gun owners are responsible, law-abiding, and only discharge their weapons at the gun range or in self-defense. Remember, responsible gun ownership is based on reducing the possibility of tyranny (whether on the level of government or an individual invading your home and wishing to do you harm).
Many in our society do not take seriously the possibility of gun confiscation by the government. That is naive. Many in our society do not take seriously that gun violence is a problem which requires a real response and concerted effort. That is evil. Many talk past one another on the issues instead of having a clear headed conversation. That is stupid. Many people substitute real arguments with “gotcha” one-liners. That is annoyingly useless.
Join me in attempting to not be naive, evil, stupid, and annoyingly useless.
I have only touched on a couple of facets of these issues. There are far more angles to examine and commensurate actions to take. My point is to show that there are distinctions to be made and they are important to the conversation, a conversation which is currently lacking. The loss of life to gun violence is reprehensible. We need to keep the conversation going and implement achievable initiatives to mitigate this evil.
Remember I know that I “missed” a lot of parts of this conversation. I know that there is far more to say. My goal here was to start or refocus a conversation, not be exhaustive in my treatment. What are your thoughts? Comment below; I’d love to hear what you have to say!