The Right to Bear Arms

I really do try to understand that in the USA people have a different perspective on weapons. I tried to sympathise and understand their position in a post recently, provoked by the terrible tragedy in Connecticut.

But I have to report feeling 'unsettled' when Fr. Z attracts public controversy by posting in a way that seems to support guns. I'm sure he doesn't see it that way, attitudes are very different in the USA, but his blog has a world-wide audience and he is a hero to many of us. Does he understand how strange this appears to non-American readers? I'll be frank --I find general support of weapons very difficult to reconcile with the teachings of Christ and His Church. I also do not think it is in any way edifying and detracts from the value of his contribution. Now in actual fact, his article there is more about obfuscation and abortion than gun rights, but I still think he should be careful.

The argument is purportedly about the Second Amendment. There are several versions of the text of the Second Amendment, each with slight capitalisation and punctuation differences, found in the official documents surrounding the adoption of the Bill of Rights. One version was passed by the Congress while another is found in the copies distributed to the States and then ratified by them.

The version passed by the Congress reads thus:
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.
As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State: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.
The original hand-written copy of the Bill of Rights, approved by the House and Senate, was prepared by scribe William Lambert (nothing to do with me, or my boy, honest) and resides in the National Archives.

In no particular order, early American settlers viewed the right to arms and/or the right to bear arms and/or state militias as important for one or more of these purposes:
  • deterring tyrannical government;
  • repelling invasion;
  • suppressing insurrection;
  • facilitating a natural right of self-defence;
  • participating in law enforcement;
  • enabling the people to organise a militia system.
Which of these considerations they thought were most important, which of these considerations they were most alarmed about, and the extent to which each of these considerations ultimately found expression in the Second Amendment is disputed. Some of these purposes were explicitly mentioned in early state constitutions; for example, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 asserted that, "the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state".

Now it seems easy to see why these principles were important at the time the states were founded, but it seems very difficult to understand them as a justification in the context of a modern, civilised, society, for individuals to own assault weapons.

The argument gets all grammatical and syntax ridden in the USA. The basic premise, as we have seen, is that guns equate to defence. If you are armed, you are able to defend yourself.

My position is a fundamental gut feeling that I do not want to live in a society in which civility ultimately relies on a recourse to deadly violence.

What does the Church teach?

I have listened to the arguments of my American friends and tried hard to understand their merits, I hope that always comes across in the way I speak about the subject. However as I have expressed here, I find that there is something deep inside me which just sees guns and God as fundamentally at odds with one another. Much of what I have read from the USA is an attempt to push one agenda or the other, so let's try and look honestly and objectively about what the Church teaches around this subject.

The right to self-defence is rooted in the natural inclination to self-preservation (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, a. 2). Here St. Thomas judged that it was the proper function of the public authorities to punish wrong-doers, not the right or responsibility of individuals. Thus offenders ought to be brought to justice according to a proper system of apprehension, investigation and trial. An individual does not have the right to kill an unjust aggressor normally.

The right to self-defence is not an absolute duty for an individual where that individual is the only one at risk; he might forgo that right for reasons of pacifism. However it would seem to be different of the one at risk were frail and needed assistance in order to save his life or to avoid serious injury.

Jesus adds to the fifth commandment the proscription of anger, hatred and vengeance, asking His disciples to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies (cf. Matt 5:22-39; 5:44; CCC 2262). Jesus did not defend Himself and told Peter to leave his sword sheathed (cf. Matt 26:52; CCC 2263).
The Catechism explains that though legitimate defence of persons and societies is allowed, it does not constitute an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing; the aggressor may die as a result of your taking action to protect, but this is not the intention of your action. The intention is the defence of the innocent, or those unable to defend themselves against an aggressor (CCC2263). This means that legitimate defence can be more than a right—it can be a grave duty for one, like a husband, or a father, who is responsible for the lives of others (CCC 2264). This does not change the fact that every act directly willed is imputable to its author, however an effect can be tolerated without being willed by its agent. Thus a bad effect is not imputable if it was not willed either as an end or as a means of action. For a bad effect to be imputable, it must be foreseeable and the agent must have the possibility of avoiding it. (cf. CCC 1737).

Another very important point, and I think a comforting one also, is to acknowledge that there is a strong emphasis on punishment in Church teaching. A little research reveals that the Catechism, in its original text of 1992 listed the functions of punishment with a hierarchy, putting retribution for injustice first. There is no doubt that this is a key and essential feature of punishment. It is the retribution for those judged guilty which distinguishes punishment from mere terror or manipulation. A deterrent effect upon those guilty and on others is another feature of punishment, but the reconciliatory function has been given more prominence of late. In the definitive (Latin) edition of the Catechism there is not a suggestion of hierarchy and subordination of functions. Even in the original there was a very strong discouragement from use of the death penalty, mainly because it precludes all possibility of a person reforming.

We see this explained in CCC 2266: punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offence and if willingly accepted by the perpetrator, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party (cf. Luke 23:40-43; CCC 2266).

You might also find this article interesting (h/t @BruvverEccles).


  1. Your premise is flawed from the start. Whenever we begin with the arrogant assumption that society has somehow escaped its darker nature just by virtue of the passage of time, we are engaged in a fallacy. Aquinas had some great material on tyranny and rebellion, understanding human nature as he did.
    I want to point out that the leading cause of non-natural death in the past 130 years is murder by one's own government. 260 million killed. Britain in particular is responsible for the murder and starvation of over 50 million people, many of whom they disarmed or barred from possessing arms before killing them, in places such as Ireland, India and Africa. Britain makes Hitler look like Mickey Mouse. And all while having a Bill of Rights and a Parliament!
    In the UK, gun crimes have doubled and tripled in most areas, even if the actual death rate is down. In Australia rapes have tripled in some areas after the gun ban. Gun crimes have increased, not decreased.
    The reason you do not find a specific church teaching that condemns firearms is that it is very difficult to classify an object as evil, which is what you are trying to do, really. Singling out "assault rifles" as being unnecessary in a so-called "modern" society is simply naive and arrogant. What weapons did the British use to slaughter the Indian people, whom they had disarmed.. slaughter the Irish at that football game… To slaughter Zulus… To slaughter by starvation the 40 million Indians & Bengalis they held at gunpoint and starved to death all while shipping their crops back to jolly Old England?? They had semi-automatic rifles for a large part of this time period, and moved on to machine guns. I would spit if there were a way to do it digitally. I am descended from Wexford Irish who came to the USA having survived persecution and slaughter at the hands of "civilized" British soldiers and politicians, who barred them from arms. Many Irish fought with pikes against the British tyrants’ rifles, and we all know the outcome...oppression and death. The same “civilized” and well-educated British politicians celebrated the starvation of 2 million Irish as being subhuman.
    Biblically, you are very deficient. Paul the Apostle specifically used the threat of harm by arms when he invoked his Roman Citizenship against his tormentors. They were terrified when they found out because they knew they could face armed soldiers and even death for imprisoning and beating a Roman Citizen. Paul accepted the armed Roman escort provided for him. In two instances we see that the Apostles carried short swords, commonly carried in that day by people who traveled for self defense. Jesus makes it clear that we should not live by it, but he never says "get rid of it." He clearly permitted his followers to arm themselves. He was not stupid, being God.
    I own several semi-automatic rifles and plenty of ammo specifically because people who think as you do are the ones who tacitly welcome tyranny with open arms by being ignorant of its encroachment and the inevitability of its appearance in every age. History teaches us that with "modernization" the only change in our experience of tyranny is that it gets better at killing larger numbers of people…mostly unarmed people, rather.
    In America we are not immune..look at what we did to the Native Americans, and we seized and interred 110,000 Japanese Americans less than 100 years ago during WW2.
    Thank God here in America our “strange” point of view on guns is troubling to others. In particular my Irish blood is gratified when I see an Englishman vexed by my semi-automatic rifle. I do not keep and bear arms for their own sake, I do so because I KNOW that tyranny will come, and most dangerously so from “civilized” politicians.

    1. Many thanks for taking the time to comment. You do make quite a number of assumptions and numerous errors in your refutation of my premise...which I would be interested if you could summarise for me as I'm not sure you have actually understood it at all.
      Certainly, I do not assume that "society has somehow escaped its darker nature just by virtue of the passage of time" and in fact argue against what Hayek calls "the fatal conceit" see here:
      You rail against British history contradicting your own statement, asking what weapons the British used to starve 40 million Indians and Bengalis, and then answering your own question by asserting they used semi-automatic rifles in order to achieve this. Quite how someone starves someone with a rifle is beyond me. I am also of Irish decent and quite aware of British history, thank you!

      You claim I am biblically deficient but do not mention that the position I am putting forward is that of the Holy See...So you are asserting that Catholicism is biblically deficient, which is amusing and ignorant, as it was the Catholic Church who compiled the Sacred Scriptures. Also, you don't provide any quotes, so it's difficult to help your misunderstanding with respect to the passages you mention.

      "my Irish blood is gratified when I see an Englishman vexed by my semi-automatic rifle."

      This is just awful. I don't need to say any more really, but I wonder if you have seen this: or this ? If you had you would know that I can articulate the argument from both sides, and have, in fact, been trying to put the case from the American perspective to my fellow UK citizens. This post was prompted by people continually trying to twist Church teaching to suggest that God somehow goes with guns, the idea of this post is not to suggest we do not have a right to self defence, indeed this is enshrined in the Catechism as I quote above, but to suggest that our goal as Christians is always peace.

    2. You have not cited a single church teaching other than the catechism, and some writings of Aquinas. Show me examples from encyclicals, Dogmatic teachings, Congregational documents, etc. If your understanding of Church teaching is the catechism only, you are missing much.
      "Awful" that the English are vexed by my semi-auto? I again find it gratifying that you find this "awful." You come from a nation of civilized butchers who for hundreds of years have exploited and murdered unarmed civilians with firearms. Now, your gun crimes have actually doubled and tripled in most areas, even if actual killings have decreased. Rapes and armed robberies are up as well. This is the fruit of your "gun control."
      I find no church teaching, certainly not at the Papal or Congregational level, that condemns firearms other than with regard to their trafficking for unjust wars.
      As far as how someone is starved by a rifle, for decades, beginning with the Bengali region of India in the late 1700's, and on up to the 20th century, Indians were forced to farm the land and then pay most of their crops as "taxes" at riflepoint. This was begun by the British East India company, which in the late 1600's was given permission by the Queen to rape the Indian people and their resources. About 10 million died in that famine. In the late 1800's 29 million died, at riflepoint, as again they were forced to farm the land and surrender the crops to England rather than feed themselves. The British aristocracy and businessmen made a lot of money. In Africa, 27,000 Boer women and children were marched to concentration camps at gunpoint and starved to death there. What do you not understand about the British military, or the East India mercenaries, having guns and the people they oppressed NOT having guns? When someone takes your food at gunpoint, you starve. Clear enough?
      Putting words in my mouth and saying I think the Church is biblically deficient is wrong. You completely ignored all but one of my biblical references. The Catechism you cite does not address the biblical passages I used, and as I said it is not even close to an exhaustive treatment of Church teaching or Scripture. It is not meant to be a "stand-alone" authority on Church Teaching, but rather a summary.
      The Catechism sections you mention only reference scripture in one (2262 I think), and even then these do not pertain to weapons in and of themselves, but our disposition; Jesus clearly allowed his followers to carry swords. I mentioned several passages, and your only response was to falsely accuse me of saying the Church is biblically deficient. It is your arguments that are biblically deficient. Jesus HAD to go to his death, and in that context, the disciples were interfering with his mission. We see this in John 18, wherein, unlike the synoptics, Jesus adds a purpose clause to his admonition about the sword. He does not say swords are bad, or evil, or even that it should be cast away. He does not even condemn the act, rather, he states that it interferes with his mission. In Mt 26:51, Mk 14:47, Lk 22:36-38, and JN 18:10-11, we have a clear understanding that bearing arms was acceptable and part of everyday life, even among the Apostles.
      Thus, I can cite multiple biblical passages that support bearing arms, and find none that condemn them. We agree that disposition and intent is the key. You did not address at all my mention of St. Paul's invocation of his Roman Citizenship and the threat of arms it employed, as well as the bearing of arms for his own protection from the mobs. Paul repeatedly makes a point of avoiding harm when possible (being lowered in a basket, leaving hostile places, etc), and even remained hopeful that he might be released.
      Like the Apostles, I choose to bear arms.
      Lastly I agree with you that "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds." 2Cor 10:4, and that peace is a goal.

    3. The problem with most approaches to non-violence is that they involve reading into the Scriptures spurious modern ideas about pacifism. The "turn-the-other-cheek" passage is the most abused in this regard. Let me say this, for years I have worked with disturbed or incarcerated children and youth, and have been threatened, kicked, punched, bitten, stabbed, insulted vilified, spit on and even poisoned on one occasion. I have at the end of every one of those many days left it on the alter, and begun each new day with a smile and the hope of grace for these youth. In these settings, my "pacifism" is for a purpose. There are still consequences for the youth, but none involve my directly punishing them physically or using other than approved physical management. I have never harmed a child and am proud of that. However, Like Jesus in John 18, I lay aside my right to self defense for a greater purpose: the reality that these young people need to learn new ways of coping and relating. Several of the young people I have worked with just in the past few years have gone on to commit murder, rape, armed robbery, grand theft, etc. Thus, if one of these youth were encountered by me outside of the treatment setting, and sought to do me harm, I would not hesitate to use deadly force against them. "Pacifism" is a false ideology, a distortion of the greater principles of mercy, justice, and Grace. Pope Benedict spoke often of proportionalism. I think where you are going astray in your approach to guns, as typically happens, is that you are trying to find a "black and white" final declaration of some sort or a rationale that would render the mere possession of a firearm to be an evil; pardon the assumption if it is off the mark. This simply will not happen, as that is not how Church Teaching operates when you are dealing with objects and choices. i.e., What is the difference between a nude statue of Venus in a museum and a Playboy magazine photo? Nature of the item, nature of the act bringing it about, and the nature of the intent for both, and how each is ultimately used by us. Applying the logic of pacifism to this scenario, I would have to ban all nudity, even in art, as evil.
      I am 100% certain there is nothing in any church teaching that prohibits me from keeping and bearing a semi-automatic rifle, as what matters is the intent and use while it is in my possession. The only weapon explicitly condemned as inherently evil by the Church is a nuclear weapon. If they wished to condemn bearing basic infantry-style or assault weapons, we would have found this by now in at least one of the thousands of Papal and Congregational teachings of the past few centuries. Even Aquinas only prohibits clergy from bearing arms.

  2. Just to point out the passage in Scripture about "turning the other cheek" does not pertain to violence, but rather it pertains to being deemed "impure." Being slapped on the right cheek means you have been struck by the back of someone else's right hand; this was a ritual action. The fact that you would have to offer the other cheek indicates there would not likely be continued violence unless you asked for it by offering the other cheek. However, it clearly supports the idea of a measured, proportional response to being attacked.

    1. Have you seen Fr. Robert Barron's 'Catholicism Project'? In the second programme in the series Fr. Robert highlighted the Beatitudes, the path of non-violence, what it really means to turn the other cheek. He does this by telling three stories, one is about Pope John Paul II's great Mass in Krakow when he defied the Soviet authorities. One is about Mother Teresa of Calcutta approaching a baker for some bread for a starving child she held by the hand. The baker spat full in her face. She said "thank you for that gift for me, now can I have some bread for the child?". The third story was about Desmond Tutu who was walking along a narrow path in a South Africa divided under apartheid. A Boer came the other way and told him to get off the path because he would not give way to a monkey. Tutu stepped aside and with a flourish replied; "that's OK, I do".

    2. Too funny, but in a sad way. Tutu approached the Boer in the same manner I approach the youth I work with. A sense of humor can be a great weapon and defense in the face of hatred.

    3. Interestingly, We also see St. Paul resist being slapped on the cheek in Acts 23:2
      "At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

      He does not even want to be slapped once, let alone turn the other cheek. He even adds some ad hominem. I like Paul's approach. He refuses to be abused and stands up for himself, but then also brings civility to the situation, showing himself the better man.
      This stands in stark contrast to the idea that we should accept being abused by others.
      Jesus did it for a reason: he had to die for our sins, and so he had to endure the full brunt of cruelty and sin in order to get to the cross. St. Paul, however, presents us with a more practical scenario, free of the constraints Jesus accepted for his mission.
      Taking both persons in context, It is clear that St. Paul's approach is the norm, moderated by civility.
      Another interesting passage to look at is the cleansing of the temple, in which Jesus himself took up a weapon and drove the money changers out.

    4. "Strange that so much suffering is caused because of the misunderstandings of God's true nature. God's heart is more gentle than the Virgin's first kiss upon the Christ. And God's forgiveness to all, to any thought or act, is more certain than our own being." St. Catherine of Siena


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