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).

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