“I Don’t Want One, I Don’t Need One”: Toward a Social Movement Against Firearms

July 6, 2015

Last month Pope Francis stirred up some attention when speaking to a group of assembled young Catholics in Turin, Italy. Francis denounced the weapons industry by saying that manufacturers of weapons and their investors were hypocrites if they called themselves Christians. [1]  

Although speaking extemporaneously, it lead some commentators to question whether the pontiff was questioning the Church’s teachings on personal defense, Just War, or the ability for one to hunt for food. The Acton Institute, which advocates for the Church to support laissez-faire economic policies, even called for Francis to apologize to the weapons makers. Francis’ comments will certainly add debate to the thorny issue of the continued epidemic of violence and murder committed with firearms in the United States.

Many Americans are fed up with crime committed by guns from such “typical” scenarios as robbery, murder, or gang violence. The rise in mass killings has resulted in a sense of fear that has led some citizens to acquire their own firearms in the fear that they might be the next victim. Sensible legislation to, for instance, limit ownership to those without mental health history concerns, magazine capacity, outlaw military-grade weapons, or have more local law-enforcement say in who gets a firearm, are routinely defeated or watered down by the powerful National Rifle Association and grass-roots gun rights organizations. Gun owners have effectively created a storyline that, absent “good guys with guns,” American homes and businesses will become the playgrounds of criminals who will rape and pillage with impunity.

Consider the following: the chances that one’s home will be invaded by an intruder are statistically very small indeed. Burglars usually attempt a break-in where they can ascertain no one is home. If a homeowner possessed a gun for defense but was not home at the time of the burglary, then not only was it ineffective, but, perhaps, the gun could have fallen into the hands of the thief, who then might be able to use it in the commission of other robberies. Perhaps other family members might be home at the time of an invasion but aren’t trained in the use of the gun, or do not have access to it. Even if the homeowner was present, there is no guarantee that he or she could get to the gun in time to use it against the intruder, or they might even have the gun taken away from them in a struggle with the assailant. So, in all statistical likelihood, even owning a gun is no safety blanket considering the range of outcomes that could easily take place in the event of a burglary. 

In fact, there is more likely to be death in a home attributed to a gun that has nothing to do with lurking predators – family disputes, suicide, and accidents – than a home that does not possess a pistol. [2] Taking this argument a bit further, perhaps we ought to be “glad” that there aren’t more murders and mayhem in the U.S. given that there is an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the nation. [3]

This certainly means that the vast majority of owners of guns are responsible. But the kind of arsenal that is available to the generally law-abiding, as well as those who thumb their nose at the common good, is striking. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported that there were 16,121 homicides in the U.S. in 2013. Of those murders, 11,208 (or, about 70%) were committed by someone using a gun. [4] Certainly, someone who has evil intent could have used another means to carry out murder, but the sheer availability of guns coupled with their greater lethality than other methods makes killing a more likely outcome of a dispute when a gun is present than, say, a Louisville Slugger.

Should people of faith own a gun? Like other issues of personal choice there may be a continuous debate on this matter since there may be a legitimate call to defend one’s life or the life of a loved one or nation. But the question here is whether keeping a personal means of lethal defense at the ready is an appropriate response to a fallen world. Living as Christ has taught us is not easy. Making peace with our neighbors, working to address economic inequalities that could lead members of our community to crime, and avoiding anti-social behaviors that are associated with illegal activity, all can greatly reduce the already remote chance that we would ever be in a life-or-death situation.  

What if a person of faith does end up in a situation where he or she is accosted, or has their home broken into? There would appear to be many other possible solutions to prevent the aggression. The person on the defensive could respond with their fists or feet, use a large or heavy object that could be within an arm’s reach, shout for assistance, or try to flee. If the one under duress even had a club or a knife to defend herself or himself the chances of a lethal outcome would be less than with a gun. The use of firearms for personal defense is a disproportionate response in all but extremely rare life or death situations, and those situations will probably never occur to most citizens whether they have a gun in arm’s reach or not. Since firearms are extremely unlikely to be required when other non-lethal means are at most persons’ disposal, gun ownership is unnecessary for most citizens, and, at the same time, ushers in the risk of an inappropriate use or an accident resulting in tragedy.

In 2000, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. The bishops noted “we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer -- especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner -- and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.”  [5] An important footnote that sheds some more direct light on the matter of guns in private hands states: “we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions -- i.e. police officers, military use -- handguns should be eliminated from our society.”

Contrary to the paranoid lone avenger action thrillers that have long been a staple of Hollywood, Tommaso Di Ruzza of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice has said that in “a democracy, where there is respect for institutions (of law), the citizen relinquishes his right to revenge onto the state.” [6] The vigilante or the one with a belief that he or she may need to deliver a deadly response at any given moment, appears out of touch with a social solidarity with others in which a stable society has functioning rule of law, police officers, and a court system that apprehends, investigates, and assigns punishment for wrongdoing. Contrary to the attribution by gun owners that an “armed society is a polite society,” widespread gun ownership may embolden aggressive reactions by some and blur the line about what constitutes feeling threatened. Di Ruzza asks: "do I still serve the common good with my gun or do I put it at even greater danger?" and promote a lawless kind of "street justice where if you steal my car, I shoot you."

Still, overall public support for making it more difficult to legally acquire a gun has actually appeared to waver (although probably spiking after whatever was the latest mass shooting when the question was posed) in the last quarter century. According to Gallup, 78% of Americans polled in 1990 thought that the laws governing the sale of firearms should be made stricter. Only a mere 2% thought they should be loosened. But by October of last year only 47% believed in stricter laws, 38% were satisfied with current guidelines, and 14% wanted less restrictions. [7]

The advocates of owning a firearm may be correct that communities that heavily restrict access to guns may not be any safer, and in the case of cities like Chicago and Washington are less safe. It appears, then, that for the foreseeable future, with the powerful lobby of gun owners, and national organizations like the National Rifle Association, guns will not be outlawed. Thus, it seems that the only way to reduce gun ownership is for more Americans to make an intentional choice to not own one and encourage their friends and family to do likewise. There have been a number of memorable issue-oriented campaigns built around an idea that took root and greatly multiplied through social media such as the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, or even the Ice Bucket Challenge. What if people who want more civility and less violence in any kind of dispute with other citizens said “I don’t want one, I don’t need one” in regard to guns or some type of similar sentiment. No doubt, much like the situation where students have taken sexual abstinence pledges and received ridicule or harassment from peers, it would be hard to protect someone’s anonymity and possible safety for publicly stating they choose not to own a firearm. But a campaign highlighting the intentional choice to not use the most dangerous form of personal defense would send a powerful message and faith witness to pursuing non-violent forms of conflict resolution. It would not impact anyone’s legal right to continue to own a gun, but it might get some Christians and adherents of other religions to think more critically about whether keeping a weapon is in spirit with the teachings of their faith.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.