Gun zealots and the triumph of American liberalism

Gun zealots and the triumph of American liberalism April 22, 2013

I have lived in this country for almost twenty years . It is my home. And yet, even after so long, there are certain things that I cannot understand and will never be able to understand. Put the gun culture on the top of that list. Aquinas defined the law as an ordinance of reason for the common good, and it is simply reasonable that with so many deaths caused by guns, the authorities would step in to regulate the supply of these weapons. That’s now most other societies operate. But not so the United States.

Why is this? I think it is because of the strong strain of American liberalism, which prioritizes individual liberty over the common good. And the false God of liberty becomes incarnate in the gun.

I sometimes glance at the comments on the USCCB’s Facebook page. When it comes to guns, these comments frighten me. Nearly all comments oppose the Church position, many vehemently so. It is quite possible that these comments represent no more than a noisy minority, but they are still disturbing. I have seen two dominant flavors of the anti-gun control argument. First, without guns, the government will become tyrannical and snuff out freedom. Second, the Church recognizes a legitimate right to self-defense, so guns for all!

The first argument is loopy and dangerous. If you tell the citizens of Australia and the United Kingdom that they are victims of tyranny because governments tightened up gun laws and practically eliminated mass shootings, they will think you are insane! Suffice it to say, this is not how the Church sees the state. The Church regards the state as a natural and divine-ordained entity, resulting from the social nature of man. Its role is not so much a passive umpire of individual liberty, but an active promoter of the common good. As the Compendium puts it, “the common good is the reason that the political authority exists”.

The second argument is more cogent. The Church does indeed recognize a legitimate right to self defense. But mixed up in this argument is the same kind of hyper-liberalism that underpins the “protect me from state tyranny” position. For the Catholic Church does not see this right as absolute. As with many other equivalent rights – such as the right to private property, another paradigm of liberalism – it must always be subordinate to the common good. Looking at it from another angle, the Church departs from liberalism by tying rights specifically to duties – in this case, to the duty of protecting life and safety and laying down the essential preconditions for authentic human flourishing. You will not get that with 30,000 lives ended every year and whole communities destroyed by gun violence.

In putting Church teaching into practice, I think the position of Tommaso Di Ruzza – an expert with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – makes perfect sense. He argues that armed defense is appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.

Why is there so much confusion on this topic in the United States? It comes from culturally entrenched liberalism, which in turn stems from America’s peculiar history. It comes from a mindset that emphasizes individual rights, but divorces them from duties; that stresses freedom from coercion rather than freedom for excellence; and that sees people as primarily as autonomous individuals instead of relational persons with bonds of social responsibility toward one other. It harks back the non-coercive individualism of John Locke, or – even worse – to the dystopian worldview of his darker cousin, Thomas Hobbes. These are the core tenets of classical liberalism, and they exist in their most undiluted from in the United States, even if there is a weird bifurcation of liberalism of the left and liberalism of the right on the American stage. And with guns, this position comes with a certain comfort level with violence that I find utterly unacceptable.

A better worldview, informed by Catholic Social Teaching, would recognize that gun control is ultimately about the common good rather than any “erroneous affirmation of individual autonomy” even if that autonomy encompasses owning guns for self-defense. It would see society as a harmonious whole, rather than a collection of individuals defending their particular patch of turf. It would be horrified that basic social bonds are being cut through by the lack of trust and the cheapening of human life engendered by a casual culture of violence. It would prioritize protecting the weak, the poor, the most vulnerable from harm, and laying down the basic preconditions for people to live and flourish in peace and security.

It is, at the end of the day, about a culture of life. And those that claim otherwise come perilously close to making the same sort of flawed anthropological arguments as those who defend positions like abortion and sexual libertinism.

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  • That some kind of gun regulation is reasonable is pretty obvious, but the problem with the argument given here is that it leaves no room for customary law, and thus no room for national differences. This failure to consider customary law is, ironically, one of the standard effects of individualistic liberalism. Custom is capable of having the force of law, is capable of abolishing law, and is required for interpreting it. Thus it cannot ever be ignored when reflecting on the laws of a particular nation. And as long as customary law is not rigorously contrary, strictly contradicted, by natural law, and is regarded as for common good, it has force of law. The customary law of the U.S. treats gun rights as part of the shared common good itself. Now, one can hold that this is not the best custom, but unless one argues that it is simply inconsistent with natural law for citizens to have rights to bear arms, you can’t ignore the differences in customary law.

    Citizens of Australia and Britain have their own customary law, distinct from that of the U.S., and if the kinds of gun regulations available in Britain and Australia are not ‘tyranny’ or usurpation of power, the only thing this can mean is that they don’t violate natural law or the statutory law and customary law of those countries. Since customary law varies from nation to nation, it does not immediately follow that the same regulations would be equally OK in the U.S.: they are only not usurpations of power in the U.S. if they do not violate statutory and customary law. Both of these can be changed, of course, but only statutory law can be changed by government. Customary law, which is more fundamental, arises from the natural legislative powers of the people as caretakers of their own common good, and it can only be changed with their consent, i.e., by persuading them to change their customary ordering of their lives.

    So you really only have two options with respect to the first argument that you dismiss so lightly: argue rigorously that the position violates natural law, or recognize that it has a point and try to change the customary law by persuading your fellow citizens that they and everyone else benefit by changing the standing custom of the land. If you can’t do either of these things — either prove that the custom is simply unjust, and thus has no force of law, or change the custom by persuasion — then the argument is not “loopy and dangerous”; it is entirely right. As Aquinas says, “If the people are free and able to make their own laws, the consent of the whole people expressed by custom counts far more in favor of a particular observance than does the authority of the sovereign, who does not have the power to legislate except as representing the people.” Violations of longstanding and deeply rooted customary law, if consistent with natural law, are usurpations of power; only when the customary law changes does this problem go away.

    And this is true regardless of whether there are better customary laws: if several different possible customary laws are consistent with natural law, but some customary laws are superior to others in terms of common good, it doesn’t change anything. Customary law still has to be changed the way it always has to be changed, by persuading the people. And if they’re all consistent with natural law, this turns the question into one of casuistics, and it is rigorism or tutiorism to hold that only the best of positions consistent with natural law are morally acceptable.

    I think there are excellent arguments for better customs on this point. But people like you need to stop arguing on individualistic assumptions and start taking customary law into account in your arguments.

    • I take your point, but will you take mine?

      Too wit: I believe that the “customary laws” of one or two regions of the United States are anathema to one or two of the other regions. The present-day United States of America are too culturally divided to be able to cooperate with each other on this and on a wide variety of other issues. Your country has never been so culturally and ideologically at odds with itself in its history. I don’t think it even was so divided at the time of the American Civil War. The country is simply too big and possessed of too many traditions that repine against each other.

      • I don’t take your point, because it is not relevant; we aren’t talking ideologies or traditions but customary law. And this is not how customary law works at all. It is not ‘unanimity law’ nor is it ‘ideology law’ or ‘opinion law’ but actual custom, where this affects how laws and sanctions are understood and applied. The people can establish by custom rights and usages even things that they don’t agree with; and they do this by maintenance of precedent, by toleration (what kinds of appeals and arguments they let people get away), by acceptance of it as a legitimate alternative perspective, or even by negligence. If the regions you have in mind rise up in revolt against the rest on this issue, or if, every time the issue comes up in legislature or court, then you would have an argument. But they don’t. The custom regarding US gun rights is hardly challenged; the challenges fizzle out; people who argue supporting the custom are rarely shamed, and when so, only under very limited circumstances; even serious efforts to persuade people on the issue are sporadic and inconsistent.

        Contrast this with gay marriage, in which we see a real political movement taking on real customary law with real effect: the challenges are repeated and sustained; people who argue against it are shamed quite consistently; serious efforts to persuade people are continual. The customary law arrayed against gay marriage was originally quite impressive. This didn’t mean that everyone agreed with it: but it was the custom, it was recognized as being the custom, attacks on it were regarded as quixotic and perhaps hopeless quests even by people sympathetic to them, etc. What the gay marriage movement recognized was that if you move custom forcefully enough, it doesn’t matter what the statutory law or judicial precedent is, it doesn’t matter whether there are people who disagree with you, it doesn’t matter how divided people are on the issue: since nations cannot indefinitely suspend judgment, if at all, default goes to custom, no matter how divided the nation is in opinion. So they pressed that point — the result being now that the customary law is in a state of unsettled confusion, or is at least very close to it, making possible significant changes that would have once been regarded as virtually impossible even by people who are sympathetic to them.

        So, again, it is a mistake to conflate customary law with opinion, ideology, or traditions (although any of these can influence it). It is even in principle possible for the customs of a nation to go heavily contrary to what the general population believes, if the belief doesn’t motivate significant change in action, interpretation, public sanction, etc.

        • trellis smith

          Gay marriage proponents did not have to contend with the vested interests of the gun manufacturers for which the NRA is primarily a front group and industrial lobby. The lobby impedes the wishes of most of its “members” as well as the vast amount of gun owners it doesn’t represent who support gun controls and background checks. Furthermore despite the panic buying induced by the NRA tactics to increase its sales, the long term trends show a remarkable and continuing decrease in gun ownership. The number of American households that own guns declined from almost 50 percent in 1973 to just over 32 percent in 2010. I am not sure how low in esteem the Congress can be held to merit your conception of public shaming but I believe you have underestimated the change in customary law that is actually taking place on this issue.

        • I’m afraid that you will only find out how wrong you are when the new alteration of “custom” attempts to impose itself on the Bible Belt of the American South.

  • Julia Smucker

    Here is an incisive editorial making a similar, though broader, observation. “Competitive individualism, insecurity, neoliberalism: the triad undergirding our penchant for violence.”

    The author goes on to describe the creative challenge of nonviolent alternatives. Amazing.

  • Kerberos

    “If you tell the citizens of Australia and the United Kingdom that they are victims of tyranny because governments tightened up gun laws and practically eliminated mass shootings, they will think you are insane!”

    ## To this “Brit”, that is very much how it looks. OTOH, maybe those of us not from the USA are not good judges of a culture foreign to us. What is very hard to understand, is the strength and vehemence of the frequently expressed distaste for strong central government, and the fears that a gunless citizenry will be at the mercy of government. Why the suspicion ? Is a short answer possible ?

    • Brian Martin

      Short answer…it is our heritage..the birth of our nation. We were formed in part as a response to the British government that was seen as a tyranny. A reading of different founding father’s writing makes clear that they felt an armed populace was needed to prevent tyranny. History also shows that dictatorships do not allow public ownership of firearms. Strong central governments have also used gun registration as a way to then seize previously lawfully owned firearms.
      Mornings minion states “I think the position of Tommaso Di Ruzza – an expert with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – makes perfect sense. He argues that armed defense is appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.”
      Please define effective. Is it effective when the response time of police is several minutes? How about in rural areas? I grew up in a small community that was dependent upon the county sheriff’s dept. for law enforcement. Response time could be up to a half hour or more.
      The reality is that the rule of law is not proactive, it does not defend anyone. It is proactive…after someone breaks the law, law enforcement officials react…And, as is clearly documented within these United States, the neighborhood you live in or the color of your skin may well determine the type of response one gets. My argument is not against any form of gun control, it is simply very easy to say that individual gun ownership is unnecessary, but that does not necessarily take into account real life. Had I been in Boston, locked in my house, not knowing if some lunatic was going to come in, i would have welcomed any kind of firearm i could lay my hands on, and pray that i wouldn’t have to use it

      • Paul DuBois

        And history shows you would have been more likely to use that gun to shoot someone you know or love than to shoot and unwelcome intruder. We pretend that our desire to protect ourselves without bound has no cost or consequence. It is not a case of individual gun ownership has no cost, it does. The best indicator of whether or not a US citizen will commit suicide is if there is a gun in their house, yet we just passed a healthcare law that made it illegal to for a doctor ask a patient if there is a gun in their house. The sad fact is most of us will never pay the cost of gun ownership. The suicide and murder rates only affect a small number of us, but they are the result of rampant gun ownership mixed with a culture of I will kill to protect anything that is mine.

        • “And history shows you would have been more likely to use that gun to shoot someone you know or love than to shoot and unwelcome intruder.”

          Well, no. Statistics shows that’s true for people in general, demographically speaking. But broad demographic realities say very little at all about the individual or his likelihood, which can only be judged by the individual really. Now, the statistics show that a lot of individuals have bad judgment in this regard. But we don’t prohibit alcohol just because some people abuse it, because plenty of us as individuals are moderate, and know we can be moderate, and shouldn’t be “punished” for the crimes of “people in general considered statistically.”

        • Brian Martin

          “The best indicator of whether or not a US citizen will commit suicide is if there is a gun in their house” No, it’s the best indicator of whether or not a US Citizen is suicidal will successfully complete the suicide..I believe it’s followed by being a “white male” or a “Native American (of either Gender”. By your logic, and by your twisting of the statistic, we would greatly reduce suicides by eliminating guns, white males and Native Americans. It is not logical to apply elimination to one item on a list and not to others. But then, just like the fact that the majority of “White Males” and “Native Americans” will never commit suicide, likewise the vast majority of firearms will not be used to commit suicide. Perhaps you can tell me where it is in law that forbids doctors from asking a suicidal individual if they have a firearm in the house, or whatever other instrument of destruction they are talking about using. As a mental health professional (Clinical Social Worker working as an outpatient therapist in a community mental health center) it is routine to ask about risk factors when trying to determine risk.

        • Jimmy Mac

          Thank you!

        • Paul DuBois

          Sinner, that goes with over 80% of people thinking they are better than average drivers. We all like to believe statistics do not apply to us, they do. Policemen go through many hours of training on when to shoot and when not to shoot. They are clearly better trained and able to handle weapons than the vast majority of the rest of us. Even with this, they occasionally shoot the wrong person and even young children who simple wake up on the couch while their house is being entered by a swat team (they had the wrong appt. and she died). We all like to believe we are above average and better trained/capable/wise and exercise better judgement than others. Most data shows otherwise.

          Brian, I believe commit suicide implies you are successful otherwise you would have attempted suicide. We cannot control if someone is a white male or Native American, but we can control the access someone has to a gun. To compare the two is a little silly.

          I would never recommend collecting everyone’s guns and melting them down. I would recommend discussing control in a manner that limits access to those who should not have it. I do not know where in the healthcare law it states that, and maybe it is one of the rumors spread around about the law with no fact to support it. I will check further on that and get back to you.

      • Doc Fox

        Factually speaking, I fear I see some doubtless good faith errors in what you say. The context of the 2nd Amendment was not fear of government so much as a desire that the populace be in a position of knowledge of and familiarity with weapons to defend the nation from enemies domestic and foreign. The Bill of Rights found its birth in the context first of the Constitutional Convention desiring to assure the several reluctant states of its good will, and secondly of the Whiskey Rebellion which was being resisted by mobilized state militias. There was no federal army at the time.

        As for the behavior of dictatorships, Nazi Germany, Fascist Spain, and Italy did not seize private weapons, except in the context of arrests as is done today most everywhere. I am not familiar with current events in China in that regard. Many governments, dictatorship or not, regulate the kind and character of weapons which may be kept privately. Hunting in Germany is commonly with shotguns, for example. Switzerland on the other hand requires its armed forces militia to keep a service rifle at home.

  • “He argues that armed defense is appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.”

    What is an “effective” “rule of law”? If by “effective” you mean that the police have a legal obligation to protect the individual then there might be some point, but in fact by law in the United States the police have no legal obligation to provide individual protection. People have sued police departments and failed.

    If you think about it the only way the police could remotely promise to provide individual protection would be in police state where the number of police was quite enormous. But in fact we cannot afford that, and even if we could, I doubt we would much care for it if we could.

    No, individual protection is both an individual _right_ and an individual _responsibility_.

    In fact individuals do defend themselves from criminal aggression in the U.S. anywhere from from 100,000 to 2,500,000 times a year (depending on who’s research you believe). The number of lives saved far outweighs lives lost. In the vast majority of case no shot is ever fired. The aggressor discovers the victim is armed and leaves the area to search for easier prey.

    Therefore by logic the primary purpose of firearms in private hands in the U.S. is to save lives, not take them, and clearly they are used for that purpose.


  • “In putting Church teaching into practice, I think the position of Tommaso Di Ruzza – an expert with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – makes perfect sense. He argues that armed defense is appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.”

    Courts in the United States have held that the police are not obligated to protect individual citizens.

    Read the Warren v. District of Columbia decision.

    • Jordan

      re:homeguntraining [April 23, 2013 1:25 am]:

      Your statement has committed a logical fallacy in light of Tommaso Di Ruzza’s statements. Here’s a better argument in support of your intended goal.

      Morning’s Minion paraphrases Mr Di Ruzza as saying: “He argues that armed defense is appropriate for nations, not for individuals in states where the rule of law is effective.”

      You are entirely correct that there is no constitutional right to law enforcement protection.

      Nevertheless, the rule of law in the United States is not entirely contingent on whether or not law enforcement is obliged to protect citizens. Federal, state, and local governments have nominally effective civil and criminal courts. Laws, such as criminal codes enforced by freely elected officials, are essential components of a rule-of-law state. We do not live in Indonesia, for example, where the military is the police and courts.

      A better argument against Mr. Di Ruzza would read, “The United States is a nominally rule-of-law nation. The rule of law is nominally effective, but not absolutely effective (is any state, even the least corrupt, fully able to protect all of its citizens?). However, no American has an absolute constitutional right to protection by law enforcement. So, in most respects the United States is effectively rule-of-law. The rule of law is ineffective or inadequate with regard to personal protection from assault or theft, but not entirely negated by one instance where a constitutional right does not exist.”

      When arguing for unrestricted or nearly unrestricted access to firearms, gun rights’ advocates must make very accurate and logical arguments to prove their case. Otherwise, the credibility of 2A advocates diminishes.

  • Austin Ruse

    Hey Minion…long time no speak or eat……anyway, I am glad you used the phrase “Church’s position” because there certainly isnt a “teaching” that the US Second Amendment is wrong. Positions are a thing entirely different than teachings. However, you are way smarter than me, i say this without snark or irony, and I suspect you will show me a dozen ways on how I am wrong!

    You know, even European conservatives are flummoxed by our guns…

    • It’s good to hear from you again, Austin – it’s been a long time!

  • Ronald King

    Let’s face it, we are a violent culture. Our cultural tradition emphasizes that we must compete to prove our worth throughout our lives resulting in a never ending sense of hunger for more and more of whatever will fill that sense of not having enough. It begins with the child who must become independent of the parent as soon as possible and must develop an identity and worldview consistent with the demands of the parent. The needs of the parent come first and the child becomes repressed and is unknown and isolated. What we attain in that process is the result of a fear-based motivation and is part of our identity which must be protected from any possible threat either internally or externally. This is the foundation of our interpersonal fear and violence which results in an unhealthy individualism where reactivity replaces empathy for self and others.

  • As a prudential matter, I’m actually entirely in favor of robust gun control and regulation.

    However, I’m willing to recognize that that’s all it is.

    What you say about principles and your analysis of the philosophical-political dynamics and values behind the various sides in the US debate I think is all true…but, in truth, that doesn’t translate into requiring any particular opinion on concrete policy.

    The attempt of the Catholic “Left” to accuse people who, say, disagreed about the Iraq War or minimum wage or immigration reform or gun control of dissent against social teaching and stuff…ultimately falls flat. All of these things are prudential questions of concrete application. You may suspect that these people actually do hold the wrong values or paradigm, and maybe they do, maybe there is evidence for that. But mere disagreement with you on the concrete specifics cannot, in itself, be taken as proof of such dissent. There could be no debate on what solution constitutes the best concrete application of the Catholic principles/values…if a given proposed solution is considered a priori a proof of dissent on these values.

    Now, I’ll admit the Right does this too. For example, I think there is a difference between recognizing the humanity of the unborn and the murderousness of abortion…and believing criminalization is the best way to stop it. Though I personally am for at least SOME degree of criminalization (especially post-viability), I would recognize that the philosophical/moral/ethical question, and the POLITICAL question…are two different things, and that it could be a valid belief that criminalization is actually a less-effective use of the State’s limited resources when it comes to actually stopping abortions and protecting the unborn.

    But the same is true for all these other questions too. There is no Catholic teaching that demands any particular gun control policy. You may feel that your preferred model is the best application of the broader Catholic social values in our context. I might agree with you. But the valid way to argue this is to argue it on its own merits only. That is to say, to argue with people on the level of practicalities that your solution is more effective than theirs and more in line with Catholic values and notions of the common good etc.

    What is NOT valid, however, without some pretty serious evidence, is to make the leap that since they disagree with what you think is the best (even “obvious”) concrete application of the abstract principles…that they “must” then be rejecting the principles themselves, rather than simply disagreeing that your application is the best one.

    • You may be right, Sinner, about the APPLICATION of Catholic moral teachings; however, what is NOT permissible is to shrug them off, and say that, because the APPLICATION is not defined, we may stop considering those teachings altogether in forming our consciences. That, in fact, is where your conclusion leads most people–particularly those on the Right. Unlike you, they take it one step further, and say, “Because there is no way to define an appropriate application, we can stop paying attention to those teachings altogether, because we–unlike those ‘pointy-headed’ theologians–have to live in the ‘real world.'”

      • Maybe. Certainly it is fair game to bring up the principles if they do not seem to be making their prudential judgment about application in light of Catholic principles, if their justification for their practical proposal seems to be situated in a radically different paradigm or set of values. BUT, what I would say, is that I don’t think it’s fair to ASSUME that their decision wasn’t made in light of the principles just because they’re reaching a conclusion so far from what we think is the “obvious” one. We have to give the benefit of the doubt and assume, however hard it is for us to square it, that their different proposal for application is, in fact, still being made, in their minds, with reference to Catholic values and principles, unless we have good reason to think otherwise (but, again, the “good reason to think otherwise” cannot be their practical proposal in itself and its divergence from our own).

        For example, for some people, minimum wage laws are “obviously” good Catholic Social Teaching in practice. Others, however, look and say, “It’s unclear how this effects the economy at all, and whether it may just cause some people to lose their jobs entirely, or cause prices to rise in such a way that the higher wage doesn’t actually ‘do’ anything.” In fact, one of my favorite cartoons from a VERY Catholic economic school makes this very point:–Donkey.gif

        You can’t say, “If you don’t support minimum wage, you obviously aren’t using Catholic Social Teachings to guide your decisions,” and you can’t say “If you support looser gun laws, you can’t possibly be using Catholic values to reach that conclusion.” No, you would need INDEPENDENT evidence of that. Their position in itself cannot be taken as evidence that they didn’t use Catholic values to arrive at their position!

    • trellis smith

      I agree that Church teachings are the point of departure but I remain skeptical that such a natural law argumentation is fruitful. The classical dichotomy wherein autonomous individual rights seems necessarily in opposition to the common good is false. Often the advancement of a perceived common good is poisonous to the individual and in many ways the common good arises from the exercise of individual autonomy. Once you get in the grip of NL reasoning you cannot escape its condemnations of the most natural things being against nature law.
      You may however have the ear of the more conservative normally opposed to gun control laws and ironically the Enlightenment

  • “Put the gun culture on the top of that list. Aquinas defined the law as an ordinance of reason for the common good, and it is simply reasonable that with so many deaths caused by guns, the authorities would step in to regulate the supply of these weapons. That’s now most other societies operate. But not so the United States.”

    But the the government DOES “regulate the supply of these weapons”. Are you seriously contending that it doesn’t? Maybe you meant something more specific than what you actually expressed. It sounds like a general statement that the government takes a totally hands-off approach to the distribution of firearms, which is clearly false.

  • Agellius

    “Put the gun culture on the top of that list. Aquinas defined the law as an ordinance of reason for the common good, and it is simply reasonable that with so many deaths caused by guns, the authorities would step in to regulate the supply of these weapons. That’s now most other societies operate. But not so the United States.”

    But the the government DOES “regulate the supply of these weapons”. Are you seriously contending that it doesn’t? Maybe you meant something more specific than what you actually expressed. It sounds like a general statement that the government takes a totally hands-off approach to the distribution of firearms, which is clearly false.

    This reminds me of discussions about government-provided welfare benefits: Pretty much everyone accepts that the government does and will continue to provide welfare (by which I include education assistance, food stamps, healthcare benefits, etc.), it’s just a question of where to draw the line between none whatsoever and complete government support for everyone with no strings attached.

    The same goes for guns: No one (well, maybe a tiny minority) is arguing for totally unhindered ownership and distribution of any and all types of guns to any and everyone. I would hope that where exactly to draw the line is a matter of prudential judgment on which honest citizens can disagree in good conscience.

  • On the matter of customary law:

    Yes, this is a good point to raise. I’m a believer in customary law, which is one reason why I’m skeptical of written comstitutions, especially in the context of Scalia-like “sola scriptura constitutionalism”.

    But custom or not, law must always be geared toward the common good and this standard changes from age to age. Consider the analogy of the death penalty. The death penalty was a big art of customary law on most premodern societies. One could probably even defend it within these contexts. But today, we know that circumstances in which the death penalty remains valid are “rare if not non-existent”.

    The same applies to gun laws. Perhaps in early US history, widespread ownership of firearms could be defended. But not today, given the nature of society and the nature of modern firearms. To say a private citizen has the right to own an assault weapon is akin to saying he or she has the right to own a grenade or a tank – it is simply unreasonable.

  • Jordan

    MM: A better worldview, informed by Catholic Social Teaching, would recognize that gun control is ultimately about the common good rather than any “erroneous affirmation of individual autonomy” even if that autonomy encompasses owning guns for self-defense. It would see society as a harmonious whole, rather than a collection of individuals defending their particular patch of turf.

    Here’s my marxist remix on your question (shout-out to El Pelon)

    Many bourgeois persons fight injustice with the pen and the voting booth. Many proletarian persons collect guns as security, because they are utterly disenfranchised by bourgeois standards (low wage, poor working conditions, no work autonomy). A gun represents for some the ultimate enfranchisement as even the poorest person can a take a life. In a greater sense, the gun provides a false and perverse sense of human dignity.

    Read Joe Bagenant to understand the way in which the American working poor are exploited by employers, bankrupted by the company town, and held back from educational opportunities since the children of these families never have a fair start compared to their middle and upper-middle contemporaries.

    CST includes the empowerment of disadvantaged persons, including the materially and financially poor, through campaigning for fair living wages, unionization, and dignified working conditions. Gun culture is extensively entrenched in American culture, partly because of the marked bipolarization of American social status. I don’t see a way to substantially ban assault rifles, given the GOP/NRA firewall against any progress in substantial gun control. Rather, Catholics should focus on lifting people out of their existential despair. Perhaps then those who hold onto guns as a false enfranchisement will lay down their arms when offered a life with greater dignity.

    • Amen, Jordan, amen!

      And this is exatly what the feckless Obama was trying–poorly–to say when he talked about people clinging to their “guns and Bibles” when faced with economic deprivation.

  • A country’s whose laws are enforced by guns (i.e., the threat of bloodshed), isn’t ready to beat their guns into plowshares. An armed government is far more dangerous than an armed populace.

  • It would seem that if two parties cannot come to a conclusion on a question that is satisfactory to both sides, it then follows that either one, or both, parties in the disputation are being disingenuous in their debating, or that the original question was invalid to begin with.

    • ?!?!?

      Well THAT’S certainly a recipe for stopping all dialogue.

      I don’t think it’s true, however. I’m inclined to agree with Leszek Kołakowski’s Law of the Infinite Cornucopia which “asserts that, for any given doctrine one wants to believe, there is never a shortage of [valid] arguments by which one can support it.”

      That two people cannot agree does not imply one or both parties is disingenuous or that the question is invalid, merely that Truth is not closed under Reason (to use the mathematical analogy).

      • trellis smith

        Half the fun of argumentation is pointing out the invalidity of the position, the fallacy of the logic and the disingenuousness of the opposing party to the point that arriving at the truth is the last thing we would want to do as that would end all argument and all the fun.

  • Doc Fox

    “Liberalism” to me means something quite different from “Libertarianism” or “AynRandIsm’ . It is the second two that you address, not the first. But then we may be talking cross-Atlantic.

  • Aric

    I have no idea where I stand on this issue for a few simple reasons:

    1) The Catholic social position, I believe, is fairly straight forward. We are not called to violence; we face our enemies with love. But there is a sense in which we are also called to defend our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Indeed, the very idea of a “just war” is predicated on such a ethos of self-defense.

    2) My friends who are not gun-control advocates (a weird term, because they are certainly for gun-control with weapons like assault rifles, sniper rifles etc—weapons that already have strict governmental control) are not against it because they are afraid of the government “enslaving the people” or whatever, but because they seek this legitimate outlet for self-defense.

    3) Depending on which side I talk to, both usually come at me with a slew of competing articles they found somewhere on the internet proving that their method leads to less death and less violence. From the left I’ve read articles citing studies that show regions with less guns have less violence, period. From the right I’ve read articles refuting those articles proving that when the general populace is armed there is less violence, period. But BOTH sides want and desire less violence. That’s why I’m frustrated at those who cast one side or the other as “insensitive” or “war-mongering” or “hippies.” The truth is that both sides want to see peace, but nobody really knows how best to achieve it. Those who think the answer is “obvious” or “straight forward” usually have done little to no actual research on the subject and seem to be more ideologically and/or emotionally driven than those who seek a nuanced solution.

    4) From what I understand, there are something like 350 million guns already in circulation in America alone. I don’t think one can easily dismiss the argument that runs: “A government attempt to “take away all the guns” is a simplistic and futile endeavor only resulting in the flourishing of a crime network of gun-traffickers (the “drug war” is a great example of this.)” For the life of me, I don’t know how this argument is scoffed at by those opposed to gun-ownership. Has the government cracking down on drugs like marijuana or heroin kept those who want to use it from using it? In fact, just the opposite: It has created a flourishing non-governmental industry.

    Finally, I carry with me my own personal bias. I do not want people to have guns. I don’t want to have a gun. They scare me (I am a coward). They are tools of death. Besides, Jesus calls us to engage the culture with love and kindness, with charity and peace. Gun-ownership seems like a cheap way to try and enforce justice without the hard work of charity. And yet for all this, I know and handful loving, hard-working men who own guns AND engage the culture with works of charity and peace. They own guns because they love their family and want to protect them; the gun-control issue is not, in their opinion, a zero-sum game.

    • Jordan

      Aric [April 27, 2013 2:21 pm]: Gun-ownership seems like a cheap way to try and enforce justice without the hard work of charity.

      You write “indeed, the very idea of a ‘just war’ is predicated on such a ethos of self-defense.” Just as abortion can never be presented as moral even if this action appears to be the only solution at the moment, so the concepts of just war and self-defense cannot evade moral scrutiny because either concept is morally justified under very limited conditions. War is only just if a nation acts to protect itself from immediate and unavoidable aggressor. Similarly, self-defense with a firearm must be predicated on an immediate and mortal threat to the self. Protection of the car in the garage is not a moral reason to shoot a thief (“castle laws” are, in my opinion, often not moral for this reason).

      The superabundant love of Christ does not however obviate moral nuance. Equivocation about the morality of self-defense with firearms might contribute to the feedback loop that any gun ownership and use replaces conscientious morality. Justice is charitable only with moral forethought. Justice is not charitable when mercy is presumed despite forethought.