True law is right reason in agreement with Nature. . . . It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, although neither have any effect upon the wicked. (Cicero)
Like many men I have an irrational love for weapons and explosives. Some of my fondest memories of the Army are either of firing something, setting off explosives, or watching other people fire weapons that I wished I was firing. There is a primal awe and delight from the thumping chest compression of a large explosion, or in gaping open-mouthed at the frozen orange rope hanging in the air from the tracers of a Vulcan 20 mm Gatling gun putting 100 rounds per second downrange. It is primal in that it stems from manhood itself, that portion of man’s nature oriented to a warrior ethos (which, granted, we must properly channel and sometimes subdue). I live squarely inside the mythology of the gun-crazy United States, at least as envisioned by the self-professed enlightened nations. Yet it is also true that many Americans believe that private ownership of weapons should be severely restricted or eliminated, especially with respect to handguns.
The reality of our country’s relationship to firearms is a complicated one, and is not something I will explore here. What I will ask are two hypothetical questions relating to gun ownership and the responsibilities of a Catholic to the State. First, is there a reasonable possibility in the foreseeable future that the Supreme Court will reverse itself on the extent to which the State can regulate or ban handguns? And assuming the affirmative and that the State in fact makes private handgun ownership illegal, what is the obligation of the American Catholic to obey that law? Would such a law rise to the level of injustice that allows a well-formed Catholic in good conscience to disobey the State?
Some people may think such a hypothetical Supreme Court decision to be so far afield from recent precedent that it is silly to consider. However, although American law operates under the principle of stare decisis (meaning prior decisions should be maintained) the Supreme Court is more than willing to overturn a precedent when it views that precedent as based on a deficient or antiquated view of social mores that have “evolved.” This can be a true and good thing, as when Plessy vs. Ferguson establishing “separate but equal” in 1896 was overturned by Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. More often though, the Supreme Court has followed the path of declining public virtue, as when they overturned their 1986 sodomy ruling in Bowers vs. Hardwick. In that case (Lawrence vs. Texas, 2003) they specifically noted that they were going against stare decisis. Note that it did not take them 58 years to reverse course as with Brown in 1954, but a mere 17 years.
As the Democratic Party in particular has more radically embraced the flawed economic and moral underpinnings of the modern socialist welfare state, they have also more radically embraced power politics, including the judiciary. This means not only ignoring the will of the people in some cases, it means ignoring institutional precedents if necessary to impose their vision. Hence we see that when the drastic overhaul of our national health care could not get the votes to pass, it was instead accomplished through a procedural move that is unworthy of Congress. We see an openly homosexual judge in California ruling on a gay-marriage proposition approved by voters who, instead of recusing himself, overturns the will of the people by declaring it unconstitutional. And we see a sitting President, when not engaged in his daily routine of demonizing his political adversaries and attempting to govern by executive order, assaulting religious liberty for an immoral cause. Politics has always been a dirty business, but recent liberal politics has abandoned all concern for precedents, decorum and consequences (and frankly, shame) in the interest of simple “victory.” Does anyone seriously believe that with a couple of more Justice Kagans or Sotomayors that the Court, despite the outcry, would hesitate to overturn District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), which itself was a 5-4 decision? And if that were to happen, could we presume that liberal politicians either nationally or locally would not attempt to severely restrict handgun ownership? This possibility today seems less far-fetched than it would have seemed 10 years ago to pose a hypothetical question of whether Catholics could be forced to provide free contraceptives and abortifacients under penalty of law. So yes, it seems entirely possible that the Court could overturn itself on this issue within the next 20 years.
If the banning of handguns is declared “constitutional” by the Court, there is no doubt that liberal majorities will see that handguns are banned in some cities or states, if not nationally. Would a handgun-owning Catholic who believes such a ban to be a foolish panacea for the nation’s ills be morally obligated to comply? Must I turn in to the State private property that I have owned for over 30 years?
We know that our duty to secular authorities is well established in both Scripture and in the teaching of the Church. 1 Pt 2:13-14 tell us to “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the approval of those who do good.” In Romans St. Paul tell us “Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.” More recently, Gaudium et Spes notes that “If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good…. It follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good—according to the juridical order legitimately established or due to be established. When authority is so exercised, citizens are bound in conscience to obey.”
Would an outright ban on private ownership of handguns be outside the limits of moral order and not directed toward the common good, and thus allow us to transgress the law with a clear conscience? Despite my dislike of some of the rhetoric employed for gun control, some of the specific legislation proposed (and some of the advocates themselves), I do believe most of the supporters are acting as they do for the sake of a common good; that of reducing gun violence. My prudential judgment on whether I believe legislation will accomplish its aim is not relevant to whether I have a moral obligation to obey it.
Gaudium et Spes further states “…where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.” Can we in fact establish “the limits drawn by natural law and the Gospels” on this issue? With respect to the former, “according to natural law legal theory, the authority of legal standards necessarily derives, at least in part, from considerations having to do with the moral merit of those standards” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
St. Thomas Aquinas’ view was that a human law is valid only to the extent that it conforms to the natural law. “Every human law has just so much of the nature of law as is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law (ST I-II, Q.95, A.II). William Blackstone describes it this way. “This law of nature…is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority…from this original.”
It is difficult to make the case that to outlaw private handgun ownership would be a violation of the natural law. There is a natural law right to defend ourselves and our property with force proportionate to the threat, and were all guns to be outlawed one could more reasonably contend that one’s ability to defend oneself had been unjustly limited. However, it is hard to argue that a load of buckshot or a slug from a 12 gauge could not equally stop an intruder. Regarding concealed carry laws, they are already more or less severely restricted State by State, very few people actually carry concealed weapons, and even then organizations have the right to refuse entry to individuals while carrying. Again, one could try to make an argument that the number of people exercising a right does not bear on its validity as a right, that current laws are already a violation of natural law, and that all people (with few exceptions) should be allowed to carry handguns everywhere, but it seems a difficult argument to carry. Even I do not believe that would serve the common good. Most people have neither the skill nor the coolness under pressure to use a gun safely when in danger. Guns are serious and lethal; that fact should not be forgotten in all the rallying cries about the Second Amendment.
It also seems relevant that the majority of people outside the United States find it perfectly natural to severely restrict or ban private handgun ownership. Although a majority opinion of mankind hardly qualifies as an automatic proof of a natural law principle (see “contraception”), yet it should give us pause, if we disagree, to reflect on why we are so certain we have the truth.
The second criterion for disobeying a handgun ban would be whether it is outside the “limits…drawn by the Gospels.” In this we should rely on the Church as our teacher to the extent possible (sentire cum ecclesia, thinking with the Church). Of course the Church has no teaching that handgun ownership itself is immoral, but that is not the question. The issue is whether it would consider the banning of handguns to be immoral, and thus an abuse of the legitimate authority of governments. The evidence is clear that the Church would not hold such a position, and if anything would welcome such legislation.
The clearest statement from the U.S. bishops on handguns is found in their document “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” from November 2000. “As bishops, 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…. However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions — i.e. police officers, military use — handguns should be eliminated from our society.” This is consistent with their previous 1990 pastoral letter which also called for the elimination of handguns.
At the Holy See, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in its 1994 document “The International Arms Trade,” calls on every nation and state “to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms. Limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.” Whatever we think of the prudence or practicality of our bishops’ too frequent statements on legislation and regulation, it is clear that from their writings that the Church would not view a handgun ban as “outside…the limits drawn by the Gospels.”
Therefore, the conditions to passively resist a hypothetical handgun ban by ignoring the law do not exist. Despite my personal feelings I conclude that if that authority were to be actually exercised in this matter, American Catholics would be “bound in conscience to obey.” I would be forced as a matter of conscience, however reluctantly, to turn in my handgun. Or move to the Czech Republic. Co si myslíte?