Gun zealots and the triumph of American liberalism
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.