In the wake of the recent murders of children in Connecticut the national media, and pretty much everywhere else, has been awash in heated, emotional debate about guns, violence, and how to respond to such acts of senseless evil. The problem of evil never has any easy answers and accepting that God permits the murder of innocents is no easy feat. Both sides in the gun control debate have made some rather heated arguments in their cause. Both sides seem to think that their own vision of the Constitution vindicates them (while at the same time showing the value of dead languages when it comes to creating documents that can be consistently interpreted through the centuries).
Guns are tools and thus have no intrinsic moral value; so the moral issues must come from their use. I will admit that it is very hard to separate the images of immoral acts done with guns from the guns themselves. However, if we seek the truth of the issue, we must try to move beyond the images that first come to mind and grip us so deeply. This article will try and avoid being bogged down in questions of this versus that gun or of how some people use guns in evil ways. What I would like to examine is the question of the source and nature of the right to self-defense. Most arguments in favor of guns revolve around our Federal and state constitutions. But who cares about them, upon what authority do they rest? What does the Church teach? Following Aquinas, the Catechism makes it clear that self-defense is not an exception to the prohibition of murder in the Decalogue (CCC 2263-4). By our nature as human persons, we have a legitimate right to “insist on respect for one’s own right to life" (CCC 2264).
Aquinas devotes a question in the Summa Theologiae to self-defense and concludes that indeed it is legitimate and argues for the principle of double effect (ST II-II, 64, 7). In the case of self-defense one act is intended, the preservation of one’s life, and as a result an unintended consequence may follow, the death of the attacker. Thus to be morally licit, one cannot plan out the killing of another, or set him up in such a way as to force a lethal “defense” against the attacker. Aquinas continues by saying that we must also refrain from using excessive force.
Can guns ever be proportionate force? After all they are highly effective at shooting bullets which are good at killing. Obviously the answer is an affirmative. St. Gabriel Possenti used a gun snatched from a would-be marauder to demonstrate his marksmanship by shooting a lizard, thus scaring the men off. At times a simple shout for help or brandishing a gun is enough to satisfy the defense of a person. If the person then shoots the now nullified attacker, this is murder. However, in many cases one may not have the liberty to do anything other than shoot. Again, we return to the arguments of the Catechism and of Aquinas; we have a right to preserve our own life from an immediate and unjust threat using means which will remove that threat. Thus, it is clear that Aquinas’s arguments do indeed apply to the use of firearms. To say that one may not use firearms because bullet wounds are a disproportionate response to someone who is not shooting at you misses the point entirely. A person who in good faith perceives that he or she is in threat of death or severe bodily harm may use lethal force to preserve his or her self. Since guns are a great equalizer between victim and attacker, they are an ideal tool to use in such a situation. Even if, say, a man armed (apparently) only with a knife was coming for a woman, it would be silly to propose that she acted immorally by shooting him. One does not have to submit to a knife fight, or gamble with the outcome of a brawl with a thug, in order to meet the standards of moral uprightness.
Of course speaking for the defense of ourselves, we are not bound to always insist on this right. As the examples of the martyrs show, there is supreme merit in giving up one’s life. If a person who is in a state of grace is confronted with a would-be murderer, then sacrificing one’s life in order to give the attacker the benefit of not meeting judgment with such an unprepared soul is an extremely holy act. The Catechism also states that such witness is indeed meritorious (CCC 2306). The Compendium of Social Doctrine follows the Catechism and Pope John Paul II in saying that “The contemporary world too needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule" (Compendium of Social Doctrine, 496). Dorothy Day is perhaps one of the best known examples of contemporary Americans who held a view of pacifism that extended to being willing to give her own life rather than to defend herself against an attacker. She herself expressed in her own writings, particularly in her diary, her own misgivings about being able to make such a sacrifice. God never gave her the chance to make a final test of her desire. She also held to another key principle cited in CCC 2306, that of not forcing others to give up their own legitimate rights.
Where defense moves from a right, which may be foregone, to a duty is also discussed briefly in the Catechism under paragraph 2265: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.” The remainder of the paragraph talks about how this extends to legitimate governments in the defense of the common good of the societies under them. The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia provides an entry on self-defense that follows the argument of the Catechism.
[S]ince each person has the right to defend his life unjustly attacked, what he can lawfully do through his own efforts he may also do through the agency of others. Sometimes, too, charity, natural affection, or official duty imposed the obligation of defending others. A father ought, for example, to defend the lives of his children; a husband, his wife; and all ought to defend the life of one whose death would be a serious loss to the community. Soldiers, policemen, and private guards hired for that purpose are bound in justice to safeguard the lives of those entrusted to them.
It seems clear from these sources that there is something more than a simple right at stake when those with a protective role are involved. The same discussion of double effect and proportionate force applies in these cases of duty just as it does with cases of an individual’s right. For, if self-defense is licit in one case, then it is licit in the other in the same manner and for the same reasons. The only difference here is that, unlike in the individual case, we sometimes owe something to others. We certainly owe far more to our wife or children than we do to an attacker, even if it means possible damnation for him. We cannot turn our backs on our own vocations, regardless of circumstances.
In these cases, where we have not simply a right, but a duty to defend ourselves and others, there is indeed a very high level of respect required. It is a sacred duty of spouses and of parents, first of all. This duty derives from God, for it is He who calls us to these states in life. Thus, the government must respect it as it must respect a parent’s right to educate children and raise them in the faith or to respect the sanctity of marriage and the marriage act. It is simply not something which we may dispense with, and certainly not something that the government can compel us justly to dispense with.
Is it any surprise that by and large the politicians calling for the ban of certain guns are the same ones who spend such efforts enshrining abortion as our national sacrament and otherwise seeking to undermine the family? Those who seek first the Kingdom of Caesar despise the family because the family does not owe them a total allegiance (since the family is prior to the state). The family is a threat to their power. Self-defense, because it to derives from a source outside the State, poses the exact same threat. It also frees us from being totally dependent upon them for our safety. Cops and soldiers have saved lives and do good daily, but they do not have a duty to protect my family directly. I do as husband and father. That is a duty that the State cannot claim a right to usurp. It is not in their area of competency.
Yet, that is exactly what is being suggested in the name of ending gun violence today. These calls have nothing seriously to do with protecting children in schools. The recent attack just provides a crisis to take advantage of in order to advance the party line. We have numerous just laws involving guns on the books. Of the hundreds of people killed by guns each year, almost all are killed by people who committed some crime to obtain that gun, and most of them are committing crimes by possessing them or carrying them. Felons cannot carry guns, period. Those who do, especially those who obtain their guns illegally should do hard time. There are sensible solutions to our culture of death and the spill over in gun violence, but good ends never justify unjust means.
So, dear reader, if you have borne with me thus far, I ask you, no matter if you are an unarmed prophet or Paul Revere, to think seriously about this debate. The government has no right to deprive us of our ability to defend ourselves and those in our care (regardless of our own choice to make use of that right). What your own situation is may change from day to day and is between you, your spiritual director, and God, ultimately. But, to support the government in this quest to further undermine the rights of the family is a terrible position to take.
No one worthy of the name Christian ever desires to have to use lethal force, but we live in a fallen world and must have recourse to effective means of defense. Right now, that means guns, even those which may make some folks uncomfortable. Discomfort is easy to overcome; find a friend with a gun and go shooting some afternoon, and reflect on the nature of legitimate defense.