Commentary by Fr. Gerald Coleman, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Pastoral Ministries at Santa Clara University.
In a landmark and historic statement on nuclear arms on November 10, 2017, Pope Francis categorically condemned not only “the threat of their use,” but also “their very possession.” He told participants at a Vatican symposium on disarmament that “international relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation and the parading of stockpiles of arms.”
Pope Benedict XVI also recognized the great risk nuclear weapons posed to humanity and called for an effective demilitarization. However, there is no movement among those who possess nuclear arms toward negotiating their elimination. On the contrary, significant new investments are being made in their modernization. The possession of nuclear weapons has become a sign of power which creates a climate of instability and conflict making a world without nuclear arms increasingly remote.
The entire landscape is frightening and shameful.
On Ash Wednesday of this year, a horrible tragedy occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people were killed. On the following day, an 11-year-old girl was arrested for writing a threatening and vulgar letter saying she was going to “shoot up” her Florida Middle School.
Granted that nuclear weapons and guns are on a different level of ferocity and destructive potential, it is time to stop dancing around the issue of gun violence by misrepresenting what the real problem is. Now is the appointed time for Congress to pass stringent laws regarding the very possession of guns.
Mental health is not what makes America uniquely vulnerable to gun violence. Research has demonstrated that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of gun violence. The mentally ill should not bear the burden of being regarded as the chief perpetrators of mass murder.
The real problem is guns, specifically America’s extraordinary stockpile of firearms. The U.S. has the highest number of guns in the world. This is the core problem, pure and simple.
Research compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center has found that after controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crimes, places with more guns have more gun deaths. More guns in a community lead to more homicides, suicides, domestic violence, and violence against police (in the past 10 years, more than 90% of police deaths resulted from assaults involving firearms). America has more lethal violence than other developed countries, and this fact is driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
Guns are not the only contributor to violence (other factors include poverty, urbanization, alcohol consumption), but over and over again researchers have found that America’s high levels of gun ownership is a major reason why there is such a high level of violence in the U.S.
We must demand universal background checks for those wanting to purchase guns, make licensing requirements more stringent, place outright bans on certain types of firearms such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and other types of assault weapons, establish a registry for all guns owned in the country, require a permit for all firearm purchases, curtail gun trafficking, and wage campaigns against all film producers who glorify violent action and the dehumanization of persons.
America has become resistant to doing anything about this issue because some feel “powerful” by owning a gun, and the decades-long public campaign by the National Rifle Association to convince the U.S. public and politicians that bearing arms and having more guns actually make people safer. This assertion is contrary to everything research demonstrates.
Our country has become mired in a culture of violence as a way of solving problems nationally and internationally. Parading U.S. weaponry on the streets of the nation’s capital only exasperates this culture.
A Douglas High School student tweeted the day after the Florida massacre, “Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will prevent it from happening again.”
We must not let seventeen deaths be in vain. We must work and pray for sensible and fruitful discussion that leads to gun reform.