Teens, Guns, and Walkouts

Tony Phillips's picture

Yesterday teens all over the country, and many in St. Louis, walked out of school for 17 minutes to honor the 17 students who died in the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida last month. In addition to honoring their fallen peers, they also were calling for stricter gun control. Next Saturday, March 24th, there will be a “March for Our Lives” in downtown St. Louis, ending at the Arch, with the same goal.

As you talk with your teens over the coming days, weeks, and months, you might find yourself confused about what to say, how to support them, and what the Church teaches on this very divisive topic. Hopefully this will help.

What the Church Teaches on Gun Control

This topic isn’t like abortion or similar contentious political issues in which the Church’s stance is clear and fairly universally understood by Catholics. Many of the families we serve may not agree with Church teaching on those topics, but at least they know what the Church teaches. But when it comes to gun control, most don’t even realize that there are some pretty clear statements from the magisterium on the issue.

So what does the Church say? In regard to gun laws the USCCB has made several statements, a few of which are linked below. They all pretty much say the same things. The bishops have called for a total ban on assault weapons, universal nationwide background checks, limits on high capacity magazines, limitations on the purchase of handguns, a federal law criminalizing gun trafficking, and requirements for locks that prevent children and others from using guns without supervision.

The Bishops Conference recognizes the right of self-defense for the sake of one’s own safety, and is not calling for a complete ban on privately own firearms, but it is clear that limits should be imposed. It should also be noted here that this is not a teaching on faith and morals, and it is not a binding teaching of the church that all Catholics must promote these policies. However, it is pretty clear the direction the Bishops are leading us.

Not Just a Gun Issue

Throughout the statements that follow these tragic events, the Bishops without fail will state changes in gun policy alone will not curb the violence that fills the news every day. They also speak to several other ways we as Church, as well as the government, can and should combat violence.

It seems like whenever one of these terrible events happens there is an immediate polarization in the media. Those who propose gun control talk about bump stocks and background checks. Then those who oppose it counter with, “It’s not a gun problem. It’s about mental health.” The truth is, it’s both. In every statement on gun control, the USCCB also mentions the need for increased resources for those who suffer from mental illness. They also have pointed out that the vast majority of folks with mental illness are not violent, and cannot simply be stigmatized and locked away. They deserve our love, care, and to be treated with the dignity that is inherent in them. This includes effective treatment that will also protect society from the few that are potentially dangerous.

In addition to gun policy recommendations and calls for improved mental healthcare these statements from the USCCB also repeatedly include a call to study the effects that violent images in the media have on our society, specifically young people. Finally, and probably most applicable for those of us in parish ministries, the bishops have urged us to have ongoing encounters with our communities about violence and how we all can work to prevent it.

Like most of the challenges facing our society, the answers are complex. But we cannot let that complexity paralyze us. We have a framework in which to act: advocate for reasonable limits to gun access, reach out to those who are on the edges of our communities including those with mental health challenges, and promote a culture of life by being mindful of what sort of media we consume and how we treat one another on a daily basis. And as always, do all of this fortified with prayer and the body and blood of our Lord. 

Statements from the USCCB

"Domestic Justic Chairman Urges True Debate on Gun Violence" - November 7, 2017

"Domestic Justice and Education Chairmen Urge Concrete Actions to Address Scourge of Gun Violence" - March 5, 2018

"A Mercy and Peacebuilding Approach to Gun Violence" - March 2018