Addressing the United States Congress in September 2015, Pope Francis asked: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?”
He continued: “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
On Saturday, March 24, protest over innocent blood being spilt materialized in the first ever March for Our Lives — which drew over 200,000 young protestors to Washington, D.C., cities in all 50 states, and places such as London and Sydney — in response to the Parkland school massacre, where 17 students and teachers were killed in Florida this past February.
Since 2010, there have been over 150 school shootings in the United States, and the March for Our Lives was a direct response, calling for stricter gun control legislation in the U.S. — a plea that has been echoed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
In a statement released in early March, the U.S. bishops called on Congress to find “concrete proposals” in response to the “crisis of gun violence.”
The bishops also said that President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm teachers in the classroom “seems to raise more concerns than it addresses” and instead advocated for raising the age of gun ownership, banning bump stocks, and requiring universal background checks as solutions that offer “more promise.”
These petitions, among others, were among the proposals being supported by attendees at Saturday’s March for Our Lives, which included a number of U.S. Catholic student groups who participated in the historic event (see here and here for accounts).
While the March for Our Lives was student driven, much of the financial support came from gun safety organizations and celebrity donors. Although it did not have the official backing of the USCCB, many individual bishops offered their support for the event, often taking to social media to offer their endorsement and prayers.
A wide range of U.S. prelates, spanning the ideological and geographical spectrum, chimed in:
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston spoke at a local Mass for Peace, Justice, and Healing where he praised the example of Parkland students who galvanized the nation into action.
“They have helped us to realize that these tragedies victimize people from all walks of life, from every class and ethnicity. We owe these students and those who will join them today our support and our gratitude,” he said.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island — a strong pro-life voice among the U.S. bishops, who has publicly announced that he switched his party registration from the Democratic Party to Republicans over the issue of abortion — also took to Twitter on Saturday to voice his support of gun regulations.
“It seems to me that private citizens shouldn’t be permitted to own assault rifles any more than then they can own chemical weapons of mass destruction. How about a little common sense in this public debate?,” he wrote.
Bishop Bill Wack of the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida also offered his support, making a direct connection to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. in protest of abortion, which regularly draws crowds of nearly half a million individuals and enjoys widespread Catholic backing.
“It’s good to see so many young people raising their voices against gun violence, just as it is inspiring to see them at the March For Life every year. We must be pro-life in all of life’s beautiful forms and stages. God, give us the gift of peace,” Wack wrote on Twitter.
(For a full summary of responses from U.S. bishops, see my Crux wrap-up here.)
A series of high-profile incidents of gun violence over the past year have led to increasingly vocal responses from the U.S. bishops.
Last October, a gunman killed over 50 individuals and injured over 800 others at a concert in Las Vegas and one month later, a gunman opened fire in a Texas church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26 individuals and injuring 20 more.
Following these events, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. bishops, issued a statement where he said the violence confirmed a “fundamental problem” in America.
“This incomprehensibly tragic event joins an ever-growing list of mass shootings, some of which were also at churches while people were worshipping and at prayer,” DiNardo said after the Texas shooting.
“A Culture of Life cannot tolerate, and must prevent, senseless gun violence in all its forms. May the Lord, who Himself is Peace, send us His Spirit of charity and nonviolence to nurture His peace among us all,” he added.
The U.S. bishops have had a long-standing policy that supports tighter gun control legislation that balances support for the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms.
In 1994, when the U.S. Congress passed a ban on assault weapons, the U.S. bishops supported it. The ban, which was up for renewal in 2004, failed to pass — despite continued support from the bishops’ conference.
In a 2000, the U.S. bishops released a major document, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” in which they held that “in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.”
Among the general policies advanced by the U.S. bishops’ include: “Measures that control the sale and use of firearms, such as universal background checks for all gun purchases; Limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines; A federal law to criminalize gun trafficking; Improved access to and increased resources for mental health care and earlier interventions; Measures that make guns safer, such as locks that prevent children and anyone other than the owner from using the gun without permission and supervision; and an honest assessment of the toll of violent images and experiences which inundate people, particularly our youth.”
Following the Parkland school shooting, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who led the Denver archdiocese at the time of the 1997 Columbine High School massacre, lamented: “nothing seems to change, no matter how brutal the cost. Terrible things happen; pious statements are released and the nation goes back to its self-absorbed distractions.”
On the eve of the March for Our Lives, the Trump administration announced that it was moving to end the sale of bump stocks, devices that allow for automatic weapons to effectively function as a machine gun through continuous firing of ammunition.
Such a move is one that certainly falls within the parameters supported by the U.S. bishops, though it is largely viewed as only a first step toward pursuing more effective policies to reduce gun violence in a nation reeling from this “fundamental problem.”