By Jeanette Arnquist
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020 in the United States there were:
- 45,222 gun related deaths
- 24,292 suicide deaths by gun
- 611 gun deaths by law enforcement
- 535 deaths from accidental shooting
- 4.6 million children living in homes with unlocked guns
We are all grief stricken when we hear again and again about yet another mass shooting. Our hearts are broken and we are traumatized. For a few days following such an event, we wonder if it could happen here – in the school my kids go to, in the grocery store where I shop, in the church where I worship. We want something to be done to stop these senseless deaths.
Most of the mass shootings involve an assault weapon. The majority of people in the United States think that such weapons should be banned or at least severely limited. Our elected representatives quickly either start quoting the Second Amendment (which, by the way, can be changed) and the right to bear arms or they start calling for some kind of limits on guns. It depends mostly on what political party they belong to. And so very little gets done.
Guns are accepted and even promoted by our culture. Some people say that owning a gun, even an assault weapon, is a sacred right. Some believe that Christianity itself is pro-gun. Gun marketers tell us that owning a gun is the way to “man up” or get your “man card.”
While mass shootings are horrific in every way, they account for only a small percentage of death by gunshot each year.
Back in February I felt my heart drop to my feet when we learned that my good friend’s daughter had died suddenly. She was 32 and healthy. As the story unfolded, we learned that she had shot herself. It was so shockingly tragic because she seemed to be a happy and well-adjusted young person who was living a full life. No one had any idea that she might be contemplating suicide. To this day, no one seems to understand.
This is not the first suicide by gun that has touched my life. It is the fourth. I pray that it will be the last.
Owning a handgun makes suicide much more likely. Eight times more for men and thirty-five times more for women. Other methods of suicide are much less effective. If the means for suicide are not at hand, then planning is required. There is time for the person to change their mind. There is a chance that they will tip off a friend or relative.
In 2020 there were 24,292 suicide deaths by gun in the United States. The annual suicide rate by gun in the United states is over 7 per 100,000. For comparison, in Canada the rate is 1.5 and in Mexico it is 0.4.
Almost as many, 19,384, people were murdered by gunshot. Having a gun in the house increases the odds by threefold that someone will be killed at that home by a family member or friend with a gun. The homicide rate by shooting in the United States is 4.5 per 100,000. It is less than half than that in Canada.
And then there is the data on accidental shootings. In 2020 there were 535. Many of them were committed by children too young to understand what they were doing.
Having a gun at home does not keep people safe. If all shooting deaths in the United States were counted together, death by gun would be the 11th most common cause of death.
What does this have to do with Catholic Social Teaching? The method of Catholic Social Teaching is See, Judge, Act. We can clearly see that the result of having so many guns is more violence and death. We judge this to be unjust: not in the interest of protecting life or the common good. So we are called to act.
The problem, as I see it, is too big for any single solution. Yes, background checks, assault weapon bans, age limits, and so on can be helpful. But the real problem is that there are just too many guns. There are more guns than people in the United States. Guns are easy to get, legally and illegally. Guns are accepted and expected.
My hope is that our faith can empower us to overcome the fears that motivate us to put our trust in violence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that violence cannot bring an end to violence. My hope and prayer is that we will find the political will to make significant and systemic policy changes to reduce gun death. I believe we can do this.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.