Men view guns during the National Rifle Association’s annual meetings and exhibits show in Louisville, Ky, in 2016. CNS photo/John Sommers II, Reuters

A.A.J. DeVille: Did God give man ‘right to bear arms’?

By  A.A.J. DeVille
  • September 11, 2019

As someone who — thanks to his mother’s birth in Scotland and her emigration to Canada — enjoys both British and Canadian citizenship, never have I felt more of a “resident alien” living in the United States than when it comes to the issue of guns and the so-called right to bear arms which gets invoked after every atrocity, such as the Aug. 31 shootings that left seven dead in Odessa, Texas.

After last year’s Parkland, Fla., shooting which killed 17 people, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA claimed that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” That is quite a claim.

If God had granted such a right, one would expect it to show up in, say, Scripture or in the broader Christian tradition. But in fact the entire language of rights is a modern novelty. None of the biblical writers knew such rights, nor the Fathers of the Church, nor the late medieval and early modern philosophers and theologians. Knowing this history, the great Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”

In the modern period, for theological rather than historical reasons, the Church was initially reluctant to embrace the language of rights because it was thought to marginalize God. After the Second World War, however, Catholics played a significant role in drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since then Catholics have embraced the language of rights even more fulsomely. But a review of magisterial statements since 1948 reveals no such thing as a right to bear arms, God-given or otherwise.

In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII denounces the abundance of arms: “We are deeply distressed to see the enormous stocks of armaments that have been, and continue to be, manufactured in the economically more developed countries.” What would the saintly pontiff say today of a country that, according to the Congressional Research Service, has more than 300 million firearms — more, per capita, than any other nation? 

The Second Vatican Council’s decree Gaudium et Spes discusses human rights extensively, but makes no mention of gun ownership as a right. Likewise, Pope Paul VI spoke in defence of human rights before the UN in 1965 but neither there nor elsewhere did he ever once mention a so-called right to bear arms. In fact, in New York he said that “a person cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.”

Similarly, when Pope John Paul II addressed the UN in 1979, he made nearly 60 references to human rights, but never once mentioned a so-called right to bear arms. In 1991 in Centesimus Annus he makes dozens of references to human rights, but his encyclical lacks even a hint of a right to bear arms. It is the same in the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Likewise, the writings of Popes Benedict XVI or Francis contain nothing close to a right to bear arms. In fact, Pope Francis has been vocal in denouncing  guns and weapons manufacturing. 

Why, then, do some Americans claim such God-given rights? 

LaPierre and others not only believe a so-called right of gun ownership is “God-given,” but that it is a patriotic necessity. They subscribe to a painfully crude, and demonstrably false, tale of American exceptionalism. They fear any restrictions on arms will fundamentally alter the nation by spawning “socialism” and “tyranny.” 

Yet Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other advanced democracies have passed restrictive gun laws without descending into socialism or tyranny. Their records of mass shootings are so far below the U.S. as to make one weep at American intransigence.

American exceptionalism is based upon what former University of Virginia professor Vamik Volkan, who has spent his life studying terrorism and violence, calls U.S. mythologies of “chosen trauma” and “chosen glory.” The “chosen trauma” is a legacy of the American Revolution in which many citizens neurotically fear being outgunned by the British — or other tyrants. For them, guns are necessary to defeat all such invaders in order to maintain the glory of this “city on a hill” known to fantasists as “America.” 

Canada, so similar to the U.S. in many ways, peaceably evolved into a fully functioning democracy. We never needed a supposedly glorious revolution to secure rights as citizens. So Catholics and Christians should not be bamboozled by American mythology. 

To suggest God has granted a right to bear arms is as mythical as witches and unicorns.

(DeVille, an associate professor and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis, Ft. Wayne, Ind., is the author of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.)

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