The official gun-related teaching of the Catholic Church is not entirely clear. There’s little doubt, however, about how the current hierarchy leans: they favor fewer guns in civilian hands. (I’ve discussed this in a series of articles at Crisis, 1, 2 and 3.) There’s also little doubt that with a Republican president and a Republican congress, we aren’t going to see any gun control legislation at the federal level for at least the next two years. And it’s a fairly sure bet that pro-gun Justice Scalia will be replaced with another pro-gun justice, keeping the balance of the Supreme Court basically in favor of wide open gun rights. This does not mean that we Catholics should shelve our thoughts about guns for the next few years. In fact, this may be an excellent time to make a major advance in pushing for real gun safety. I’ll explain—but let me start with a few examples.
Example one. A few weeks ago, I went to buy some hay at a nearby farm. As the farmer and I chatted by the hay shed, we saw a magnificent whitetail buck standing silhouetted on a ridge perhaps 250 yards distant. It’s deer season here in North Carolina, and I said “it’s too bad you don’t have a shot at him.” He replied, “Oh, I’ve got a rifle that’ll reach out and touch him at that distance.”
The farmer misunderstood me.
The problem with the shot wasn’t the distance (though few hunters are capable of hitting the roughly 10 inch circle of vital organs in a deer at that distance, from field positions). The problem with the shot was that the deer was silhouetted against the open horizon. There was no backstop. A missed shot—and quite possibly even a successful shot—would send a bullet off into unseen territory, where it could easily injure or kill a person. Taking a shot at this deer would have violated one of the four cardinal rules of gun safety: be aware of your target and what’s around it. (That includes what’s behind it.)
Example two. I could have shot my daughter today. I was heading out to the woods to hunt squirrels. (Yes, people still hunt squirrels. They’re delicious. Squirrels are, I mean.) As I came to the edge of the woods, I heard some scratching in the fallen leaves. I sounded like a squirrel. Squirrels make a fairly distinctive sound as they hop through the leaves. This sounded like that. But I thought it was probably the chickens, who often scratch for bugs out there. Either way, I tried to quietly get myself into a better position to see what was going on. After a couple of minutes of my sad attempts to move quietly, I finally saw that, yes, there were indeed chickens out there, and that my daughter was with them. She was gathering acorns. Good winter chicken feed.
She was never in danger, because I know better than to point a gun at something without having positively identified that thing. As one of the standard gun safety rules has it, “never let your muzzle cover anything you’re not prepared to destroy.” Never. Well, how do you know if you’re prepared to destroy a thing, if you don’t know what it is? Pretty straightforward.
But how many times have we heard the same old story—hunter shoots his (fill in the blank: uncle, son, daughter, wife, brother, etc) and explains “I thought he was a deer!” It’s a terrible tragedy, and totally preventable. It’s not an accident in any meaningful sense. The hunter has deliberately pointed his rifle at something and pulled the trigger. If you don’t know for sure what something is, you shouldn’t merely not be firing at it. You should not have your gun pointing at it at all.
Example three. Really, examples three through thirty thousand. Watch virtually any footage of gun handling (at least, footage that didn’t have a military advisor on site) and you will see another one of the central gun safety rules routinely violated: keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. Here’s one very silly example. (Late night TV bad language/immodesty warning.) Not even soldiers are above breaking this rule. This US Army training film has a demonstrator who consistently violates it right up until about 7:00. After that, he begins to observe the rule, though at 7:11 you can see him catch himself almost breaking it again. (I hypothesize that someone other than the film crew showed up midway through the filming and read him the riot act about his unsafe handling of the rifle—but for purposes of economy, they decided not to reshoot the earlier footage. But who knows.)
Legislatively speaking, as far as I can see there are basically three ways to react to these negligent shootings. First, you can say it’s no business of the government and the law should stay out of it (except, perhaps, to prosecute if it seems the negligence is criminal). Second, you can say that we need to take guns out of civilian hands, thereby preventing such tragedies. Third, you can say that we need our citizens to be better trained in firearms handling, so such training should be mandated.
Perhaps you’re attracted to the first approach. I won’t offer an argument against such a view here. In fact, as I suggested above, our thinking on gun control these for the immediate future should simply take for granted that there won’t be any federal intervention, so to some extent this article proceeds in a way that will be consistent with accepting approach one.
The second approach is clearly on display in the views of Hilary Clinton and other such gun control advocates. Take one of Clinton’s claims from the recent campaign, focused on a different sort of case than I’ve been speaking of, but with the same upshot. Clinton contended that the point of the District of Columbia’s law (overturned by the Supreme Court in DC v. Heller) completely banning handgun ownership was to save toddlers. Her take was that the law was a reaction to situations where parents buy guns, negligently leave them lying around unsecured and loaded, and toddlers grab the guns and kill themselves. So the DC law, as Clinton understood it, reacts to such terrible situations by legislatively insisting that the guns must be taken out of the situations. Hence, approach two.
I think instead we ought to be thinking very seriously about the third reaction. Anyone should be able to see that both the second and third approaches might, if well implemented, help to reduce such incidents. The second reaction, however, involves all kinds of difficulties: apart from the question of whether it’s really entirely conformable with Catholic teaching, there’s the political question here in the US of whether it’s compatible with the Second Amendment. And it seems that the answer to that latter question is pretty clearly no.
So it seems to me that the third reaction is more sensible than the second. Will the federal government mandate good gun safety training in our public schools? Probably not. Fortunately, we as Catholics can take substantive steps in this direction without any governmental involvement at all, by introducing well-run training programs in Catholic schools (including home schools) to teach gun handling skills and gun safety.
When I say gun handling, I don’t mean actually firing any guns, and indeed I don’t mean that any real firearms would need to be involved. There are blue guns available, made out of solid plastic, and intended for just such teaching purposes. And when I say “gun safety,” I do not mean it in the sense of “don’t ever touch a gun!” I mean real gun safety, like, what to do when you pick up a gun: how to hold it, how to check to see if it’s loaded, what to do to keep it safe.
The physical actions involved in maintaining muzzle control and keeping your finger off the trigger have to be taught physically. Catholics, with our emphatic sacramentalism, should see the wisdom in this. Kids have to handle guns (again, largely replicas) if we want them to know how to handle them safely. I say this from experience. I have taught a lot of people about guns, both because I have taught my own kids, and helped teach some of my nephews, and because I’m an instructor with Project Appleseed, and I can tell you that when a newbie picks up a gun, his finger will inevitably go straight onto the trigger. Inevitably. I mean, the trigger is right there, perfectly placed to perch your finger on. That’s what it’s designed for—it’s supposed to be comfortable and natural. This is why that third example I mentioned above is such a commonplace. In order to teach a kid not to do this, real training is required. Replica guns are fine, but instructors must teach those fingers what to do. The students must be physically, repetitively trained to keep their fingers off the trigger. You can’t just tell them to do it, and expect them to do it. You can’t even tell them lots of times, loudly, and expect them to do it. You have to train them to do it, physically, repeatedly. The same is true for teaching people muzzle discipline. This can be done. It’s not hard. It’s not technical. It doesn’t take special facilities, it doesn’t require any real guns. But it must actually be done, and not just once. Safe gun handling has to become second nature, and that takes time and repetition.
There’s one last standard gun safety rule I haven’t mentioned yet: treat all guns as though they were loaded. Part of what this rule entails is that when you pick up a gun, you keep the muzzle in a safe direction and then immediately check it to see if it’s loaded. And then, even if you’ve verified that it is unloaded, you still treat it as if it were loaded. In order to teach kids to follow this procedure, we need to get a little bit beyond blue guns. We’d need something with a working slide or cylinder, so they could actually practice opening the action to check for loaded, though it would hardly have to be a working gun.
It’s often said by gun control advocates that manufacturers need to include a “loaded chamber indicator” to help prevent accidental shootings. This is foolishness. If a person can be taught to check the loaded chamber indicator to see if the gun is loaded, then he can be taught to check to see if the gun is loaded to see if the gun is loaded. And if someone looks at a loaded chamber indicator, finds that it shows an empty chamber, and then cavalierly points the gun at himself or someone else, he is still a reckless and dangerous person who shouldn’t have his paws on a firearm. It doesn’t matter if you believe you’re handling a loaded gun or an unloaded gun: you will still never point a gun in a direction where it could do harm to anyone if you should negligently fire it. Loaded chamber indicators, like any other mechanical “safety” device, should simply never be used as an excuse for unsafe gun handling. To know this, and to know what counts as safe gun handling, you need good training. If we want our kids to have good gun training—and assuming that like most Americans, we, the parents, have never had such training—we need to get gun training into our schools.
And not abstinence-only training.
“Why,” laughs the secularist, “are you against abstinence-only training for guns, but in favor of it for sex?” Simple. Sex outside of marriage is wrong. Contracepted sex is wrong. Safe gun handling isn’t.
So let’s start advancing our own gun control agenda in our own schools, and get training guns into kids’ hands, with good solid oversight and training, so they can learn not to negligently kill people. Sadly, even an excellent gun safety training program can’t solve the whole problem, since many accidental shootings happen when kids six years old or less get their hands on guns. But many deaths, and many, many more injuries could be prevented. Sounds like a good plan to me.
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