Prayer must lead to practical solutions
Thoughts and prayers aren’t solving this nation’s problem with gun violence.
On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley shot and killed 26 people and wounded 20 others during a Sunday service inside First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. After the shooting, social media flooded with posts offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. However, the sick irony of offering thoughts and prayers to the victims and their loved ones when they were already praying and worshiping the Lord when they were gunned down should not go unnoticed.
There are more mass shootings in the United States than any other country. Three of the five deadliest shootings in U.S. history have occurred in the last 18 months alone, and at the time this article is published, exactly one month after Sutherland Springs, there have already been 18 more mass shootings. Clearly, thoughts and prayers alone aren’t solving this country’s problem with mass shootings, and places of worship aren’t immune.
No amount of prayers could have kept Kelley from choosing to enter that church with a gun: God doesn’t interfere with human free will. Article three of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions . . . Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. . . . Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.”
But free will doesn’t mean that praying for protection is a waste of time. The issue isn’t that we aren’t praying long and hard enough, but that we aren’t praying properly. Are we supplementing our prayers with action, or are we merely asking God for favors, as if he were a genie ready to grant us our wishes as we please? What have we as Catholic Americans done besides prayer to help prevent future mass shootings?
Pope Francis addressed this topic in his Sunday Angelus message on July 21, 2013:
In our Christian life too, dear brothers and sisters, may prayer and action always be deeply united. A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, a brother in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when ecclesial service is attentive only to doing, things gain in importance, functions, structures, and we forget the centrality of Christ.
In the aftermath of the First Baptist Church shooting, U.S. bishops have once again urged political leaders to engage in civil dialogue and take action on gun violence. The bishops supported the Federal Assault Weapons Ban subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibited the manufacture of certain semi-automatic firearms, classified as assault weapons, for civilian use. The ban expired 10 years after taking effect due to a sunset provision, and no other federal ban on such weapons has been implemented since then.
Kelley attacked his victims with a Ruger AR-556 rifle, a model based on the M-16 rifle U.S. military service members use. The Ruger AR-556 would have met criteria of an assault weapon under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
“Some weapons are increasingly capable of easily causing mass murder when used with an evil purpose,” Frank Dewane, bishop of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, said in a statement. “Society must recognize that the common good requires reasonable steps to limit access to such firearms by those who would intend to use them in that way.”
Kelley shouldn’t have been able to purchase any firearms under current regulations because of his violent history. In 2014 the Air Force dismissed him with a bad conduct discharge, two years after he was charged with assaulting his wife and stepson, made death threats, and escaped a mental health facility. After Kelley was discharged, an Air Force officer failed to report his domestic violence court martial into a federal database for firearms background checks that would have stopped him from purchasing the Ruger AR-556 and other guns.
Although the U.S. bishops and other groups support improved access to mental health care, gun violence experts say mass shootings should not be relegated as strictly a mental health issue instead of a gun control issue because most perpetrators don’t have prior criminal or mental health history. No matter a person’s state of mental health, the Catechism says, “Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts … Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, also addressed how gun violence has beleaguered our society: “A Culture of Life cannot tolerate, and must prevent, senseless gun violence in all its forms,” he said.
Many American Catholics tend to forget that the Catholic Church’s definition of “culture of life” includes much more than just opposition to abortion, but applies to all areas of the sanctity of life, including opposition to capital punishment and unjust war. Calling for reasonable firearms regulations within the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment should not be an exception. It’s our duty as Christians.
As the Catechism also says, “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.”
Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough to accomplish anything, let alone protect innocent lives from harm. Until we also use our own free will for good and take further progressive action on reasonable firearms control, many more mass shootings will occur in the near future.
Image: Jens Lelie on Unsplash