“Do not be afraid.” It is not without reason that Jesus repeated this encouragement while he was alive and to those who saw him for the first time after he rose from the dead. Fear is a consequence of our fall from grace. It’s a reflex born of the awareness that we are not enough, that things are not as they should be. And ultimately, fear and anger are what seem to be driving the plague of gun violence.
Gun violence is all too frequent in our society, whether it is the slaughter that occurs in mass shootings, the gang violence on our city streets, or the random shootings that take place in our cities, almost on a daily basis. When a mass shooting occurs, I am always taken back to the Columbine High School shooting and my experience the day after of visiting a few of the families with law enforcement to inform them that their child was killed. The pain, agony, anger, sorrow and lament were palpable, and only a loving, quiet presence was able to give them support.
Certainly, the fallout from sin around the world presents us with many reasons to be afraid: violence, hunger, sickness, abuse, natural disasters — the list goes on. The recent shootings in California, El Paso, Dayton and West Texas are also a part of this litany. When one pulls back the layers and examines what is going on in the minds and hearts of these people who commit these horrific attacks, one sees a mixture of anger, stress, fear and mental instability.
The 2018 FBI study on the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States found that in most of the 63 cases they studied, the attacker displayed four to five concerning behaviors in the two years leading up to their crime. Despite their behavior, 54 percent of the people who witnessed it decided to do nothing in response. The same study also found that those who committed these atrocities experienced an average of 3.6 separate stressors in the year before they attacked. These are things like experiencing anxiety or depression, financial strains, difficulties at work, and conflict with friends, coworkers or family members.
Our nation is asking what it can do about the epidemic of gun violence that continues to claim innocent lives. There are several things to consider when it comes to our laws. On the one hand, it is common sense that people who are not in law enforcement or the armed forces do not need military grade weapons and they should not be available to the general public. Furthermore, background checks and waiting periods seem reasonable. On the other hand, both our Constitution and the Catholic moral tradition do allow for weapons being used to defend one’s own life. The Church, however, has always maintained that the force used in self-defense should be proportionate to the threat. In other words, if you can defend yourself without killing an attacker, you are obligated to try to do so.
But the most powerful measure we can take to combat the scourge of gun violence is to tackle the deficit of charity that allows things to descend into violence. One news report from the Gilroy Garlic festival shooting is quite telling. Jack Van Breen, whose band was the last act of the day, told KPIX 5 he heard someone shout, “Why are you doing this?” He said the shooter responded, “Because I’m really angry.” When there seems to be no meaning or purpose in life, it is easy for people to become angry and self-centered. Our society has moved far away from faith in God, charity towards our neighbors and the recognition of the dignity of the human person. Anger will not be replaced with peace unless these basic values return.
Are we each doing what we can to help those who are in distress? Is our Christian charity extended to all, or just to those it’s convenient to help? According to the FBI’s report, the people who are most likely to notice the concerning behavior of shooters prior to their attack are those who knew them best — “family, friends and classmates.” I know without a doubt that there are many people within our archdiocese and our country who are heroically generous with their love and support for those in need. But the epidemic of gun violence should cause all of us to reflect on the need for charity, which can sometimes involve undertaking hardship for the sake of a person’s long-term wholeness and the well-being of those people they could harm.
When Christ rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples, who were huddled in a locked room, he said, “Peace be with you.” So many people today need Christ’s peace. That peace comes from the grace of the sacraments and encountering Jesus in prayer. The first action we should take to help relieve the turmoil in the hearts and minds of those tempted to violence, is to open ourselves up to the peace of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that we can be channels of grace for them. We must enter this battle for the hearts, minds and souls of those experiencing distress with the graces and gifts necessary to bring them the love of Jesus Christ.
May God heal our communities, guide our lawmakers and grant us abundant charity to share with those who need the healing and the peace that only Christ can give.
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