Catholics get heated on guns

"How does it happen again and again and again? A classroom, a mall, a movie theater — innocent life snuffed out," Deacon Ed Giblin pondered aloud as he spoke to the congregation Dec. 16 at Holy Cross Church in Charlotte.

He delivered the homily two days after a shooting spree in Newtown, Conn., left 20 elementary-school students and six teachers dead. In a cruel twist of fate, another gun attack would make national headlines just eight days later — this time a mere five miles down the Lake Ontario shoreline from Holy Cross. The West Webster attack killing two volunteer firemen, Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka, and injuring two of their cohorts, further inflamed the public furor incited by the Newtown massacre.

Based on his work experience, Deacon Giblin — who retired in 2009 after 24 years in the Rochester Police Department — told the Catholic Courier that the rise of gun violence warranted serious discussion long before Newtown, which has spurred an unprecedented national debate pitting gun-control proponents against groups and individuals fearing infringement on their constitutional right to own firearms.

"It’s sad that a national tragedy of that scope has to help bring it to the forefront," he said in reference to gun violence.

Church supports legislation

On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama signed executive orders for a 23-point plan to reduce gun violence while imploring Congress to pass tougher firearm laws. Among the priorities listed by the president were requiring background checks for all gun purchases; banning military-style assault weapons, which were used in the Newtown and Webster shootings, as well as the July 20 massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; limiting the ammunition capacity of firearm magazines; increasing school security; and expanding the availability of mental-health services for potentially violent people.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops observed in a Jan. 18 statement in support of Obama’s initiative that any executive action taken to deter gun violence signifies greater respect for human life. The bishops recounted several priorities raised in their 2000 statement "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice," which urged controlling the sale and use of firearms: supporting initiatives to make guns safer; calling for sensible regulations on handguns; deterring violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons, including assault rifles; and addressing the role of addiction and mental illness in crime.

Also urging gun-law reform were more than 60 Catholic leaders who released a Jan. 23 statement urging members of Congress who consider themselves pro-life to "show greater moral leadership and political courage" by supporting Obama’s plan. This appeal, which coincided with the 40th March for Life in Washington, D.C., noted that more than 900 additional people had been killed with guns in the United States since Newtown and that more than 70 mass shootings have taken place in this country since January 2011.

Meanwhile, on the same day Obama unveiled his sprawling initiative, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared in Rochester — in honor of the fallen Webster firemen — to sign new legislation he has touted as the strictest gun laws in the country, echoing many of Obama’s priorities and receiving the backing of the state’s Senate and Assembly. Cuomo’s bold steps were welcomed by the state’s Catholic bishops, according to Dennis Poust, communications director for the New York State Catholic Conference.

"The bishops believe that, while the many external factors that lead to violence in society must be addressed, it is clear that the prevalence of guns and the ease at which deranged individuals are able to access them are a serious problem. They were pleased that Gov. Cuomo raised the issue," he told the Courier.

Poust said the state’s bishops haven’t historically rated gun control as a top public-policy concern, but based on the recent tragedies "it would have been a major issue, I’m sure, had the Legislature and governor not acted so quickly. But they did."

Debate continues

Catholic officials have been joined by leaders of many faiths in their call to deter gun violence. In addition, a survey released in August 2012 by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 62 percent of Catholics favor stricter gun-control laws.

One Catholic who disagrees is Steve McCagg, a parishioner of Holy Ghost Church in Gates. Although Obama and Cuomo have asserted that their initiatives don’t infringe on citizens’ Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, McCagg — a multiple-gun owner who’s a longtime hunter and target shooter — sees the laws as restricting the privacy and livelihood of Americans like himself who obtain, use and secure their weapons responsibly. McCagg charged that the new state legislation was rushed through in an emotional response to Newtown, and said that — alongside limitations on prayer and use of the word "God" in public places — it marks another example of constricting constitutional freedoms.

"They’ve already attacked the First Amendment about what people can say about their religion and where they can say it," he said. "My feeling is the Constitution was written very well, and it stands, and this is what our country is based on."

On a practical level, McCagg said he believes significant gun limitations will result in an increased black market for firearms, contending that people already prone to criminal behavior will find their way around the laws. He said law-abiding citizens also will suffer by being denied the means to defend themselves and thus becoming easier targets for criminals.

McCagg’s opinions mirror those expressed by the National Rifle Association, which has mounted consistently successful pro-gun lobbying efforts over the years and is the most powerful of numerous gun-rights groups standing in opposition to the aims of Obama and Cuomo.

While Deacon Giblin said he fully supports the rights of sportsmen and other responsible gun owners, he emphasized the need to "somehow make a dent" in the number of weapons that are obtained and used illegally. A Nov. 14, 2012, report by the Congressional Research Service, a public-policy research arm of the U.S. Congress, noted that private gun ownership rose from 192 million firearms in 1994 to 294 million — an average of nearly one firearm per American — by 2007, the last year statistics were available.

"They are so readily available that anyone looking to obtain one illegally wouldn’t have much trouble finding one," remarked Deacon Giblin, who currently serves as assistant chief of university police at SUNY Brockport.

He said that during his years on the RPD, he saw a steep rise in the drug trade as well as the number of weapons obtained both legally and illegally — with often tragic results, such as a drug-related murder he once investigated in which an innocent boy was caught in the crossfire.

"He was the age of my nephew, dead — a little fella with jeans, shot dead in his living room," Deacon Giblin recalled. "Nobody deserves that."

Multiprong effort

Acknowledging that violence cannot be curbed simply by reducing the number and availability of firearms, the chairmen of three USCCB committees issued a joint statement Dec. 21 stressing the need for gun control, improved services for the mentally ill and a critical examination of violence in today’s movies, videos and television shows. Amelia Massi and Rita Demarest, who attend multiple parishes in Tompkins County, said they agree with this comprehensive outlook.

"Most of the laws revolve around gun-control issues, but we need as many prong approaches as possible," said Massi, who along with Demarest has formed the group Mothers Against Violence. They plan to organize an ecumenical nationwide march in Washington, D.C., this summer to stress the importance of strong family foundations in deterring violence.

"You have to go back to roots, values. Our values count. We believe it starts at home," Demarest said.

In his Dec. 16 homily, Deacon Giblin implored Mass-goers to return violent video games to stores if they had purchased them as Christmas gifts and to throw away the ones they already had, referring to them as "junk." He added that this so-called form of entertainment contains such graphic depictions of bloodshed that users — especially those who are mentally disturbed — can become too desensitized to discern between fact and fiction.

Poust said the tragedy at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School has seemingly proven to be the tipping point for sustaining anti-violence initiatives such as those that rose — and later faded — in the wake of gun massacres in such locales as Columbine, Colo. (April 20, 1999); Virginia Tech University (April 16, 2007); Binghamton (April 3, 2009); Fort Hood, Texas (Nov. 5, 2009); Tucson, Ariz. (Jan. 8, 2011); Oak Creek, Wis. (Aug. 5, 2012); and Clackamas, Ore. (Dec. 11, 2012). All of these attacks — as well as the ones in Aurora, Newtown and Webster — were carried out by lone gunmen except Columbine, in which there were two.

Continuing outrage over the latest attacks "is largely due, I think, to the (Newtown) victims. They were so small and the toll was so high that it is truly incomprehensible. Clearly, as horrible as all of the mass shootings in our country have been, the Newtown one seems to have galvanized the American people in the direction of doing something about gun violence more than any other," Poust said, adding that the Webster firemen’s deaths so soon after Newtown have added to that concern.

Despite taking issue with many aspects of the new gun laws, McCagg noted that he and his fellow gun enthusiasts were repulsed by the Newtown and Webster incidents.

"It just makes me sick when I hear about these things," he said.

Deacon Giblin acknowledged that "you’re never going to eradicate violence," but said that we, as Catholics, need to take a stand against it now more than ever.

"You like to see there is still hope for change, hope for redemption, that the message being preached will sink in," he said. "The cynic says the message has been preached for 2,000 years and nothing has changed, but that’s not reason to give up hope that things can change."

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