Sandy Hook – How Do We Respond?

Ban assault rifles? Increase funding for addressing mental illness? In the tragic aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, a long overdue conversation has begun on how the nation should respond to the mass shootings that are becoming all too familiar in communities across our country.

Evil exists even in a free country and no set of laws can stop people from doing evil to others. But Catholic teaching charges government with the responsibility to uphold the “stability and security of a just order.” In securing order, government must use morally acceptable means to ensure “the security of society and its members.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1909). So what can be done?

All too often the perpetrators of these horrible killings are loners and outcasts – people alienated from society, with few or no friends. Increased criminal penalties, even capital punishment, will not deter people in these mental and emotional states. They don’t care. Their anger and the other things churning inside them make them impervious to the danger to themselves. Often they end up killing themselves after their rampage is completed.

Seeing the warning signs of a person coming apart and responding is essential and lifesaving. We are learning that ignoring that strange person wandering around may seem prudent for us at this particular moment, but if no one steps forward to offer help bad things can eventually happen to all of us.

Consensus seems to be forming to better fund mental health services. If an intervention comes early enough, some individuals can be assisted and once again become peaceful members of their communities. For decades Catholic Charities agencies have tried, with limited funds, to serve people who are deeply troubled. Perhaps, the importance of their work will now be more fully appreciated and more funding will come from charitable giving and public support.

Sometimes counseling and other support services are not enough. If the person is obviously a danger to himself and others, then involuntary confinement may be the only solution.

When considering the school setting, some suggest arming the teachers and others in authority. Certainly, there is a right to self-defense, but will this supposed solution lead to a different kind of tragedy? Could an angry student somehow manage to get the gun out the teacher’s desk drawer or off the teacher’s person?

Banning assault rifles is also under discussion. In a front page article on December 15, the Vatican newspaper L’Ossevatore Romano observed that the people of the United States should look for ways to “stem the violence that strikes them from within, heinous violence that is increased by easy access to increasingly lethal weapons and this time struck children in an elementary school.”

No gun control law will stop all killings, but would a ban on assault rifles make if more difficult to kill so many so quickly? Some argue banning these weapons would violate their Second Amendment rights. But is banning weapons not necessary for hunting or home protection really a violation of the Second Amendment? And at what point does your right to bear arms – even assault rifles normally only used by law enforcement and the military -begin to violate my right, and my children’s right, to public safety?

The Sandy Hook killings are eliciting many opinions about how to respond. This is only natural. We all want to find ways to stop these killings. In this holy season of Advent, let us first pray and reflect and then think anew about what can be done to make to make our society a safer place for all of us.

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