Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has a message for Missouri lawmakers.
You can stand for guns in churches.
Or you can stand for religious liberty.
But you can’t stand for both.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the St. Louis region sent the message to lawmakers last week in a letter that was also signed by the other three Catholic bishops in the state: the Most Rev. James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Most Rev. W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City and the Most Rev. Edward M. Rice of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese.
The letter is more than a rebuke. It’s a call to action on common sense gun regulation.
“As we issue this statement, bills are currently being debated in the Missouri General Assembly that would further loosen gun regulations. One such bill, for example, would eliminate the need for Missourians who are carrying a concealed weapon to obtain permission from their pastor before bringing a concealed weapon to church,” the bishops wrote. “If this bill were to pass, churches wishing to remain gun free would have to post signage in their sacred spaces prohibiting guns. This is highly offensive to us and would violate our First Amendment rights to religious liberty. As the leaders of the Catholic Church in Missouri, we vigorously object to this change in Missouri law!”
The letter was spurred in part by House Bill 1936, sponsored by Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa.
Following the stilted logic of the National Rifle Association that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, the bill would get rid of gun-free zones in Missouri, including businesses, day cares, schools and, yes, churches. The bill passed a House committee in March with a party-line vote. Republicans voted yes. Democrats voted no.
But as it heads to the House floor, and other bills are considered, Carlson is hoping to stop the gun-expansion bills by asking Republicans to remember their commitment to life and religious liberty.
“We, the Catholic bishops of Missouri, wish to address the senseless gun violence that is occurring in our schools, on our streets, and in our inner cities. The disturbing frequency of these events is making us numb to the profound impact on those directly affected and it calls for serious reflection on why people are carrying out senseless acts of violence. It is also appropriate to consider the use of guns in society,” the bishops wrote. “Our nation needs to have an honest discussion about the toll violent images and experiences are having upon us, especially our youth. We must work toward peace in our communities through restorative justice policies and practices, and through ongoing discussions about the presence of so much violence in our entertainment and neighborhoods. … Our reflection on the proper place of guns in our society leads us to seriously consider reasonable and sensible gun regulations in order to protect human life from the kind of gun violence we are currently experiencing in our country.”
The letter is welcome news to Becky Morgan, the volunteer chapter leader for Moms Demand Action in Missouri. Since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Morgan’s group has had to seek larger locations to handle growing monthly meetings. The St. Louis chapter of Moms Demand Action used to meet at the St. Louis Public Library, but moved to a middle school in Webster Groves to handle about 1,000 attendees in March. On Thursday, about 600 people crowded into Kirkwood Baptist Church to join the growing movement.
“What we’re seeing in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting is a little bit different than other shootings because the survivors are of an age to speak to the issues,” Morgan says. “And that is motivating adults and young people alike. They want to do something.”
What can they do?
The bishops have a suggestion for their flock:
“We ask our fellow Catholics and people of good will to work toward this end by discussing these matters in their local communities and by contacting their local, state, and federal representatives to address these issues through policy and legislative measures that uphold the safety and well-being of all persons in our communities,” they wrote.
Carlson and his fellow bishops don’t want guns in their churches. They advocate banning “bump stocks” like those used in the Las Vegas massacre, they support universal background checks and limitations on “high capacity ammunition magazines.”
The positions mirror many of those pushed by Moms Demand Action. They are proposals, Morgan believes, that have bipartisan support without limiting Second Amendment freedoms. Before Taylor’s bill passed committee, Morgan’s organization was its primary opponent. With the voices of the Catholic bishops added to the debate, she believes chances of defeating it have grown.
Since the Parkland shooting, Moms Demand Action has expanded from seven to 16 chapters in Missouri, with people meeting monthly in big cities and rural outposts, including Franklin and Jefferson counties, Joplin, Cape Girardeau and Jefferson City.
“I really appreciate the bishops taking a public stance,” Morgan says. “It’s indicative of how much has changed since Parkland.”