By Bob Glaser
One image that has haunted me since the mass killing of high school students on Ash Wednesday in Parkland, Fla., is of a woman with a visible cross made of ashes on her forehead hugging and comforting another woman. The words that are often said as ashes are applied comes to me every time I visualize this image, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
Since this senseless tragedy, I have been appalled by the fact that the laws of our nation would allow 18-year-olds to purchase military-grade assault rifles. I know that some who read this may disagree that what was used in this horrible assault was a military-grade weapon. But I will tell you that an AR-15 is essentially the same weapon I carried while serving in the Seventh Infantry Division on the Korean Peninsula in the early 1970s.
What is more disturbing to me, however, comes from another chapter of my life. While working as a prosecuting attorney for the Iowa Attorney General’s office in the early 1990s, I was assigned to a homicide case in a rural Iowa county. On the Tuesday after Labor Day 1990, Della, a widow in her 80s, was found at the door of her farmhouse shot multiple times. The rural mail carrier had checked on her because her Saturday mail was still in the box. As the investigation proceeded it became apparent that a young man who lived with his family on a neighboring farm had shot and killed Della on the Friday night of that holiday weekend. He used a handgun that he had purchased a few days before, on his 21st birthday, after receiving a permit to purchase from the local sheriff, which was required at that time. A jury convicted the young man of first-degree murder and he has since died in prison. There was no apparent motive for the murder, and no claim of mental illness or substance abuse. During the investigation and trial, it seemed that he simply wanted to see what his gun would do to a human being.
As I have watched, listened and read about the tragedy that occurred on Ash Wednesday, I have struggled with my memory of prosecuting this case more than a quarter of a century ago. In that time, we have had an assault weapons ban that was enacted in 1994 and allowed to expire 10 years later. Since that murder, we have experienced multiple mass killings. But mass killings are not the only type of incident which plagues our nation. USA Today recently published the statistic that between 1968 and 2015, deaths from firearms-related incidents in our nation numbered 1.53 million. Further research indicates that the largest share of that number were suicides. United States war deaths from 1776 to 2017 numbered 1.2 million.
The question for me: what have I done with what I experienced prosecuting the murder of Della to address the increasing prevalence of firearms and gun violence in our communities throughout our nation? The realization that we have lost more lives to domestic firearms incidents in this 47-year-period than in all of the wars in our nation’s history is sobering. To me, however, as a Christian, a Roman Catholic and a member of the clergy, more disturbing are the mantras I hear from various gun rights organizations that are repeated by so many people, often by those I love and respect.
I think it is important for everyone, especially Christians, to reflect on some of these mantras, as well as thoughts that counter-balance them. One we hear often is: “The only thing that can save you from a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But, if you are a Christian, isn’t Jesus your Savior?
Another mantra: “Guns don’t kill, people kill.” However, firearms make it much more efficient for people to kill. Or, “Don’t blame the gun.” Yes, but we certainly should be looking to blame those individuals who make getting a gun so easy. And then there is the mantra: “It is our constitutional right.” Well, that is the same constitution that granted the right to buy and sell human beings for 75 years after its ratification, the same constitution that prohibited women from voting for 131 years and the same constitution that has been amended 27 times. Finally, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “Just because you have a right does not mean it is right.”
In my opinion, we as a nation have come to idolize the gun. In it we see a savior. It can do no wrong. The words of Psalm 135 come to mind: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak; they have eyes but do not see; they have ears but do not hear; nor is there a breath in their mouths. Their makers will become like them, and anyone who trusts in them.”
Reflecting on this, I think there is a question for our nation: why do we idolize the gun? But there is also a question for those of us who are Catholic: What have we, as followers of Jesus Christ, done to make this world a safe place for children?
(Deacon Bob Glaser serves at Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington-West Burlington and St. Mary Parish in Dodgeville.)