At the end of a busy week—one that included both Ash Wednesday and the pope’s surprise resignation—New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan took the time to write a blog post about gun control. Yes, he’s for it: “I found myself nodding in agreement” with President Barack Obama’s push for gun restrictions, Dolan wrote, quoting from that Tuesday’s State of the Union address. He added that he also supported the gun-control measures signed into law in January by New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. But what I liked best was his reason why.

“For me,” Dolan wrote, “regulating and controlling guns is part of building a culture of life, of doing what we can to protect and defend human life. The easy access to guns, including assault weapons, that exists in our nation has contributed towards a culture of death, where human life and dignity are cheapened by the threat of violence.” 

Until I read that, I hadn’t seen the phrases “culture of life” and “culture of death” enter the debate over gun control, not even in those venues where they tend to pop up often in other contexts. Why should it have taken so long? Why the reluctance among conservative opponents of gun control to criticize America’s gun culture, with its vocal enthusiasm for weapons designed specifically to kill people as efficiently as possible? Anyone familiar with John Paul II’s concern for “the sacred value of human life,” or his alarm that “broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom,” ought to see a connection.

Where the phrase “culture of death” has come up since the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting, it has been a way of changing the subject—as in an opinion column headed “We Need Abortion Control, Not Gun Control.” (Why not both?) Five days after Newtown, Rush Limbaugh welcomed a caller who scorned liberal proposals to limit gun violence on the grounds that “the left is a culture of death.” Limbaugh agreed, citing “Obamacare’s death panels” (in case you’re wondering whether right-wingers are still trying to make that stick).

But among conservatives actually willing to address proposed restrictions on guns, I find a chilling lack of reference to the human cost of guns in America. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page reacted to the Newtown massacre with a sigh: “As happened after the shootings at Columbine High School, where two students shot twelve other students, there will be calls for the control of guns, notwithstanding the existence of 200 million guns amid a U.S. population of 311 million.”

I had to reread that sentence to be sure the word they used was notwithstanding and not given. The implication seems to be that twelve deaths—or twenty-seven, in the case of Newtown—isn’t really all that many when you consider the 200 million or more guns already in circulation. (Or are they saying there are just too many guns for us to bother doing anything about them?) But mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg. Thirty thousand Americans die from gunshot wounds every year. More than three hundred of them are children under the age of fifteen. That steady drip of senseless loss—and the knowledge that no other developed nation has a firearm fatality rate that even approaches ours—is what really lies behind the calls for restrictions on guns. Horrors like the Newtown massacre invite everyone to stop and take notice.

I can respect opposition to gun control rooted in reluctance to tinker with the Constitution or skepticism about the effectiveness of particular laws. What strikes me as obscene is the conservative impulse to celebrate gun ownership in America. Guns are not just a tool, like cars or steak knives; they are weapons designed to kill. They are not a wholesome American icon, like baseball and apple pie. They are at best a necessary evil. If ordinary Americans feel the need to own firearms to defend their homes and families, that is a regrettable fact. If ordinary Americans describe themselves as “gun enthusiasts” and respond positively to advertisements equating assault rifles with masculinity (“Consider your man card reissued”), we should be concerned about losing sight of the value of human life. Lurid fantasizing about taking out bad guys (or government thugs) with military-style firepower is a symptom of a sick society.

Are restrictions on guns the best way to stop the violence, and if so, which ones? Is there a point at which gun ownership can no longer be called “responsible,” and if so, how can we define it? These are questions that deserve serious consideration. But first we have to concede that there is a problem. A debate about guns that can’t acknowledge the human cost is not only incomplete, it is immoral.

Published in the 2013-03-08 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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