Catholic Sentinel: Faith-inspired gun measure will need to wait

Ed Langlois, of the Catholic Sentinel   August 6, 2018

Backers of a proposed Oregon ballot measure to outlaw sales of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines have been forced to wait for a later election or move to persuading lawmakers. 

The Oregon Supreme Court on June 27 rejected the ballot language as too vague and sent it back to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. That left advocates with too little time to collect the needed 88,000 valid signatures by July 6. 

In addition to banning sales, the measure would have required current owners to register the guns within 120 days or face felony charges.

“It’s a very fair approach to allow weapons for personal safety and weapons for sports and at the same time keep our kids safe,” said Lynette Pierson, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish who is promoting the measure. “It goes right to our Catholic principles, the call to the common good. Our faith demands that we promote peace in a world of conflict.”

The Oregon Catholic Conference, public policy arm of the Archdiocese of Portland and the Diocese of Baker, did not take a position on the proposed measure but may reconsider if it qualifies for a later ballot or appears as a bill in the Oregon Legislature.

“There is no reason to have an assault rifle,” said Todd Cooper, director of the conference. “At the same time, the measure can be seen as a slippery slope.” Cooper said the conference must take into account the needs of Catholics across the state, including those in rural areas who are wary of gun control.

“There are arguments on both sides about whether the initiative advances ‘reasonable’ controls,” Cooper said. “Like many issues, this is a matter of prudential judgement.”

The Oregon Catholic Conference does speak out about the root causes of violence in society.

“This includes the breakdown of the family and fatherless households,” Cooper said. “It also includes alienation and isolation of individuals from community. Violence in the entertainment industry — TV, movies, video games and music —adds to the problem. In our current culture, ready access to assault-style weapons doesn’t help either.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the sale of assault weapons while also calling for social changes that will reduce violence. The position goes back to 1994.

“The Church has been a consistent voice for the promotion of peace at home and around the world, and a strong advocate for the reasonable regulation of firearms,” the bishops say in a statement on their website. “Christ’s love and mercy must guide us. The Church recognizes that recourse to self-defense is legitimate for one’s own safety. In today’s world, however, weapons that are increasingly capable of inflicting great suffering in a short period of time are simply too accessible.”

Pierson, whose sons are adults, sympathizes with children and teens who feel anxious every day at school. She has heard youths say they now wear only tennis shoes to school so they can run and hide faster if a shooter appears. One mom told Pierson she will not let her first-grader wear light-up shoes, lest that make the child a target.

“Our kids shouldn’t have to deal with that,” Pierson said.

Genevieve Klein, a 2017 Jesuit high school graduate, helps the campaign with social media. She’ll be a sophomore at Gonzaga University in the fall. She said the measure is about the health and safety of young Oregonians. Klein described the anxiety many students feel at school, even safe places like Jesuit and Gonzaga. She and others learned in 2012 that Sandy Hook, Connecticut, also had been considered safe before a gunman killed dozens of gradeschoolers there.

“Gun culture has really infiltrated the lives of so many,” Klein said. “At school you are always on alert. Every time I enter a classroom I wonder where is my quickest way out? What is important here is to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Pierson, a retired chemist, got involved in the campaign after hearing a talk by Rabbi Michael Cahana.  

Rabbi Cahana, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Northwest Portland, told the Sentinel the ballot measure originated with a group of Portland clergy who met after shootings at schools and malls. The religious leaders wanted to devise pastoral responses.

“We found ourselves gathering again and again and again,” Rabbi Cahana said. “We found it wasn’t enough to offer thoughts and prayers and consolation. We had to take action.”

The students who came forward after the shooting at their school in Parkland, Florida, provided additional motivation.

The religious leaders say their position is not political but moral. Rabbi Cahana cites Leviticus 19:16, which says, “You shall not stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake.” He also quotes Deuteronomy 30:19 — “Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.”

Rabbi Cahana does not object to guns for personal protection or hunting. “This is not about taking away guns,” he said. “But I don’t believe in guns whose real and only purpose is to kill as many human beings as possible. That is not the kind of society we should be creating.”

Pierson reports an “overwhelmingly positive response” when she speaks to other Catholics about the measure. But not everyone supports it.

Elena Miller, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, said the vague language in the measure threatened to criminalize Oregonians who comply with current law.

“Catholics must beware of emotional platitudes equating gun control with pro-life advocacy,” Miller added. “The catechism [paragraph 2265] upholds our duty to defend ourselves, our loved ones and strangers with lethal force if necessary.”

She criticized the proposed measure for possibly impeding people from saving lives.

Father Peter O’Brien, pastor of St. Edward Parish in Lebanon, grew up in Wyoming and shooting for sport and hunting was part of the culture.

“I support a little more red tape for buying these assault weapons, but banning them, that’s radical,” Father O’Brien said.

He is concerned with people who use guns in the wrong way but thinks there could be constitutional problems with stopping sales.

“And remember, we are up against the backstop of criminals — they don’t care about laws,” Father O’Brien said. “If you make new laws, it’s not going to solve the problems.”