A parable from Toys R Us: Bishop Zubik on gun control

Friday, March 23, 2018 - Updated: 12:54 pm

My godson, James David, is a very special person in my life. Like most people in their 30s, he is trying to hold on to his youthfulness. After all, the 30s are the years to say a bittersweet goodbye to the last vestiges of youth. His feelings are a carbon copy of what mine were at that age. From my perspective, with nearly four decades added to his three, the 30s look beautifully young. But I’ll leave him to his introspection.

James David is something of a financial wizard but, more importantly, a loving husband and the terrific father of two beautiful girls. As I think proudly of all he has become, I can’t help but remember an incident when he was a boy of 5, and his godfather made him cry.

Little James David — and his sister, Carla Nicole, four years his senior — always looked forward to Uncle Dave’s visits to their home in northern Virginia. I like to think they were excited to see me. But their joy might also have been due to the fact that a visit from Uncle Dave meant a visit to the local Toys R Us. It was on one of those visits that a problem arose.

When the three of us arrived at the toy store, young James David announced that he wanted me to buy him a toy gun. I felt quite strongly then — as I still do — that children should not play with toy guns. Young James David and I got into quite a debate. I stood my ground. He stood his!

There he was, in the middle of the aisle at Toys R Us, and as the saying goes, “crying his eyes out.” His 9-year-old sister, who had watched the whole scene, advised her brother: “Give up! Uncle Dave will never give in.”

I am happy to report that I didn’t back down. Five-year-olds will eventually stop crying. James David was no exception. I can still remember those tears and his sister looking down at him. He hasn’t forgotten it. Nor have I.

Much to say

Every day, we continue to witness shootings: in schools and shopping malls, in entertainment venues, in driveways and on street corners. (As I am writing this article, there is a bulletin on my iPhone, reporting a shooting at a Maryland high school.) Our legislators continue to argue about gun control, as do our citizens. Our society is sharply divided.

I am not a hunter. I am not a marksman. I am not anything when it comes to guns. I don’t have them. Don’t use them. Don’t want them. If our nation’s founders were drafting the Second Amendment to our Constitution today, I wonder how our array of high-capacity weapons, and the violence in our schools and streets, would affect their choice of words.

As a leader in the church, I know that there are gun proponents who believe the church should have nothing to say about guns and gun control. On the other hand, some gun opponents charge that the church says nothing about gun violence and gun control. Both are incorrect. Maybe people aren’t listening or don’t want to hear — much like my 5-year-old godson three decades ago. The church has had much to say about gun control, in statements that go back decades. Over the past several years, I personally have issued statements calling for gun control as a pro-life measure in the wake of several mass shootings. After Orlando, after Las Vegas, after Parkland and others too numerous to list — we Catholic bishops have spoken out.

Following the tragedy of December 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a joint statement calling for national policies to strengthen the regulation of firearms. Stating that “guns are too easily accessible,” we bishops supported concrete controls to limit the purchase of guns.

Referring back to our 2000 statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” we bishops called all Americans — especially legislators — to:

1. Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms;

2. Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the gun owner);

3. Support sensible regulation of handguns;

4. Support legislative efforts to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons, including high-capacity weapons;

5. Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.

This is hardly a radical agenda. It compromises no one’s constitutional rights. And it sure could save lives.

More than legislation

Ending gun violence requires more than a legislative agenda for gun control. We need to outlaw certain firearms. We need to do better background checks. We need to challenge our TV, movie and video gaming industries not to use violence as entertainment. We need to provide better, more accessible care for those with mental illness, especially when it manifests as anger.

After Newtown, we bishops stated publicly that our country must look at national policies and steps that can foster a culture “that protects the innocent and those most vulnerable among us. It is time for our nation to renew a culture of life in our society. Sacred Scripture reminds us time and again to ‘be not afraid.’ Indeed, we must find within ourselves the faith-filled courage to address the challenges our nation faces, both in our homes and in our national policies.”

It seems we haven’t yet found that faith-filled courage. The attempt to create some kind of political action on guns and gun control continues to flounder in the face of sharply divided public opinion.

I want to believe that most Americans, whether they are gun owners or not, are committed to safety, committed to a culture that will reduce violence. Good people can always get together to do good things. A little faith-filled courage can solve big problems.

James David, Carla Nicole and Uncle Dave were soon fast friends once again after the great Toys R Us debate. We three left the store 30 years ago with three different convictions — but a common understanding that there was an issue, an important issue, that made us think.

May the same be true for us today. Pray God that there will soon come a day when we don’t have to see another news story of yet another random or intentional act of gun violence. Pray that we no longer witness the funerals throughout a community on a single day or the tears of mothers weeping the untimely death of their “babies,” their daughters and sons, no matter their age.

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