“Ask a Priest: Are Stand-Your-Ground Laws Morally OK?”

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Q: Can you help me understand the Church’s position on stand-your-ground laws? Is it for or against, or is it nuanced? With recent news of different shootings, it seems salient. I think previously there were self-defense laws, which the Church would be OK with to a certain extent, but stand-your-ground laws seem to take it a step further. It doesn’t seem correct somehow that a person can shoot another person for feeling threatened even by their mere presence. In the bigger picture, how does the U.S. Church square its relatively neutral stance (as far as I can perceive) on laws loosening gun restrictions and making it easier for someone to kill someone else lawfully, with its outspoken advocacy against abortion? Could it hold for a mother to have an abortion if she feels her life is in danger from a pregnancy due to actual or potential health complications? – M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The Church has articulated basic principles to guide us in the use of deadly force.

Deadly force can be justified under the principle of double effect if it’s the only way to stop an unjust aggressor.

A few numbers from the Catechism are worth quoting here:

Legitimate defense

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. The one is intended, the other is not.”

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge. [end quoted material]

As regards the stand-your-ground laws: It would be necessary to see the details of each law to offer a detailed evaluation. Shooting someone who happens to stray into your back yard, for instance, wouldn’t be justified under the principles mentioned in the Catechism.

Nevertheless, people do have a right to protect themselves and their families. How they do it and to what extent that involves having guns around is a prudential decision as well as a political decision.

Whether the Church would make official statements on this or that law depends on each case.

While a local bishop might make suggestions, the Church generally won’t get involved in every legislative debate. The Church recognizes that civil authority has a certain autonomy, and certain issues are for public officials to decide.

In any case, the issue of guns isn’t quite on the same level as abortion. Guns aren’t inherently evil. They can be used for good purposes (hunting or legitimate defense) or bad purposes (unjust aggression). Abortion, on the other hand, is always evil because it involves the deliberate killing of an innocent life.

A basic moral principle is that we can’t use evil means to obtain a good end. Hence, abortion is never allowed. A mother whose health is in danger needs proper medical care, and an abortion is never medical care in the true sense.

If we allow an evil means for a good end, then anything could be justified — which would be the end of morality and any chance for civil society.

For a deeper look at the Catholic view of the political realm, see the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Chapter 8.


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