Missouri's four Roman Catholic bishops said the frequency of shootings in the United States is making the public "numb to the profound impact on those directly affected," in a recently issued joint statement.
The Rev. W. Shawn McKnight, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, said the state's bishops are in complete agreement that something needs to be done about the violence afflicting the state and the nation.
The bishops' statement said the nation must have an honest discussion about how violent images and experiences affect youth. The state must create peace in communities through "restorative justice policies and practices" and through discussions about violence in entertainment.
"The decision was made in light of recent gun violence," McKnight said. "It's not just a matter of gun regulation. We have to reflect on things in our culture that fuel this kind of violence."
In a hierarchy of rights, the right to life is the most important, he said.
"We must protect life, even if it means in some degree limiting our liberties," he said.
The statement acknowledges people must defend themselves. Many Catholics are law-abiding, gun-owning citizens who would never consider use of lethal force unless it were necessary for survival. However, within the statement, the bishops say they don't see any justification for civilians to own "bump stocks," which are commonly used to turn semi-automatic firearms "into weapons of war." They also support universal background checks for gun purchases and limiting civilian access to high-capacity ammunition magazines.
McKnight, a quail hunter, said the church supports limiting ammunition capacities for weapons, like those used in the Missouri Wildlife Code.
The bishops support improved access to and increased resources for mental health interventions and care.
They pointed out Missouri legislators continue to create bills that would loosen gun regulations and specifically discussed House Bill 1382 — sponsored by state Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark — which would eliminate the need for people with concealed-carry handgun permits to ask permission to bring their weapons into churches.
"If this bill were to pass, churches wishing to remain gun-free would have to post signage in their sacred spaces prohibiting guns," the statement says. "This is highly offensive to us and would violate our First Amendment rights to religious liberty. As the leaders in the Catholic Church in Missouri, we vigorously object to this change in Missouri law."
Miller said Friday the bill was in response to concerns pastors and churches had expressed about their liability under the current law, which requires people with concealed-carry permits to have permission to carry firearms in places of worship.
"It's not a crazy gun-in-church bill," Miller said. "What it does is it allows good people to carry weapons. Bad people don't follow the law."
Miller later clarified that the intent of the bill is to transfer any liability off the clergy and church board when those with concealed-carry permits bring weapons into a church.
Each Sunday, many thousands of people attend Catholic churches in Missouri, McKnight said. Under Miller's law, the priests would have to check with each to see if they are carrying weapons, he said.
"It's almost impossible," McKnight said. "In Jefferson City alone, we have several thousand come to church every Sunday. It's not something we can do."
Miller added he's "comfortable carrying a weapon in church." He said churches want some form of security and are concerned about liability. Asked if he had checked with an attorney to see if that was a valid concern, he clarified his statement — saying the churches were concerned about their insurance rates going up.
McKnight said that was not something he had heard.
Recently, Miller said, a constituent approached him and said his mother carries a pistol to church in her purse every Sunday — and the pastor doesn't know.
Miller didn't know if the constituent had told his mother she was breaking the law or if she had a concealed-carry permit.
"She's accidentally breaking the law," he said.
This article was edited Tuesday, April 10, 2018, to add a clarification of the intent behind state Rep. Rocky Miller's House Bill 1382.