Some modern Christians, as well as other religious people, suffer from the notion that self-defense is wrong–and others think self-defense is acceptable as long as one does not carry a firearm in order to do it. By spreading the story of a 19th Century Italian saint, the St. Gabriel Possenti Society works to counteract that impression. The society’s founder and president, John Snyder, is a long-time lobbyist for 2nd Amendment rights in Washington, D.C. Director of Publications and Public Affairs for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, Snyder incorporated the society in 1989. “He’s fairly modern. He used revolvers,” said Snyder in explaining why St. Gabriel Possenti was chosen instead of a warrior saint such as crusader St. Louis IX. “He was known as quite a marksman. He defended an entire village from a gang of terrorists. He was not in a war. He was in a situation that many people can find themselves in, which is having to defend themselves.” And, crucially, said Snyder: “He used a handgun for self-defense but never killed anybody.” The society’s website summarized an incident in the life of Gabriel Possenti, an athletic young man who was a seminarian at the time: “In 1860, a band of soldiers from the army of Garibaldi entered the mountain village of Isola, Italy. They began to burn and pillage the town, terrorizing its inhabitants. Possenti, with his seminary rector’s permission, walked into the center of town, unarmed, to face the terrorists. One of the soldiers was dragging off a young woman he intended to rape when he saw Possenti and made a snickering remark about such a young monk being all alone. Possenti quickly grabbed the soldier’s revolver from his belt and ordered the marauder to release the woman. The startled soldier complied, as Possenti grabbed the revolver of another soldier who came by. Hearing the commotion, the rest of the soldiers came running in Possenti’s direction, determined to overcome the rebellious monk. “At that moment a small lizard ran across the road between Possenti and the soldiers. When the lizard briefly paused, Possenti took careful aim and hit the lizard with one shot.” His next shot, he promised, would be “through your heart.” The soldiers, impressed with Possenti’s skills, gave in. They put out the fires they had started and left town. The young Possenti died of consumption two years later. Snyder wrote a small book, Gun Saint (Telum, 2003), about Possenti and lobbies the Vatican to declare him “the patron of hand-gunners.” “Nobody has said yes or no,” said Snyder of his efforts in Rome. “They say it requires more study.” Snyder explains to people that there is a “theological basis of the doctrine of legitimate self-defense. There’s a lot of confusion among a lot of religious people about this. There is a pacifistic element that needs to be corrected. The right to self-defense is compatible with and commensurate with the charity of Christ.” This is the true pro-life position, he insisted. “If you state you have the right to life but that you don’t have the right to the means to protect that right, you create a problem,” he said. The soldiers that Possenti faced down were renegades from their army. But oftentimes, governments use their power to exterminate populations. In Gun Saint, Snyder cites Death by Gun Control by Aaron Zelman and Richard Stevens, which shows “that each of the genocides of the 20th Century was preceded by government confiscation of privately held firearms. Each confiscation itself had been preceded by the enactment of restrictive firearm laws making possible the confiscation policy,” wrote Snyder. Those genocides included those of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s German Reich, Turkey against Armenians, Communist China, Guatemala, Uganda, Cambodia, and Rwanda. “There’s a pretty strong pro-gun movement in Italy,” said Snyder, though “there is no mass gun movement in Italy like here.” He linked this issue to the current War on Terror. Possenti “did defend people from a gang of cutthroats or terrorists. That’s what we’re doing today,” he said. “It’s the innocent versus the malignant.” He said that supporting something like the example of St. Gabriel Possenti could help certain Catholic bishops who have gone overboard in their opposition to the war in Iraq. “This would help them get out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into with so many stupid statements,” Snyder said.
Fighting for gun rights and a patron saint of handgunners