Book Review: The Gun Saint

Possenti saves the villagers by shooting a lizard

Possenti’s dead aim terrifies marauders. Image (c) John Snyder, used with permission

The Catholic Church celebrates patron saints ranging from the obvious to the obscure, from doctors to undertakers. Why not add a patron saint for responsible handgun heroes?

John M. Snyder, former Jesuit seminarian and gun rights activist, tells the story of that question with simplicity, detail, and persistence, beginning with the tale of the Passionist Patron Saint of Youth, who saved an 1860 Italian town from marauding rapists and thieves–by shooting a lizard.

Saint Gabriel Possenti’s fascinating story ends in Chapter One.

Instead of following Possenti, the book details a pursuit of his legacy through Snyder’s crusade to make Possenti the patron saint of handgunners. Snyder argues that naming Possenti patron saint of handgunners would hold up an example to all gun owners of how to use their guns: without the shedding of blood, if possible, and in the self-defense of others.

Recognizing a gun-saint would also affirm and celebrate the responsible gun-owners around the world, he argues.

But should the Holy See designate Possenti as patron saint of someone as deadly as a handgunner? After all, thousands die every year because of felonies committed with handguns.

Snyder answers this concern with FBI statistics analyzed by experts such as professors at the University of Chicago and University of Florida: most of the crimes in the United States are committed with a very small percentage of the guns, they argue, and more handguns become self-defense weapons than murder tools.

Snyder does not play games: he lays out the numbers, cites all his sources, and leaves the reader to decide.

The sheer amount of new information, from stories, references and numbers to public statements opposing Snyder, make this little book a treasure trove.

Snyder seems content to motivate instead of claiming the spotlight, and his quest through Church bureaucracy and prelate opposition becomes a celebration of others rather than a struggle of his own.

Snyder dedicated the book to his wife, Ling, who appears besides him almost every time he goes anywhere in the book. This man does not seek glory for himself, but works with and for other people.

Only repetition of arguments and inclusion of unrelated incidences—such as the pedophilia of a bishop opposed to Snyder’s quest—harm Snyder’s presentation. He occasionally puts his weakest foot forward: his first modern ‘self-defense’ tale regarded a non-incident where the home-owner cocked a gun to scare away someone who had asked to use the phone. Meanwhile, Snyder buried an epic story about two gun-wielding, life-saving Colombian nuns towards the end of the book.

He did not address one of his best pro-handgun-saint arguments: there already exists a patron saint of artillery gunners. The order of Saint Barbara is the most prestigious award one can receive in artillery.

It would also have benefited the book had Snyder included some pre-1900s references verifying the historicity of Possenti’s heroism. The historian who compiled Possenti’s story must have had some witness villagers or pillagers Snyder could have listed for evidence, but Snyder focused on defending the historian rather than the story.

Overall, the book will definitely perform better in the hands of Catholic readers.  Snyder occasionally uses language harshly unfamiliar to non-Catholics—what does it mean, for example, for a pope to beatify someone? The fourth chapter begins with a claim that anyone who tries to follow the lifestyle of Christ can reach salvation: Christians who emphasize the need for Christ to remove their sins and the primacy of grace over works will wish he had not included the chapter, to say nothing of how non-religious pro-gunners will feel.

But Snyder’s book, quite frankly, is not written for them. This is a book for Catholics, by a Catholic.

Yet in the end, any reader can appreciate the depth of Snyder’s research, sympathize with his snubbing at the pens of the bureaucracy, enjoy his stories. I suspect fans of the movie Boondock Saints might find a parallel in the real-life encounters Snyder describes. In fact, I venture that a screenplay about Possenti’s conversion and exploits would draw crowds.

After all, who cannot love stories of priests, nuns, and ordinary people who shoot straight to save lives–and ultimately, who cannot appreciate the story of a man dedicated to promoting others, in love with his wife, and passionate about the right to protect others with a handgun?

The 150th anniversary Feast of Saint Gabriel Possenti is Feb. 27. Supporters can contact the Possenti Society for directions to a mass and dinner on that date.