Letter on Gun Violence
As the new year dawns many items in the news triggers our sorrow--children blown up by U.S. drones in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Israeli families hit by rockets from the Gaza strip and Palestinian families destroyed by Israeli air attacks, African children forced to become soldiers by some mad warlord--the list goes on and on. We are not certain we have any better answers than anyone else. However, we want to reflect and motivate reflection upon violence in this nation, especially the horrendous slaughter caused by the overwhelming number of guns in America and the appalling national philosophy that violence can be met only by violence. Add to this our decades-long neglect of strong mental health programs in the United States, it has proven to be a recipe for disaster.
Consider the following statistics: It is generally accepted that Americans own 300 million guns – about nine for every ten citizens. Many of these are owned by responsible adults, for sporting or as part of a treasured collection. Yet the ready availability of guns has led to another startling statistic: thirty thousand or more Americans die each year from gunshot wounds – including suicides, accidental shootings, and criminal actions. It has been estimated that since 1968, the year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated, more than one million Americans have died of gunshot wounds, Imagine if that many had been killed by a foreign government or by terrorist groups – how would we respond? But these were self-inflicted or caused accidently or willfully by fellow Americans.
Then there are the school shootings. Just before Christmas our nation was horrified, once again, by the violent behavior of a gunman who gave expression to his irrational and distorted view of personal reality by taking a collection of weapons and ammunition to an elementary school and kindergarten in Newtown, Connecticut where he proceeded to kill the principal of the school, 2 teachers, and 24 children 6 years of age and younger. His weapons of choice were those designed to kill large numbers of people, not to be used for sporting purposes.
What set this event apart from the others that have become so tragically familiar to us is its focus upon small children. These are among the most vulnerable among us. We ask ourselves, "Whatever could possess an individual to focus his hate upon such defenseless victims?"
It is appropriate for us to mourn the loss of these parents, to grieve the absence of these children from our midst, and to even give momentary expression to our despair and anger. Such reactions are healthy. But, more is expected of us. We must seek, with others, solutions to the growing violence in our society.
Contrary to some published reports there is ample evidence that eliminating the availability of military style weaponry to the general public and responsibly monitoring the purchase of all weapons dramatically reduces mass shootings in all societies where such laws have been implemented. In addition, it is a widely recognized fact that weapons in private ownership are responsible for most accidental and intentional shootings and deaths in households and families. These weapons do not provide security and safety. They are not generally used for self-protection.
It would be inexcusable for our society and, most of all, for the church to remain silent on the issue of gun violence in our midst. To do nothing or to do anything that will further arm our society is unconscionable and unfaithful. Following the course of silence or the path that further encourages the development of an armed society does not enhance public security; it only increases the possibility that further tragic events will happen among us.
In considering what our nation needs to do, what role the church can play in these discussions, and what action plans can be developed on gun violence; we offer the following reflections and recommendations:
- The enforcement of present laws, particularly in bringing the data base of prohibited gun purchasers up to date. In Illinois, apparently less than 1/10 of these buyers’ names have even been entered into the state database, because of the reduction in the number of state workers available to do the job.
- Extending present laws to cover all gun purchases, particularly at unlicensed firearms sales venues such as gun shows – and subsequent re-sales of those weapons in future years.
- Creating new laws to limit the sales of assault weapons, automatic weapons conversion kits, weapons that cannot be detected by metal-detection devices, and ammunition such as “cop-killer bullets” that are obviously designed to wreak massive damage on human victims; they are not for hunting game.
- Passing federal legislation to regulate the importation, manufacturing and sale of guns and ammunition to the general public. This does not mean limiting the treasured “Second Amendment rights” of Americans, but simply to have provisions for registering and licensing gun buyers and owners, background investigations and waiting periods prior to gun purchase, and regulation of subsequent sales.
Such measures actually are reminiscent of the way our own “Wild West” was tamed. In a time when every man carried a gun, violence in frontier towns was reduced as families, women and children, schools and churches came on the scene and demanded law and order. This meant sheriffs and marshals carried guns, and every other citizen was compelled to keep their guns at home. Visitors (like the “cowboys” of the trail herds) had to place their weapons in the sheriff’s office rather than carry them on the streets – then pick their guns up when they left town. What lesson can we learn from our forebears?
- Developing (possibly through the United Nations) a legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the transfer of all small arms and light weapons so as to reduce gun violence throughout the world. It is estimated by Amnesty International that there are close to 700 million such weapons circulating, with perhaps the largest number of them originating in the U.S.
- Bringing together mental health professionals, educators, and clergy, along with other appropriate groups, to initiate a national dialogue concerning the care of mentally and emotionally disturbed persons. We have in much of the U.S. dismantled programs to help such persons, turning them out on the streets or placing them back into homes where families feel helpless to deal with the issues of their loved one. A few of these persons have been involved in the most highly publicized mass killings in the U.S., particularly in schools and colleges. We need to discuss how to help these persons while at the same time limiting their access to guns.
We think the majority of NRA members (if not their leaders) would agree with such steps. Most gun owners are sensible, responsible people we believe (and hope). But beyond those sensible legal steps, we need to address some broader, more difficult issues:
- Of course, many of the 30-some-thousand gun deaths each year in this country are crime-related. Laws will not keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but the easy availability of guns needs to be addressed.
- We need a dialogue about the violence-obsessed culture in our nation. Surely the excessive depiction of violence in our mass media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) has an impact on our children and youth.
- Churches need to initiate dialogue within their own congregation and in their own community about gun safety, violence prevention, and what adults can do to help keep our children safe. It is notable that General Conference in 2008 officially declared all United Methodist congregations as gun-free zones, but little has been publicized about that declaration, even in those churches.
- Pastors need to take leadership in their teaching role to help the congregation and community enter a dialogue about a wide-spread ideology in our nation that peace and justice can only be secured by violence (e.g. “guns keep us safe”, “What makes America great is God, Guts, and Guns”, “the only answer for a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun”, etc.) We need to explore time-tested methods of non-violent resistance to evil advocated by such prophets as Gandhi and M. L. King, Jr., for example, while also discussing the insights of “realism “promoted by such thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr. Let’s also draw on resources from our brothers and sisters in the Friends (Quaker), Mennonite and Brethren traditions.
Most of all, we need to more deeply explore the teachings of the Prince of Peace. It is difficult to imagine that our Lord would have called his followers to load up with weapons in order to face threats. What is the role of prayer and redemptive love in dealing with violence in our nation and world?
- Churches and educators should come together with law enforcement officials to discuss issues of keeping our children, schools, and churches safe from gun violence. In most communities, the police are already aware of many individuals most likely to be a danger, and they need our support as they risk their lives on our behalf.
- Churches and health care professionals also need to come together to discuss plans for helping children, families, and communities cope in the wake of publicized mass killings in schools and other public places. We need to avoid traumatizing our children. We can surely reassure them without ignoring the reality of danger in the world.
Many of these ideas are found in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2008 edition, particularly on pp. 512-5 and 741. But, more than any resources we have in our Book of Discipline or Book of Resolutions is our heritage of faith formed by the scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. There we find the roots of our commitment to love of neighbor, actions forged in the furnace of justice, the pursuit of peace in the midst of violence, and the honoring of our children.
If we learn nothing else from these resources, we should learn that maintaining the status quo or further arming our society are not the answers. In developing responsible, faithful solutions, we don’t have to start from scratch in talking about all this. Let us keep the conversation alive and the pursuit of creative answers progressing.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Miley Palmer and Rev. Howard Daughenbaugh
Rev. Jim Bortell
Rev. Paul Unger
Rev. John McFarland
Rev. John Hartleroad
Rev. Terry Clark
Rev. Larry Lawler
Rev. Leah Pogemiller
Rev. Gene Mace
Rev. Burt McIntosh
Rev. Mike Jones
Rev. David Gaffron
Dr. Geoffrey L. Story
Bettie W. Story
Dr. Bob Hathway
Rev. Clyde Snyder
Rev. Walter Carlson
Mary K. Mace
Rev. James Montgomery, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Decatur, IL
Dr. John Kirk