I have worked with interfaith groups and political groups in Texas and Iowa on this issue of gun violence. I have signed petitions, talked with legislators, and walked in rallies to stop gun violence. I have preached on gun violence. I have talked with people on both sides of the issue of legislating access to guns and ammunition, as well as legislating the types of guns that are legal to purchase. I even moderated a television program on gun control laws. So where am I now on this very important issue?
When gun violence erupts somewhere our country, people are energized to organize in order to lobby legislators to support some sort of gun control legislation. And so it was in December 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I was called by the Unitarian Universalist minister who had served Peoples Unitarian Universalist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa some 20 years before I was called to that congregation. His name was Jeremy Brigham. He had left the ministry to become a college professor, but still was active in social justice causes. He wanted me to join with a number of other civil and religious leaders to decide what we were going to do in response to the escalation of gun violence in our country. I agreed to attend. This group of 30 or so people met at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. There was representation from the police department, many religious leaders and members of the city council, as well as the county Board of Supervisors and a number of people who had been working on the issue of gun control and/or gun violence for some time. We started by sharing our feelings of anger, fear, and frustration about this latest incident, and then started talking about what we could do. I pressed for us to work locally because I saw little change happening on a state or national level with a Republican governor in the statehouse and the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyists in the nation’s capital. We decided to start with a gun buyback program. The police were willing to accept the guns that were brought in and destroy them, but they didn’t have funds to purchase the guns. So the rest of us started working on finding sources for funding a gun buy back in the city. The city council then authorized the buyback program and opened up a fund for people to donate into. Sgt. Cristy Hamblin took the lead on this for the police department.
The police were behind this because it might actually take a few guns off the streets, but they were not holding any illusion that this step would affect gun violence in the city in any significant way. They saw this as more a symbolic act in the fight against gun violence. Our church and other churches donated to this cause. Some private individuals donated, but in the end, while we raised a few thousand dollars, we were unable to raise enough money to launch the gun buyback program.
During this process, I reached out to gun owners, particularly those in my congregation. Yes, friends, there are Unitarian Universalists who are responsible gun owners. One in particular wanted to work on this issue on a larger scale. He was a member of National Shooting Sports Association (NSSA), which coincidently has its headquarters in Sandy Hook, Massachusetts. He agreed to reach out to them and see if he could get them to write a statement condemning the Sandy Hook shooting, and call for some reasonable measures to curb gun violence. He had been active and well respected by this organization and had hope that he could make a difference by reaching out to them. His request fell on deaf ears. After several letters, emails and calls, he gave up.
Also during this time, I moderated a show on gun control on the local ABC affiliate. We found an articulate and reasoned member of the local National Rifle Association to be one of our panel members. What I remember from that program was how he eloquently told the audience that gun control will not change gun violence. He felt that mental health legislation was called for, but gun control was really off the table for any member of the NRA. He also talked about the wrongheadedness of trying to control assault weapons. He said assault weapons were no different than any rifle; they were just shaped differently. And that many normal looking rifles could be altered to be semi-automatic or even automatic, so they would essentially be the same as an assault rifle.
While he was willing to participate in this television program, he was unwilling to meet with the members of the coalition that I had been working with trying to curb gun violence in the city. He felt that we were trying to control guns, not gun violence, and he would have no part of it.
Being able to bring all parties to the table to discuss a path forward, working to reduce gun violence was stalled. And I have heard this very same thing from larger organizations working to reduce gun violence, the Brady Campaign to Control Gun Violence, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and many others.
Last month one of our local Unitarian Universalist ministers, Reverend Karen Mooney, got involved with a group trying to support one day of no gun deaths in Chicago: Thou Shalt Not Murder, Chicago : 3/27/2016. A petition drive was started. And there are events planned—one to teach people how to lobby and one reaching out to the homeless in Chicago. I signed the petition, but after my years of work in two other states, I wonder whether this will make a difference.
My own thoughts on gun violence have evolved over time. Right now I want to find a path to bring all affected parties to the table, even members of the NRA. We have to work collaboratively to decide on reasonable ways to curb this epidemic of gun violence in our country. Right now, I know that gun control legislation will not pass, in this state or in our nation’s capital. And while there is a national consensus on some issues around gun violence, the energy to make any changes seems to be low. Right now, my passion for reducing gun violence has been frustrated by the realities that I have faced in this work.
I have hope that something might happen because there are new people working on this issue. There is an Independent Voter Network (IVN) online that is trying to provide a platform for people to discuss difficult issues like gun violence in a non-partisan way, and encouraging independent-minded voters, public officials, civic leaders, and journalists to work together. The IVN has a plan for reducing gun violence which includes harsher penalties for gun violence, improved mental health access and treatment, addressing illegal gun trade, prison reform, the war on drugs (ending it), and background checks; in other words legislating background checks for any gun purchase. I hope this group might be able to engage independents and political leaders in this conversation and maybe make a difference.
I cannot tell you how sad I am about gun violence, the senseless deaths, the proliferation of gun sales, and the lack of political will in our country to effectively tackle this issue. And here is my controversial comment for this service, I do not oppose gun ownership. I am not a hunter; I am not a gun enthusiast; I am not a gun owner. But I have many friends, and some are Unitarian Universalists, who are responsible gun owners, hunters, and gun enthusiasts. My father was a hunter and took me duck hunting once. That was probably the most miserable experience of my life. Cold, wet, getting up before sunrise and loud rifles going off all around you. But the hunters around me loved this experience. They also ate the ducks they shot; they were not just killing for sport. I am not here to tell hunters that they can’t go duck hunting. However, I do think that gun user education and thorough testing to ensure a thorough knowledge of safe gun use should be part of licensing any gun owner.
While I was in Iowa, gun legislation was passed that was opposed by all the police authorities. It allowed gun owners to get licenses by taking online training and testing. Students were never required to actually shoot a gun; they never had hands-on supervised training on how to safely load or shoot a gun; they never even had to handle a gun. Yet they could be a licensed gun owner. Another part of this legislation stated that the police can’t restrict issuance of a gun license unless there are very specific reasons—like a felony conviction.
I have probably mentioned this at one time or another: my mother owns a gun because she lives alone in Houston and is afraid someone might break into her house. She has never handled a gun and has never fired a gun in her life. Yet, she has a loaded gun in her home for safety. I am deeply concerned that she will harm herself with the gun if someone were to break into her home.
What are your feelings about gun violence? Gun control? The lack of political will to bring all parties to the table to craft reasonable gun violence legislation?
In 1991, the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist churches passed a general resolution encouraging all its member congregations to petition legislators to enact and support laws such as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1991 (HR7) in the United States. And the 1991 resolution also encouraged Unitarian Universalists to petition legislators to include safety training programs as a mandatory condition that must be met before firearms can be owned and used; and to petition legislators to enact and support laws banning private ownership or use of machine guns, semi-automatic, and automatic assault weapons. As you probably know, Congress let the assault weapons ban in the Brady Bill expire in 2004. And the Supreme Court outlawed state and local governments being compelled by the national government to do background checks before gun purchases, which was also part of Brady Bill.
The Unitarian Universalist Association website has a page of resources, films, letters, and boilerplate petitions to help congregations learn how to talk about gun violence and to work on issues of gun violence. Educating ourselves thoroughly on the issues around gun violence in our country is vital if we hope to talk about the issues intelligently with people on both sides of the gun control debate.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached: “By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle… by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.” I can’t help but agree, but I also know I have spoken up again and again, and there have been negligible results. Do I sit down and quietly accept there is nothing I can do? Do I wait until the next time people are shot? Where is the uproar, the outrage at last week’s shooting in Kansas? And why do I have the queasy feeling that if the shooting hadn’t happened during this caucus and debate season, we’d be hearing more about it? Has our country become numb to gun violence? I know I can watch more violence on television without having a reaction or covering my eyes like a used to. And I can hear about violence on the news without feeling compelled to get out of my chair and make some calls to see what I can do to make a difference or help those affected. I am overwhelmed. I am numb.
In December of last year, a group rented space at our church to write cards of support to those who have been affected by gun violence. I was happy to rent them this space. I talked to them to let them know that we, as Unitarian Universalists, supported their work, and I told them I hoped that they knew this was a safe place for them.
They were going to meet here again this year to write more cards and talk about gun violence in the safe space that is DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church. Then the Illinois Rifle Association (IRA) somehow—we don’t know how—caught wind of this meeting. The date, time and location of this letter writer’s meeing was publicly posted on the IRA’s webpage, along with a call to all of its members to raid the letter-writer’s meeting in our building, in this safe space that is our church. They encouraged all their members to infiltrate this anti-gun meeting (even though pretending to be anti-gun sympathizers was repulsive to IRA members), and disrupt this meeting (because the IRA doesn’t want people to take away their guns). The IRA was going to highjack this meeting to speak out on gun rights. The Illinois Rifle Association felt threatened by this group meeting at our church. And so I alerted the police and asked that a patrol car with a couple of officers stop by in case the IRA tried to sneak into our church and disrupt the meeting. But the group writing cards and talking about gun violence decided to cancel their meeting deeply afraid of the IRA. When I talked to this group later, they told me they had to meet in secret because they are afraid of this organization and like organizations being verbally abusive and threatening toward them.
In a recent article in Sightings online magazine I read: “No matter your opinion on gun legislation, the loss of innocent life occasioned by the senseless actions of violent individuals is overwhelming. It is increasingly difficult not to be somewhat anxious about going to a large public event, sending your child to school, going to the movies, or even attending church. Considering gun violence an epidemic provides us with the opportunity to transform the terms, context, and approach of our contemporary conversation. Thinking in terms of “public health,” in particular, can be useful. It drags us away from the heated rhetoric surrounding gun rights and allows us to shift the conversation to a problem-solving plane.” ( Epidemic as Metaphor: Meaning and Morality in our Narratives of Gun Violence By Philippa Koch. Dec 31, 2015, Sightings, University of Chicago Divinity School)
People are scared, but change isn’t happening. Using different metaphors might help, but I still believe that people in the IRA and the NRA will respond to any conversation about moderating guns as a threat and will respond accordingly. Is that oversimplifying or objectification? Perhaps so, but that’s how I often feel.
I am try to be hopeful, but I do struggle with effective next steps. Smart Guns, guns that only respond to the owner’s touch, might help, but they are so many years away. I cannot be content to just wait and see if someone else will do something, but at the same time, I am not sure what to do. What I’ve done so far sure doesn’t seem to have worked very well. Still, I will support organizations that are working on this issue. I will educate myself on legislation and possible solutions to this problem. I will continue to talk to people on both sides of gun control legislation to learn how they feel, how they understand gun violence, and what they are willing to do to reduce gun violence. And then another child dies and nothing we do seems to be enough.
What I ask you to do, with me, is not forget those who are killed by guns.
“Each of us is an indescribable assemblage, a person;
each of us is different from all who have gone or who will follow after.
Each of us has inherent weaknesses and strengths;
whether we are homely or beautiful,
each person is loved for what we are,
and to those who love us the loss will be unique and everlasting.
each friend departed leaves us wounded,
even as a mother holds a tender sorrow for the baby which is no more.
For each person is a thousand people;
each person dies a thousand times before
their last ending writes a finish to their early days.”
I invite you into a time of silence to bring to mind those who you want to remember who have died from gun violence. And when the chime sounds, you can speak their names out loud.
Let us always remember. May we know that our work will be a sign of hope. May we not refuse to do the something that we can do. So may it be.