In the wake of yet another mass shooting (this time in San Bernadino), I am remembering a Sunday morning in Salt Lake City just a few months ago when I joined over 1500 Episcopalians marching, singing, and praying for an end to gun violence.
Note, this was not a march protesting guns or gun possession. (A few participants brought provocative signs denouncing guns, but that was not the point of the march organizers). This was not a march to repeal the 2nd amendment. It was a march seeking common ground to end the violence that is costing so many lives.
I participated in the march chiefly to learn. I am not a gun owner and have not experienced gun violence personally, though it is in the news almost every day in my city. I have not studied gun policy extensively. I do know many people who hunt. I know some who carry weapons for personal protection. I know many who serve in the military who are trained to use weapons. And I know that these folks are as saddened and outraged by Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston, and the like as I am and want to prevent further violence. But public discourse on this issue is often polarized around guns, rather than violence, leaving us stuck with division rather than open to solutions. I came to the march seeking another way.
We were led by many of our bishops. Prior to General Convention, Bishop Mark Beckwith (Newark), Bishop Ian Douglas (Connecticut), and Bishop Eugene Sutton (Maryland), began working together on this issue and invited others to join them. I assume they were motivated by mass shootings in their dioceses (especially Sandy Hook in Connecticut). After researching the issue, they formed a coalition “Bishops United Against Gun Violence” (website here) to ask for a few simple things:
- Expanding the federal background checks system to cover gun shows, internet and commercial sales
- Making gun trafficking a federal crime
- Encouraging the development of “smart gun” technology to reduce accidental shootings—especially among children
- Requiring that guns be stored safely
- Improving access to mental healthcare for all Americans.
I’m not a policy expert, but these sound like fairly simple proposals. Many polls show that a large majority of Americans support universal background checks. Responsible gun owners do not support gun trafficking. Making guns safer is good for everyone. And while we should not assume that all people who struggle with mental illness are violent, improving access to mental health care will help those who may become violent as well as those who are not.
At various points in the march, bishops and others spoke about these and other common ground proposals. They said repeatedly that they were not denouncing gun ownership. They were denouncing the violence that destroys so many lives.
But one person did talk about gun ownership. The Rev. Gayle Fischer-Stewart is a retired police officer and now a deacon (I think preparing to become a priest). She spoke from the perspective of one who used to carry a gun and now chooses not to. She pointed out rightly that gun owners and gun shunners sometimes think they are on different sides of this issue, but we are all actually on the same side. We all want to be safe – we just come to safety from different directions. She also stated that laws alone won’t solve the issue – what is needed is a change in the human heart for everyone. She called Episcopalians to seek the common ground of keeping people safe. This is a excerpt of her remarks – worth a listen.
As I write now little is known about the situation in San Bernadino. This appears to have been a coordinated, planned attack with guns and other weapons. Police officers intervened and used guns to stop two of the attackers. We do not know where the shooters got their weapons, what motivated them to do this, or if background checks would have prevented this tragedy. But the proposals some of our bishops put forth are at least a starting place. Regardless of what we learn about this situation, I would feel safer with stronger background checks, safer guns, and better access to mental health care.
We gathered that Sunday morning, June 28, just 11 days after Charleston. Since that time according to shootingtracker.com, we have experienced almost 200 additional mass shootings (targeting 4 or more people). That list does not include the almost daily accounts of individual gun violence in my city or yours. Gun owners and gun shunners – it is past time to come together and demand a safer world. (For the record, General Convention did approve a resolution for Decreasing Gun Violence – here).
Here is a video summarizing the march itself, with quotes from several presenters. It begins by reminding us that we are mourning, but we seek common ground. The policy proposals of these bishops may need more research and discussion, but we can all learn from this example. Let’s find a way to get beyond rhetoric and division and focus on what we all want – the safety of all God’s children.
For those who Influence Public Opinion
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.