God and Guns

Please Note: This post contains information and points made by speakers at the God and Guns Conference.  Please find the citations at the bottom of the post.

 

Yesterday, I had the heartbreaking privilege to attend the God and Guns Faith Leaders Training at The Riverside Church in New York City.  It was a long, heavy, incredible, heartbreaking and uplifting day, filled with information and conviction I will spend a long time wrestling with.  And yet, before the pain dulls to numbness and the truth soaking my soul is reduced to facts in my notebook, I want to mark my experience and capture my initial thoughts.  Maybe this post will keep them alive longer; maybe it will give you a glimpse into the world I entered yesterday. 

At God and Guns, I came face to face with gun survivors; mothers who lost sons, fathers who lost their babies, teachers of Sandy Hook and friends of loved ones lost to gun violence.  It was heartbreaking, and forced me to see the faces and hear the voices of people beyond the short attention spans and edits of our news.  I saw people beyond the soundbites and lights of the “latest shootings,” and learned how the fight, grief and violence continues even after the hashtags stop.

At the God and Guns Training I also rubbed shoulders with fellow clergy and religious leaders.  We spanned the spectrum, representing people who strongly support the 2nd amendment, people who want it amended and people who want it reduced to an unrecognizable form of itself.  We worshipped together, ate together, cried together, and left vowing to do something if it meant making a dent in the gun violence problem we have in this country.

It is impossible to share everything, but here is what I found most shocking at this conference:

unnamedGun Violence is a Woman’s Health Issue:

I was deeply troubled to learn U.S women are 16x more likely to die by gun violence than women in other high-income nations.  And domestic abuse plays a key role in this statistic. 

In fact, the majority of mass shootings (57%) involve domestic violence.  This means women are highly unsafe in their own country; in their own homes.  This means the majority of gun violence in this country is not perpetrated by our stereotypical “bad guy” with a gun, it is perpetrated by loved ones, family members.  Domestic violence is all too prevalent and the fact is, guns make it worse.  In fact, when a gun is present in a domestic violent situation, a woman is 5x more likely to be murdered (1).

 

Guns are not as widespread as I once believed:

In fact, recent reports show 78% of U.S Americans do not own a gun.  19% of the population own 50% of the guns and 3% own the other 50%.  This means we are dealing with a heavily over-armed minority of people, at great risk to the unarmed majority (2).

 

Background Checks are not required for all gun sales:

It is true, when you buy a gun from a licensed gun dealer you are suppose to go through a background check, and 92% of Americans (Republican, Democrat and otherwise) support background checks for all gun sales.  And yet, 40% of guns are bought LEGALLY, without background checks.  Loopholes, including the lack of background checks at gun shows, or for online gun sales, have made it possible for people who have no business owning guns to get one.  In fact, 29% of online sales are done illegally, by larger scale gun dealers who should not be selling via the internet.  Background checks typically take under 2 minutes, are inexpensive, and 98.4% of U.S Americans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer.  Therefore, there is no excuse for such a large online loophole (3).

 

Communities of Color are disproportionality affected by gun violence:

Laws like “Stand Your Ground” disproportionally target communities of color, specifically young black men.  Young black men are already viewed by society as dangerous, threatening and suspicious.  Therefore, if you give people who “feel threatened” (largely white people) the power to make snap judgments and shoot whenever they are uncomfortable (or angry) around people of color, you get deaths like that of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.  These laws must be changed or repealed so they no longer cater to the implicit bias we as a society are taught to carry next to our handgun (4).

 

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My friend and colleague Rashad and I, representing Drew Theological School!

“Sandy Hooks Happen Everyday” (5):

Along similar lines, we must acknowledge tragedies similar to Sandy Hook happen everyday.  Each day, an average of 91 U.S Americans die by guns (6).  And much of this senseless violence is concentrated in urban areas.  This is not to say all urban areas are unsafe, and the people living in them are violent.  In fact, many people of color have historically been forced into tight urban areas where they experience deep hardship, disenfranchisement and poverty.  These same communities have then been portrayed as violent, aggressive and prone to criminality, a stereotype that continues today and perpetuates the criminalization of urban areas.  As a result, we have this dangerous, yet socially acceptable narrative that cities are teeming with danger and criminality perpetrated mostly by people of color.

And yet, as Pastor Michael McBride informed me, out of 19,000 cities in the U.S only 165 of them have more than 10 murders a year (not gun deaths, but murders) (7).  This means this stereotypes of dangerous and criminal urban communities is often a distraction and excuse for people to carry guns and “defend themselves.” 

Still, there is no question that action should be taken in cities that do suffer from extreme violence.  Addressing this issue does not mean meeting violence with violence, or criminalizing communities, rather it means taking into account that “hurting people, hurt people (8).”  Therefore to address urban gun violence is to address poverty, the criminal justice system, education and racism, because if we invest in the lives of disenfranchised people, making sure they are heard and respected, then we help ease the hurts that contribute to violence. 

We must grieve the gun violence of the city in the same way we grieve for the suburbs, and seek change.  There is no difference in worth from life to life, and death at the hands of violence is tragedy to the Divine no matter what.  Sandy Hooks happen each day, and if we invest in lives of all, then we won’t be able to ignore the death of some.

Yesterday, these facts and figures shocked me.  They burrowed in my gut forming a pit of despair, and made me rage against lax laws, systemic injustice and our society’s complacency.  And yet, they made me yearn for a cultural shift.  These facts played to my mind, but as Rep. Jim Himes reminded us, they also highlighted the need for a societal change of heart (9).  They highlighted the fact that gun policy is entangled in the history, mythology and trauma of this country, and gun violence is equally as complex, finding its roots in racism, patriarchy and consumerism. 

This means we need to talk about the masculinity and feeling of power found in holding a gun.  We need to talk about how that power, that invincibility felt when we hold a gun makes it difficult to hear the cries of those in the crossfire.    

We need to talk about our xenophobia, our fear of others both domestically and abroad.  We need to talk about how our foreign policy, our massive military (that’s bigger than the militaries of the next 7 countries combined) seeps the idea of violence into the culture, hearts and lives of U.S Americans (10).

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My personal prayer left on our collective conference prayer wall, asking that we experience grief, mourning and pain of gun violence. May that grief embolden us and move us into action.

We need to address the fact that the gun industry is a huge money making machine.  When the gun lobby and NRA literally fund our political leaders, we have to question who our leaders are really speaking for.  Gun safety is not an even, 50% – 50% debate, and if 92% of U.S Americans want background check laws, why don’t we have them? And when almost 35% of the world’s small arms are built in the U.S, then we must recognize our money is tied up in our guns, and the blood they’re used to spill.  We are giving our money to an industry banking on our fear and hate (11).

We are in the midst of a social, moral and historical crises.  And we have often met this crises with the overly simplistic argument: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” without admitting that people with guns kill far more people (12).

And perhaps worst of all, we have told ourselves that some people are just collateral damage.  We tell ourselves our laws and rights require the blood of the children of Sandy Hook, the Trayvon Martins, the traumatized veterans and the abused women, as if laws cannot be changed, rights cannot be reassessed, old documents cannot be edited.  We tell ourselves all we can do is hold moments of silence, send prayers and thoughts, and buy another gun.  But, at the end of the day we must own up to the fact we’ve become complacent and numb to gun violence.

Yesterday reminded me that addressing gun violence is as much about the heart as it is about the head (13).  And if I explore the depths of my heart, if I study sacred scriptures I adhere to, if I search the eyes of the sisters and brothers I pass on the street, I uncover the truth: violence begets more violence and peace through strength is not a lasting nor bloodless peace.

Yesterday all of us in that training were Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, trying to figure out how our respective religions of peace engage our reality of gun violence.  But above all else, we were people, mourning our dead and washing the blood from each other’s hands, so we may go out and wash the hands of our communities and nation.  The facts shook us, but the stories, memories and faces of those we’ve lost as a nation brought us tearfully to our knees.  I simply ask you to join me there, in that space of humility, of discernment, of communing with the living, the dead and the Divine.

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Citations:

(1) Everytown for Gun Safety Presentation of FBI and CDC research (learn more at everytown.org)

(2) Presentation by Rev. Alan Storey (aslowwalk.org) and (mannaandmercy.org) (stat reported here)

(3)  Everytown Presentation

(4)  See above

(5) “We Are All Newtown” Panel (newtownfilm.com)

(6)  Everytown Presentation

(7)  Presentation by Pastors Michael and Ben McBride from the Life Free Campaign (livefreeusa.org)

(8)  See above

(9)  Keynote presentation by Connecticut Representative Jim Himes

(10)  Presentation by Rev. Alan Storey (aslowwalk.org) and (mannaandmercy.org)

(11)  See above

(12)  See above

(13)  Keynote presentation by Connecticut Representative Jim Himes

What can you do?

Join Everytown For Gun Safety (http://everytown.org/)

Join Moms Demand Action (Dads are welcome too 😉 ) (https://momsdemandaction.org/)

Contact your legislators

Start a petition

Reach out to those effected by gun violence

Host a book study or video screening (see resources below!)

Talk about gun violence with your friends and family!

Learn more at:

https://www.trcnyc.org/news#godandguns

http://everytown.org/

https://momsdemandaction.org/

aslowwalk.org

livefreeusa.org

newtownfilm.com

justfacts.com

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