How Newtown is driving Washington state to gun control action

A gun display in a store. Credit: Photo: Mike Saechang

Worship was a little unusual at First Church last Sunday. In addition to musicians and ushers and liturgists we were joined by three TV cameras, a reporter from the local newspaper and a news photographer. In our worship we lit candles and tolled bells as we read the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary victims. My voice choked as I read the ages of each child who’d been killed. After a sermon in which I expressed sadness and frustration and anger about the Newtown shootings of 27 innocent people, I offered our congregation the opportunity to sign letters to the president and our congressional delegation, asking for gun control legislation aimed at reducing gun violence in America.

The response of the congregation was unanimously positive after the services, but then two things happened that gave me pause. First, I made the mistake of reading the nearly 300 online comments that followed the newspaper article. Angry gun owners were sarcastically critical of any attempts at gun control legislation and furious that anyone — especially a “PC liberal pastor who doesn’t believe in real Christianity” — would question any limits on their ability to own any firearm. The comments reminded me of the enormous obstacles that face anyone who dares to ask for meaningful change in our gun laws.

But second, I heard from a member of our church a few days later who shared this revealing comment: “I thought we’d just pray for the victims and I was uncomfortable with a call to action at church.” In one sentence the comment summarizes our theological and spiritual and social and political challenge around the issue of gun violence.

The church is good at weeping and praying. We’re terrible at taking action to solve this problem that is killing us. And we’re not the only group who’s bad at this. It’s our whole society.

Faced with regular and horrific mass shootings in his presidency, some have taken to calling President Obama our “mourner-in-chief.” Even as he’s earned this sad and unfortunate title, others have noted that all the President’s mourning has not resulted in any meaningful initiative toward reducing gun violence.There’s mourning and lamentation and tears, but little action.

Over the last years, as mass shootings have become more commonplace, our societal grief has taken a troubling turn toward hopelessness. We tune in briefly to the identical scenes of ambulances and draped bodies and heartbroken loved ones and grim-faced police chiefs. Then we change the channel. In a few moments we’re back to our normal lives.

Out of fear, some people seem to veer off into an armed-fortress mentality. Gun sales skyrocket as people arms themselves, opting for self-defense rather than societal change. Then the threat actually grows. More guns equal more gun deaths. It’s a proven formula. This is why America — which has 5 percent of the world’s population and 50 percent of its guns — leads the developed world in gun deaths per capita. The guns we purchase for self-defense are the same guns that are used for suicides, crimes of passion, and accidental gun fatalities.

The majority response, though, is a chilling, stone-cold silence. We’re sad. We shed a tear. We’re nervous. And we do nothing. Again and again and again we do nothing.

As we stand on the brink once more of doing nothing, these words of Zechariah call out:

By the tender mercy of our God,

   the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

   to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-29 NRSV)

It’s time to call out our peacemakers and our activists and our poets and our dreamers. It’s time to move our society into the way of peace. It’s time to get on the phone or on the Internet or in the streets and to turn our tears into action.

It’s the height of hypocrisy to believe in peace and to do nothing about it. Pastors who lead their people in mourning and then stop short of a call to action are complicit in building this society of violence and deficient in living lives of faith. Secular humanists who read all the right magazines and books, but who sit idly by while children are killed, aren’t really humanists at all. Political leaders who conduct business-as-usual are politicians, not leaders. Parents and teachers and seniors and anyone who claims that they love children but then fails to act should accept responsibility for the next atrocity, because our inaction is the only thing that allows the bullets to take innocent lives.

I believe in Zechariah’s vision of light in our darkness, and that’s why I believe we’ve finally reached a tipping point. I’m so sad that it took the lives of 27 innocent victims, most of them children, but I believe this time will be different and we’ll make a real start toward genuine change. Here’s what gives me hope:

  • On the day of the shootings Mayor McGinn called on the legislature to enact specific and forceful gun control laws.
  • Civic leaders, including council members Burgess, Harrell and Bagshaw and city attorney Pete Holmes, are crafting a city response that will propose a comprehensive set of new laws, including a ban on assault-style rifles like the one used at Newtown. The city council has already amended its legislative agenda to include specific gun control goals for our state and the group is working with area legislators.
  • Washington CeaseFire is planning a January 13th protest march downtown that will commemorate the Newtown victims and demand a legislative response. CeaseFire has set an Assault Weapons Ban as its primary legislative goal for 2013.
  • Clergy leaders spoke out yesterday in dramatic fashion. Dozens of prominent clergy and laity from many faith traditions gathered at Temple de Hirsch Sinai and signed a "With One Voice" document calling for specific gun control legislation, including an assault weapons ban. This was the largest interfaith gathering of clergy in recent memory.

And our Mourner-in-Chief seems ready to act. In his speech at Newtown and then his press conference earlier this week he committed his administration to the pursuit of national gun control legislation. His Newtown words ring especially clearly:

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

I've spoken with many people who feel meaningful gun control legislation is a hopeless cause. The gun lobby is too powerful, we're told. The millions they will spend will overpower any attempts at meaningful change. I choose to believe that this time the dawn from on high is breaking upon us. That this time, the tender mercy of God is leading us through the darkness and the shadow of death, and that this time we will go beyond just shedding tears and we will take our first steps in the way that leads to peace.

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