I was 10 years old when I met my first gun. Three friends from my neighborhood in Baltimore and I decided to spend a warm Saturday morning playing football. Searching for some grass to play on, we rode our bikes to the front yard of a church, not far from Pimlico Race Track where the Preakness is held each year. About half an hour into our game, two young men wearing sunglasses, hats and bandanas to cover their faces, pulled up to the church in a station wagon. They couldn't have been more than 16 or 17 years old. The teenager in the passenger seat got out of the car and walked up to us with a sawed-off shot gun aimed in our direction. His partner took our bikes and threw them in the car while we stood still with the gun still pointing at us. After they took our bikes they got in the car and left us there in front of the church. Game over.
I don't recall feeling scared, but I did feel hurt -- not just at the loss of our bikes, but hurt at the fact that this had happened. And the irony of it happening in front of a church yard was not lost on me.
I hadn't thought of that sad moment where I sat literally in between a gun and a community of faith, in a long time, but it came back to me while hearing anti-gun violence activist Bryan Miller speak at an event in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in Philadelphia. Bryan is the Director of Public Advocacy for an organization called Heeding God's Call. Organization really isn't the right word. It's more like a movement that challenges and mobilizes people and communities of faith to "give their faith some legs" and work to stem the tide of gun violence in their communities. Miller was a co-keynote speaker along with Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, a gifted pastor and scholar.
Heeding God's Call uses nonviolent direct action to bring about change. First they approach gun shop owners, discuss with them the devastation a community suffers when firearms are sold to straw buyers. Straw buyers are individuals who buy guns for others who for any number of reasons can not purchase guns for themselves. Buying firearms for someone who can't legally purchase them on their own is a felony.
Bryan and Heeding God's Call discuss this with the store owners and then encourage them to adopt a 10 Point Code of Conduct written by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition and already adopted by a number of gun sellers including Wal-Mart, the largest gun seller in the country.
It's important to clarify that Heeding God's Call is not fighting against the right to legally own firearms. Nor are they trying to close all gun shops. They are simply trying to change a nation that has seen more than 1 million men and women die from gun shot wounds since 1968.
I understand that many of the people I love have different views on gun control. I am close to some friends who are gun enthusiasts. This piece isn't meant to debate one's right to own guns or the ethics of gun ownership. Instead it's meant to call attention to the fact that every single day people are killed with guns -- many guns that could have been prevented from being on the streets. And working with gun shop owners to keep straw buyer-purchased guns off the streets is what Heeding God's Call does. One can be a gun enthusiast, enjoy riflery and still recognize that something needs to be done about gun violence.
After speaking with owners, Heeding God's Call and the local community members (many of them clergy members of diverse faith traditions) return in the spirit of Dr. King and demonstrate non-violently in front of the gun shop. In their now famous campaign against Colosimo's in Philadelphia, they were in front of the shop two times a week for nine months (sometimes 2-3 people, sometimes more than 100 people at a time) until a federal judge charged the store with making "false statements and failing to properly maintain firearms transaction records," showing that they had "knowingly sold to straw purchasers." In no small part due to the attention brought by Heeding God's Call and the individuals who endured for 9 months, Colosimo's closed. Everyday people, average men and women, made an impact in seeing a store closed that had more guns involved in criminal activity than almost any other store on the east coast traced back to it. And they say that the tactics used by King, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and SNCC can't work today.
Gun control, 2nd Amendment rights, gun-violence advocacy -- whatever you want to call it and however you want to frame the issue -- is complex. Humans are complex. America is complex, as are the factors connected to gun violence (poverty, narcotics, illegally purchased guns, education, race and more). But what is simple is that our country has a problem with gun violence. It is, along with our great wealth disparity, the glaring embarrassment of our country. This is not just the problem of our inner cities or of poor people, or of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. This is all of our problem. Even if one disagrees with the tactics used by Heeding God's Call, we must ask ourselves: What can we personally do to stem the tide of gun violence? Let's stop debating rights and responsibility and let's do something about lives.
That warm summer day back in Baltimore when I was staring down the barrel of a sawed-off shot gun held by a teenager, one of the three other guys with me was a kid named Ronnie. Where I felt hurt, Ronnie felt fear. And as an old friend of mine once said, "Fear is the garden of sin." Ronnie vowed that day that something like this would never happen to him again. So a few year's later, he purchased a gun illegally. Ronnie and I lost touch, but I heard later that he was in a gun fight and got shot. I have no idea whether he's alive or not today.
Getting a gun does not make you safer. It solves nothing. Rather you become a part of the problem of fear-based violence.
Solving the problem of gun violence needs to involve more than getting gun shop owners to adopt this code of conduct. But it's a start, and, agree with them or not, the folks at Heeding God's Call are trying to do something about it. What are you doing?
Before becoming a university chaplain, I served as a hospital chaplain. When on duty, I would be paged to the trauma ward when one of the residents of West Philadelphia was being rushed to the hospital by ambulence or helicoptor. It seemed like nearly every night a young man was lifted onto the hospital bed with a GSW -- a gun shot wound. Nightly, I watched potential, hopes and dreams bleed onto the floor. Another kid will grow up fatherless. Another mother will cry at a funeral. When asked by family members to pronounce last rites or a prayer of commendation over their dead son, brother, husband or father, one can't help but ask the question, "Did this have to happen?"
No it didn't.
I have family members and friends who feel the need to carry a piece on them or have a gun in their home for security and peace of mind. I never before had the courage to ask them to get rid of it. It does not make you safer. In fact, it statically heightens the possibility of fatality in your midst.
What will you do to help stem the tide of gun violence in our country? Some of us, like Heeding God's Call can work with gun shops and work to change governmental policy and laws. Some of us can talk to family members and friends and maybe help get some guns off of our streets that way. For too long I have been silent on this issue. I hope that I will have the courage to speak up in the future. I pray you will too.