Prayer groups are intimate. Here the broken heart seeks healing, meaning. Here pain and vulnerabilities are shared, and hearts and hands embrace to comfort, to soothe.
Into this place of healing walked a murderer. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina subscribes to the most fundamental of biblical precepts:“I was a stranger and you welcomed me;” (Matt: 25:35), and “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut: 10:19). Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton notes that such openness is born of a vision of the church as a sanctuary, “a place for souls that need tending to.” Dylann Roof, a stranger, was welcomed by the Mother Emanuel Bible study and prayer group on Wednesday evening, June 16th . He was given a chair in the healing circle. Roof then slaughtered nine members who stretched out their arms to welcome him.
Safe places, surely schools? No: Sandy Hook, Columbine. Safe places, surely a movie theater or business? No, Aurora, a shopping mall in Minneapolis, a law office in San Francisco. Safe places, surely churches? No.
Our nation is assiduous about protecting us. It doesn’t want us harmed. Just this week, the FDA announced that it intends to ban trans-fats such as coffee creamer and similar products that “clog arteries.” The FDA will give grocers three years to phase out trans-fats.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome triggered the recall and redesign of cribs.
Tainted spinach, which caused a handful of deaths and sickened many people, was pulled from the shelves.
Cars with defective brakes are instantly recalled. Eight (eight!) complaints about faulty accelerators this week may force a recall of Dodge Darts.
Seat belts and air bags, required, have saved thousands of lives.
Smokers find it increasingly difficult to find places to smoke.
But with guns, a toxic agent in our civic blood stream that claims roughly 30,000 lives annually, no such protection. Our actions in this sphere can be characterized as the precise opposite of the public health approach. The essence of the public health approach is to address the core of the problem: to go after the “agent,” clean up tainted water, get rid of flea-infested rats, dry up the breeding grounds of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, immunize against measles and polio.
With guns, instead of addressing the core problem, we’re doing the opposite – spending all our resources after the fact, after the shooting: we’ve become quicker in our response time after a shooting; we’re becoming much more adept at saving gunshot victims (gun deaths have dropped somewhat, but shootings remain high – we’ve gotten really adept at repair); our response to the grief experienced by families torn apart by gun violence is a wonder to behold; and trauma-based care for those witnessing gun violence has become a standard part of our response. But to go after the “agent” – the gun – no.
“It is people, not guns, who kill,” loudly proclaim many. Okay, then let’s have thorough background checks for “people,” in addition to training, licensing as we do for driver’s licenses, and let’s bar from purchase a weapon only the military should carry. States enacting even modest gun laws recorded fewer gun deaths. California with the strongest gun laws in the nation has reduced firearm mortality rates an astonishing 56% between 1993 and 2010. And law-abiding gun owners still have their weapons.
Many local units of government, towns, cities and counties, taking matters into their own hands have passed ordinances to prevent gun violence. Examples include requiring firearm dealers to obtain a permit, prohibiting dealers from selling in residential or “sensitive areas,” requiring locking (child protection) devices, requiring dealers to carry liability insurance and banning the sale of high capacity magazines. (Endorsed by the California Police Chiefs Association, The Legal Community Against Gun Violence published “Addressing Gun Violence Through Local Ordinances: a Legal Resource for California Cities and Counties.”)
Some states have taken preventive “public health” actions. Seven states have adopted legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers. Washington State successfully passed a ballot initiative for universal background checks. More than one-half the nation lives in states with stronger gun laws since Newtown. On September 30, 2014, California Governor Brown signed AB1014 allowing concerned family members or law enforcement officers to petition a court for a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO). If a judge believes there is sufficient evidence that an individual poses a danger to self or others, a GVO order can temporarily prohibit the individual from purchasing or possessing a firearm or ammunition. The law allows law enforcement to remove any firearm or ammunition already in an individual’s possession.
From Mother Emanuel’s parishioners the nation received a stunning, almost unbelievable gift: forgiveness. “I forgive you,” said the daughter of Ethel Lance, 70, who was among the dead. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you.”
The nation needs, cries for, an equally unbelievable and courageous gift from Congress: a ban on military style assault weapons, and a requirement for universal back ground checks before purchasing. Perhaps Congress should seek forgiveness for not acting, and then atone by acting. Let’s give true homage to those who were slain at Mother Emanuel while also keeping in mind the roughly 30,000 slated to die this year if we do nothing.
Helpful resources for working to reduce gun violence in your state and community:
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence: A national law center that provides legal expertise in support of local and state gun violence prevention laws and local ordinances that save lives http:www.smartgunlaws.org
- States United to Prevent Gun Violence: Provider of bi-weekly highlights of national and state gun violence prevention advocacy, research, news stories and citizen commentary. http://www.ceasefireusa.org
- Violence Policy Center: A national organization committed to research, advocacy and education to reduce gun violence. http://www.vpc.org
- Prevent Handgun Violence Against Kids: http://www.bradycampaign.org
- Mayors Against Illegal Guns: 5 million Americans working with lawmakers and community members to end gun violence and build safer communities through data driven solutions http://www.everytown.org/mayors/
- Sandy Hook Promise: Pledged to encourage and support sensible solutions to gun violence. http://sandyhookpromise.org/
Acknowledgement: Heartfelt thanks to my amazing sister, Deane Calhoun, founder (ret.) of Youth ALIVE!, winner of the California Peace Prize in 1995, and pioneer in training youth to help lead violence prevention efforts. Her research and inspiration over the years gave body and depth to this blog. Youth ALIVE! youth played an integral part in the passage of the nation’s strongest gun ban, which contributed to a dramatic reduction in gun deaths in California. Read more in: http://www.youthalive.org/research/