By Katie Melone
Building on decades of advocacy work, an array of faith groups have united to urge politicians and government officials to take action on the issue of gun violence in the wake of last week’s massacre in Newtown, Conn.
“The faith community is so outraged and ready to go,” says Vincent DeMarco, national coordinator of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence.
Religious leaders gathered this morning at the Washington National Cathedral, where they joined in a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. requested by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. One week ago, it was also around 9:30 a.m. that Adam Lanza, 20, after killing his mother at the Newtown home they shared, entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders. Lanza took his own life as police were descending on the school. The moment of silence this morning was followed by the tolling of the cathedral’s funeral bells 28 times in honor of each of the lives ended in the tragedy.
“We rang the moral alarm bell of moral watchdogs of the country to say we cannot wait any longer for action to be taken,” said Rachel Laser, deputy director of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has worked for years on the issue of gun violence, including a push in 2004 for a renewal of the assault weapons ban that was ultimately unsuccessful.
Laser said any legislative reform package the faith leaders advocate for will be comprehensive, and could include a host of measures like the assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks, and increased access to mental health care.
The coalition represented at the cathedral Friday included Jews, both reform and Orthodox, Muslims, Sikhs and Evangelicals – a model of cooperation, Laser says, among folks of different backgrounds on this hot-button issue.
“Because Congress is more divisive than it’s ever been, we’re hoping we can help encourage the dialogue and shared solutions, and we’d very much like to facilitate that,” she said.
DeMarco said that his group has already had some success. Last year, Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which includes 40 faith groups and formed in April 2010, blocked a piece of legislation that would allow gun owners to use a gun permit, which typically apply only in the state where they are issued, in any state in the country. The group plans to write a letter to Congress and the President with their reform ideas in light of the Newtown tragedy.
"We’re ready to go to really demand gun violence prevention laws be enacted," DeMarco, a Quaker, said. "I think the momentum is there to do it and I think the faith community can play a big role."
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral points out that supporting gun control is nothing new for many faith traditions. "Our church has favored gun control legislation since 1976 and many of the other traditions have done so much longer: the Catholics, Methodists and Congregationalists. All of our reasoning is out of theology than a political reason. Of course, there are second amendment Christians. But the way I read the scripture is in the other direction."
Hall said, for him, as a Christian, it comes down to the historic identification of God with human suffering. "Jesus constantly called to have compassion of those who suffer and heal the wounds of those who suffer and protect those who are vulnerable and to care for each other. And the Christian faith which we celebrate at Easter, that love is more powerful than hatred and that love is central to what the universe is about, that's where I get my theological justification for it."
The faith groups plan to seize on the fact that Congress is not in session right now and there is no legislation being considered; they will try to find points of agreement with groups with differing opinions like those on the right who believe in unfettered access to guns, and those on the left who support a total ban on all guns.
"We think most people of faith are somewhere in the middle and we're trying to bring over as many people to the middle as we can," Hall said.