An Immeasurable Response to Gun Violence

Between the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the domestic terrorist attack at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and the shooting at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC, it’s been a terrible few weeks for gun violence in America. These high-profile shootings have stirred up earnest conversation about why Americans have so many guns and why we so often use them to shoot one another. Parents at the park and neighbors on street corners are searching for answers, even if politicians have decided that nothing can be done about gun control in an election year. After the violence of this summer, the blood cries out from the ground, demanding something from us all.

Given this, I was genuinely dumbfounded by the announcement in our local paper this morning that a Tea Party PAC in Western North Carolina has planned a “Machine Gun Social” to raise money for its candidates. According to the announcement, those who attend this fundraiser in Brevard on September 29th will be able to fire an Uzi for $25, an M-16 for $35, or an AK-47 for $50. In utter shock, I picked up the phone and called friends who live in Brevard. “Have you heard about this?” I exclaimed. They had not, but I assure you, I’m not making this up.

I grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country with men who kept guns behind the seats of their trucks. I still eat deer every Thanksgiving, shot in the woods behind my parents’ home. None of this scares me. I understand the sentiments of the “right to bear arms” folks, and I respect the suspicion of government regulation that drives their popularity in these parts. But I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anyone could support a Machine Gun Social.

Because assault weapons do what they claim to do. And while mass shootings may grab our collective attention in seasons like this, guns reek havoc in under resourced neighborhoods everyday. Here in Durham, roughly thirty people a year are murdered and dozens of others are injured by guns. Over the past ten years, some of these have been young men I’ve known and worked with. I recoil at the idea of a Machine Gun Social because I lament the violence that has scarred their lives.

What are we to do? Thankfully, I ran into my friend Marcia Owen, just this week. Twenty years ago, when Marcia was working with an AIDS ministry in a housing project here in Durham, she got to know some mothers and heard stories about how they put their babies to bed in the bathtub for fear that they might be hit by stray bullets. Marcia’s the sort of woman who gets stuff done, so she went to work to change gun laws. She even made some progress. But, as she tells it, she realized that her soul needed something more. She needed to do something immeasurable.

Marcia started hosting vigils for victims of gun violence, gathering with their families and community members at the site of murders. She immersed herself in the lives of victims, and their suffering broke her heart open. But it was one particular vigil that changed everything for her. In Living Without Enemies, a wonderful book co-authored with Marcia, theologian Sam Wells tells the story:

Mourners were standing there, and it was dark—it was in the wintertime. The neighbors were all gathered at the vigil, talking about the great things James had done for them. He was a good man who gave of himself for others, they all said.

Then Marcia spotted two young men walking down the street. She left the group, approached them and said, “Come and join us.” And they said, “What are you doing?” Marcia told them, and they joined the group—much to her surprise. At the end of the closing prayer, one of the young men said, “This is good. This is good, what you’re doing. Keep doing it—this is a good thing. Thank you.” Then they walked away. And the woman next to Marcia said, “They’re just coming home from prison. They just got left off at the courthouse, and they’re walking home.”

About six weeks later, Marcia learned from a friend that the city’s most recent homicide was the young man at the vigil who had affirmed and encouraged them. He hadn’t said, “You crazy people, what are you doing in my neighborhood?” He’d understood that they were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to do. And that discovery brought Marcia to her knees. It broke her heart open, and she realized that it isn’t about victims—it was about all of us.

What Marcia learned by being present to those who suffer gun violence in our town is the essential lesson for our nation as we mourn the recent outbreak of mass shootings. It really is about all of us–and not just when it happens on our side of town. We cannot end the cycle of violence that threatens to consume us simply by changing laws, improving mental health services, getting tough on crime, or improving early detection systems. We can only end it, as Marcia says, by doing something immeasurable.

Which is to say, we witness to the possibility of something better than the violence we see around us when we acknowledge that Jesus interrupts our broken world not with a “solution,” but with the power of suffering love. He does something immeasurable. And, because he does, we can too.

That’s the gospel my friend Marcia is proclaiming with her whole life. On a day when a Machine Gun Social is reported without irony as legitimate news, it’s the only gospel that gives me hope.

  • Matthew

    May Jesus continue to change the hearts and minds of all people.

    • Willbill

      We pray that Jesus continue to change the hearts and minds of all people, but until all hearts and minds are changed we must continue to have the right and means to defend ourselves.

  • Stranger

    There seems to be a great deal of forgetfulness among those who profess to follow Jesus. Luke 22:36 records the Master’s words at the last supper, quoting the Aramaic Bible: “He said to them, “From this hour, whoever has a money bag should take it and thus also a wallet, and whoever lacks a sword, let him sell his tunic and buy a sword for himself.”

    Swords are passe since Sam Colt invented the “equalizer” that makes the weakest woman the equal of the baddest sex offender on the street. And we can easily see the results of “controlling” guns by comparing Western Europe, except the UK, with the United States. The United States numbers for 2010 are in parentheses:

    Western Europe had an estimated population of 440,600,000 (309,000,000). The estimated number of violent crimes in Western Europe was 4,728,875 (1,246,248) for a violent crime rate of 1,072.6 (403.6) per 100,000 population.

    At the same time, Western Europe had 26,171 (12,996) murders for a murder rate 0f 6.0 (4.2) per 100,000 population. For the same year, 2010, the British Home Office reported 2,203,000 (648,000) “violent incidents against adults,” in a population one sixth that of the United States for a violent crime rate of 4,156.6 (209.7) per 100,000 adults.

    So take both Jesus and the Old Cop’s advice. Get a gun, learn to use it, carry it everywhere, and use it when you have to. Because the number of crimes plummets when an appreciable percentage of the public has immediate access to an effective defensive weapon.


    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Luke’s gospel tells us why Jesus told the disciples to have a sword–that they might be, as the prophet Isaiah foretold, “numbered with the transgressors.” Confusing as his instructions may have been to them, I don’t think we can pretend that Jesus taught “get a gun, learn to use it.” Jesus told Peter, to paraphrase in our context, “If you live by the gun you’ll die by the gun.” Then he showed us the power of suffering love by going to the cross.

      The logic of the Old Cop is a sort of realism that will be with us until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. But this is not the way of Jesus. The gift of God-with-us is that we have seen another way. In the lives of people like Marcia, this way will also be with us, always, until that great day when it becomes clear to all that it is the only way.

    • kenneth

      If more and more and more guns is truly the answer, why is I haven’t met any American retirees cashing in their 401K to retire in Somalia or rural Pakistan or the wilder regions of the former Soviet Bloc? By the NRA’s logic, these places ought to be the safest and most civil places on the planet. For that matter, why do I keep reading of all these mass shootings and crimes in the West and in southern red states? Supposedly everyone there does pack, or they certainly have the option. I live in Illinois, which to my knowledge is the only state in the union without a concealed carry option. Homicides and armed robberies and other violent crime should be almost unknown in most of the country by now.

  • Willbill

    “Because assault weapons do what they claim to do.”

    When I purchased my AR-15 over thirty years ago no one called it a “Assault Weapon” or “Killing Machine” “Battlefield Weapon,” Etc. It was the semi-auto version of the semi-auto plus full-auto M-16, but citizen disarmament zealots and organizations found that they could gain support for gun bans through semantics. For example, they called affordable handguns “Saturday Night Specials” or “Junk Guns.” So, that started calling AR-15s and the like “Assault Style Weapons” and later just “Assault Weapons” in an attempt to deceive the public into believing that they were advocating banning machine guns.

    As Josh Sugarmann, the executive director and founder of the Violence Policy Center, put it in Assault Weapons and Accessories in America, 1988, “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

    The inconvenient fact is that in 2010, Aks, ARs, Uzis and all other semi-auto “Assault Weapons” as well as all other rifles accounted for 358 murders nationwide. That is less than three percent of all homicides and comes to less than one homicide a day. Not only does that mean that no one in you state will be murdered by an “Assault Weapon” or any other rifle this month but likely not next month, or even the month after that.

    By contrast, over four times the number of murders, 1,704, were with knives or cutting instruments, over twice the numbers of murders, 745, were with hands, fists, feet, etc, and more murders, 540, were committed using blunt objects like clubs, hammers, baseball bats, etc. 10/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/tables/10shrtbl08.xls

    Additionally, a study funded by the Department of Justice concluded, “Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. AWs were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.”

    In an April 5, 1996, column in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer, who forthrightly supports total gun prohibition, wrote, “Passing a law like the assault weapons ban is a symbolic — purely symbolic — move in that direction. Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation.” He was right.

    You are far more likely to be murdered with a weapon other than a firearm than with one of those so called “Assault Weapons” or any other rifle.

    Moreover, our right to Keep and BEAR arms have been increasingly restored over last several years and more citizens are now free to carry firearms in more places since the year 1900. Yet, homicides, including homicides with firearms, as well as all other violent crime have been decreasing since 2006. Moreover, after a dramatic increase in firearms sales and ownership after the last Presidential election including an increase in first time firearms purchases and an increase in firearms carry permits, citizen disarmament zealots and organizations predicted that there would be a corresponding increase in homicides and other violent crime. However, the U.S. homicide rate decreased from 5.0 per 100,000 in 2009 to 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010 and all other violent crime decreased as well.

    Preliminary data from 2011 shows all Violent Crime was down 6.4%, Murder down 5.7%, Rape down 5.1%, Robbery down 7.7%, and Aggravated Assault down 5.9%.

    By contrast, The United Kingdom enacted extreme firearms bans years ago, and gun crime in the U.K. has double in a decade.

    It is no wonder that a Gallup Poll of October 26, 2011 found that 60% of those surveyed supported enforcing current gun laws more strictly and NOT pass any new laws while only 35% responded to enforce current gun laws more strictly and pass new gun control laws.

    Citizen disarmament zealots and their organizations ignore these inconvenient facts because they debunk their propaganda, deception.

    “Marcia started hosting vigils for victims of gun violence…”

    Why single out gun violence? Why not hold vigils for all victims of violence? Is it that Marcia is only interested in citizen disarmament?

    • Matthew

      Can you explain why even if one supports the right to bear arms, why it is necessary to have and own an AR-15 for example?

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Marcia and the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham do, in fact, hold vigils for all victims. You need not be afraid; she isn’t going to come after you and your guns. But her life does challenge all of us to know the people whose lives have been interrupted by violence–to know that they are not a different kind of people. They are us.

  • Matthew

    Also … does Luke 22:36 and its context suggest that Jesus was advocating a modern day understanding of the right to bear arms? Some say yes … others say no … what is right?

  • Mary Hughes

    Here we go again, let’s all cry about the horrible Guns…..mean while the very same ones crying out for control of everyone, control of the Guns, lanuage, etc, but these very same ones don’t say a word, or stand up in total dismay for the very One who’s administration has made a mockery of any kind of respect for Justice or Law in this country, as they carry in more Guns, Guns, and more Guns. Big Guns, not little guns. But it’s ok if it’s OBema and Holder to order thousands of automatic military machine guns and everything under the sun.

    After beating their chests for years they’re caught with their pants down, as their Attorney General smiles thru Congress’s hearings as if he and his buddy alone are above the law. He completely refuses to release the paperwork that has been ordered by Congress ( his fellow Democrats as well the as GOP) make up the Congress . If you did this, you’d be so far under the jail you wouldn’t get air except every other day! When it looks as if it’s all over, in comes his declared Highness with a Presidential exemption. All that after declaring that Obema knew nothing about one of the Biggest Gun Running Operations in the History of the U.S.A. . Where is Mrs. Clinton, crying over the guilt of the US in sending guns to Mexico? How come the enlighted youth of American College campuses aren’t demonstrating? What about The greatest waste of money, the United Nations ? They’re the ones with a plan to take over US sovereignty and what’s left of the Constitution to Outlaw Gun possession. The lack of consistency is as alarming as Obema and Holder’s refusal to follow the Law. Where’s Jackson and all the NAACP and Acorn and Gays? With what’s just happened in front of all
    America I’m surprized that those who enjoy burning cities that “nobody built” have at least set off one or two.
    Has Congress really done anything? What about the Supreme Court? Everyone watches and does nothing!

    I’ve got it! It’s alright to slober Hate and Hate and for good measure a little more hate if it’s the so called Obema and his team but account for that massive GUN Running program that has caused more innocent deaths than all the “deaths combined in the US” for same time period and all the “enlighted left” sticks it’s head into the sand and suddenly wants to change the subject. Like about their self declared right to another’s payment for working 12 hours a day. What happened to his sudden “fair” concept? But we still haven’t answered,Why does Obema and Holder need all those machine guns and military hardware?? Why does Mr. Holder refuse to release the thousands of pages of information about the Gun purchases?? Where where all those Guns going? How many orders has Obema and Holder already ordered and received? Remember the group of Congressmen and women that asked these questions is also made up of the enlighted left as it is the GOP and they felt it is important to know these questions. Oh well, it’ll be explained away or something and all will be forgotten. Besides, his refusal to obey the Law can’t be all that important. He’s a busy man, he just declared another “law” and gave all Illegal people from Mexico, their beginnings to citizenship in America. Of course must claim to have been drug here and locked in a closet until freed by Mr. Obema. Guess we no longer need the Congress or Supreme Court. Now American youth, if you want something to demonstrate about, you’ve got it, and don’t even seem to know it.

    • Matthew

      It´s “Obama” :-)

  • anderson

    Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    Different countries like Somalia and Pakistan aren’t good places, that’s why people don’t retire there. Its the people, not the guns. They have oppresive leadership, terrible economies, and poor wifi access!

    You don’t “need” an ar15, but that doesn’t mean you can’t want one or should be told not to buy one. By that same logic you should outlaw fancy Dinnerware, anything but apple laptops, and only allow blue Prius cars. People like certain things, and that’s freedom. Using a gun, knife, rock to kill someone like all these crazies have infringes on their freedom and should be punished. Don’t blame the guns though. Outlaw rocks, end the stoning madness!

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      To your point: yes, our trouble is deep within us. Marcia Owen is one example of someone who’s inviting us to “do something immeasurable”–that is, to find by grace the best that’s within us as creatures made in God’s image.

      As we mourn again today yet another senseless act of violence in NYC, let us pray for immeasurable acts of love to increase.

  • E. Marcus Stewart

    I’m sure that you believe that you are trying to do what is right, but have you really done the research on gun control, or are you merely presenting the talking points of gun control advocates. The ugly truth about gun control is that it is not gun control, it is people control. Taking guns from law abiding citizens will not end gun violence, it will increase it. I cite real life examples of Washington D.C. and Chicago, Il. both of which have absolute gun control laws, and their respective gun violence statistics have skyrocketed as law abiding citizens are not able to protect themselves against the gangs and criminals who terrorize the streets without fear of their victims being able to defend themselves. And the gun control rhetoric of this administration is just an euphemism for disarming the populace so that the government can do whatever it wants. That is exactly why the 2nd amendment was placed into the Constitution to protect the citizenry from.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      I’m no fan of big government, esp since it’s big government that makes our nation’s participation in perpetual war possible. But living in a neighborhood where most of the populace is in fact armed, I’m also not convinced that guns make us safer. My opposition to guns is not based in political calculation and backed up by statistics, but comes from seeing that what Jesus said is true: if you live by the gun, you’ll die by the gun.

      I don’t trust gun control–or government, for that matter. I’m trying to trust Jesus.