Too Long Silent

​Regina Nippert July/August 2018

It is time for the faith community to take a more visible stand on gun control.

Flags out front at half-staff . . . thoughts and prayers. The silence is deafening. Where is the church? Who among us stands with the teens from Parkland? Teenagers attend our Bible schools every week. We love them dearly; why do we appear powerless to defend them?

I began writing this article in the days after the Parkland shooting burdened by frustration and anger. As I did my research, I found there was more to the story.

On the issue of gun control, as with most others, the faith community is not of one mind: and while it is diminished, it is far from powerless. According to the Barna Group, 73 percent of polled Americans still identify as Christian: two thirds are Protestant, and one third is Catholic. Evangelical Protestants make up roughly half of America’s Protestant community. Together we are 280 million souls strong.

While our Founders and the First Amendment ensured that America’s faith communities would always be separate from its lawmaking bodies, whenever it has been time for America to face a hard truth—from abolitionists, to marchers in corsets, to fiery civil rights orators—advocates for change have found power and platforms in their churches. Today the need for the church to once again join in civil discourse does not obviate continued attention to the Founders’ establishment of secular government. Let it be clear at the outset that the church must step into the gun control conversation while taking great care to host debate, rather than dictate policy. It must inform and equip its members, without silencing their individual voices and or directing their votes.

The issue is this: In America people use guns to kill people. The most effective way to stop them is to better regulate gun use, including the sale of assault-style rifles like the AR-15s used to kill people in Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland.

Each year 13,000 Americans die in gun-related homicides, including, on average, seven children and teens per day. Assault-style weapons kill relatively few of us, but they have become the weapon of choice in mass shootings by young White men. Because the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is forbidden from collecting data on gun deaths, we don’t have the depth and breadth of information we need to fully understand the issue, but this much is certain: in America, in numbers far greater than any other developed country, guns kill people.

Handguns, shotguns, and pump rifles kill people. Semiautomatic weapons designed to inflict mass casualties kill people. Students and teachers in Parkland died from incredibly efficient killing machines spewing high-speed bullets that tore through their bodies, the force of impact obliterating organs and making it impossible for triage surgeons to save their lives.

Despite limited gun death data, we do have evidence for one conclusion: When states limit gun access, gun-related deaths decrease. They don’t go away, but they are dramatically reduced. With a few notable exceptions like Chicago, which has multiple reasons for its continued gun violence, states with the strictest gun laws—California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York—have the fewest gun deaths, and those with the loosest laws—Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana—have the most gun deaths.

The NRA and others have made gun control a political debate, and they are right. This issue is political. It involves a disagreement over policy. The church must grapple with the fact that the moral imperative demands we set aside aversion to political engagement in favor of contemplating tough questions from the context of our belief systems. This is a role the faith community is uniquely equipped to fill.

Most of us have grown unaccustomed to fiery oration around social issues. To the extent that Catholicism or Protestantism has found a way to be relevant as a moral force in today’s communities, it has been by caring for society’s marginalized. This is powerful, important work, but we rich Christians, and many of us are incredibly rich by the world’s standards, find that our needs can be largely met through our own endeavors. The church primarily provides us a sense of community and a Sabbath morning reminder to live a good and generous life. Until now.

Now we are all experiencing a profound need. We need to work together to keep our children safe.

What are the churches’ current positions on guns and gun violence? We have powerful voices crying out for real change, and we have members of the body who cannot yet incorporate the need for gun control into their theology. Evangelical Protestants in the body of the church are guided by a deeply held belief in personal responsibility. They believe in sin. They hold sin, not laws, liable for gun deaths. When 20 members of a Baptist congregation in Texas were gunned down on a sunny Sunday morning, Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention›s political arm, said, “There’s no gun control policy outlined in the Bible.”

What about younger evangelicals? On the Red Letter Christian Web site, an article titled “Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough” begins a deeper conversation, calling evangelical Christians to act, saying “Certainly, acting includes legislative changes, but it also means teaching our children how to relate to one another. It requires a fundamental cultural shift in how we understand community, our humanity, and how rigid gender norms endanger our children.” There is great wisdom here. Legislative changes alone aren’t enough—we also need cultural change, and the church is the right place for that cultural change to be nurtured and supported.

Alongside that wisdom, though, we must also be straightforward and clear about the changes we seek. Those of us with platforms and public voices must offer our brothers and sisters more than oblique references to “legislative changes,” despite our hopes of finding language that will open their minds without closing their hearts. It is time for direct confrontation of the evil that is engulfing us.

Faith communities of color are doubly challenged in this matter. Black children are 10 times more likely to die by guns than are White children, and yet Black churches must grapple with prioritizing the safety of their members over gun control. In a 2015 article after the shooting at the Charleston African Methodist Episcopal Church, Reuters reported, “The level of African American support for gun control has fallen by 14 percentage points since 1993, when it stood at 74 percent. During that same period, the number of blacks prioritizing gun rights over stricter gun controls nearly doubled, up to 34 percent.”

Catholics are on the far side of the theological argument from Baptists. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops finds strong alignment between a pro-life stance, the legitimate use of rifles and shotguns for hunting, and limiting handguns and banning high-capacity rifles and magazines. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, “among Catholics who say the term ‘pro-life’ describes them very well, 61 percent support stricter gun control laws, compared to 33 percent who oppose them.”

Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians are encouraged by their leaders to petition legislators to enact and support stricter gun control laws, including waiting periods, licensing and registration, and laws banning private ownership or use of machine guns and semiautomatic assault weapons.

Seventh-day Adventists have stood against assault weapons for more than 25 years. A public statement released in 1990 by then General Conference president Neal C. Wilson, after consultation with the 16 world vice presidents of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, concludes: “. . . with public safety and the value of human life in mind, the sale of automatic or semiautomatic assault weapons should be strictly controlled.”

These are clearly stated positions, but too often, our individual faith leaders have followed the path of our political leaders; fearing a strong stand would drive away membership or support for the church. If our leaders and spokespeople take a personal stand and challenge us to enter the difficult conversation regarding gun control, will they have our support? I believe they will.

In the five years since Sandy Hook there has been no new national gun control legislation; however, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that states have enacted more than 200 gun safety laws. A total of 94 percent of Americans responding to a June 2017 poll from Quinnipiac University supported requiring background checks for all gun buyers, and 57 percent believe it is too easy to buy a gun. Americans belonging to major religious groups favor stricter gun control laws, according to a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey. Even among evangelicals, 38 percent favor stricter gun laws. If the statement by leaders Rob Schenck, Max Lucado, Joel Hunter, and Lynne Hybels urging America’s lawmakers to pass commonsense gun laws is any indication, we can expect these numbers to grow. The support is there.

It is time for us to come together in open debate, joining with our brothers and sisters from Jewish, Muslim, and other faith communities who have long held much stronger positions on gun violence. We must agree on a set of specific recommendations. Unfortunately the secular world has grown profoundly uninterested in our thoughts and prayers. It needs our action.

A gunman killed 35 people with an AR-15 in Australia in 1996. Within weeks Australia banned semiautomatic rifles and shotguns and instituted a strict 28-day waiting period, comprehensive background checks, and a requirement for a “justifiable reason” (which does not include self-defense) before all gun purchases. Australia went from 11 mass shootings that decade (a similar number of shootings happened in America during the same time period) to no mass shootings since enacting the new laws.

A similar scenario unfolded in Scotland, with similar results. Time and again we see that properly enforced regulations regarding gun use prevent gun deaths. So what should the church do?

As with most complex issues, there are no silver bullets, but there is silver buckshot.

First, prepare. Debate the issues. Those powerfully eloquent kids in Parkland—they are on debate teams and in drama clubs. The know their civics. They came to the table prepared to persuade.

Find allies. The teens in Parkland have been effective thanks in part to their powerful allies in the Women’s March. They have also created hundreds of thousands of individual allies by using the Internet to its full advantage as an organizing tool.

Provide training in advocacy. Share denominational position statements and distribute contact information for state legislators and congresspeople. Use advocacy to make alliances. Black Lives Matter is a powerful, well-organized movement. Reach out. The Women’s March has also been enormously successful in its advocacy efforts, giving birth to the renewed justice of #MeToo. Study and use their tactics of small self-organizing groups, broad issue support, annual large and visible actions.

Organization and training are pointless without information. With an issue as divisive as gun control, the quickest way to reach agreement is to set aside opinions in favor of facts. Call for the repeal of the Dickey Amendment, which would allow the CDC to collect gun death data. Seats belts and saved lives are a direct outcome of the auto industry’s study of car crash deaths; the gun industry should do the same.

Encourage church members who are also members of the NRA to insist upon sensible gun control measures, including increased gun safety training, especially for young men. Enforcement of regulations and heightened gun control prevents mass shootings, and the NRA has been aggressively in the way of both. No more.

Prohibit the sale of high-capacity rifles, magazines, and bump stocks. Ask current owners to voluntarily relinquish them (it worked in Australia). Take domestic abusers’ guns away.

Raise the age for buying a gun to at least 21 and require background checks for all buyers. Currently, purchases from licensed firearm dealers requiring background checks account for 60 percent of U.S. gun sales.

Enforce the requirement that all guns be sold by licensed dealers and limit dealers’ licenses to actual dealers. There are roughly 135,000 individuals in the United States whose license identifies them as firearms dealers; all of them are only loosely patrolled or regulated. That must change.

Expand the capacity and use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System so that it does what it was intended to do: prevent individuals convicted of violent crimes or under restraining orders and those with mental illness from purchasing a gun. Too many of our recent shootings have been carried out by persons who were mentally ill or had engaged in domestic violence. Add a 30-day cooling-off period for the same purpose. Create a national data center on mass shootings to collect historical data on guns and shooters. Use big data to help identify trends and prevent the next ambush. Stop blaming mental illness in the absence of supporting data.

Up to now, I had believed Americans would never give up their weapons. But the recent events, the outpouring of public support for the Parkland teens, the jettisoning of NRA partnerships, the discovery of support for gun control among my brothers and sisters in the church, have convinced me otherwise. The time is now.

I am not proposing we take away everyone’s guns. We are still a significantly rural country. People hunt. They keep a weapon for self-protection, in cities as well as in the countryside. There is no reason to make criminals of them. Instead, we must enlist their help in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and guns meant for slaughter out of the hands of the public.

Our faith should leave us no choice.

It is time for bravery founded in principled action. Faith in action helped to populate the American colonies. It contributed to our Constitution, to freedom from slavery, votes for women, child labor laws. It led the civil rights movement. It has fought poverty since the 1960s, yet it has been too often silent on this major issue. People of faith must be challenged to end their silence.

Yes, the obstacles are challenging. There is deep division, inside the faith community and out. There is incredible momentum behind the gun lobby, and its support will likely increase as opposition grows. We must take great care to protect the separation of church and state as we engage in principled debate on this and other issues. None of those things can excuse us from stepping out from behind our children.

Article Author: ​Regina Nippert

Regina Nippert was baptized at age 5 at Azle Avenue Baptist Church and has been a practicing Christian for 58 years. She leads The Budd Center: Involving Communities in Education at Southern Methodist University Simmons School of Education and Human Development, Dallas, Texas.