David and Goliath
People of faith take on the gun industry
by Drick Boyd
On January 8, 2011, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others were shot by a lone gunman during a political gathering at a Tucson, Ariz., shopping mall. While the public discussion following the Giffords shooting focused on how the polarizing political rhetoric of the fall 2010 campaign might have contributed to the shooting, few political leaders spoke up for greater regulations on the sale of handguns.
This event highlighted a continuing paradox in the ongoing debate on the place of firearms in American life. Numerous academic studies have documented that the proliferation of firearms increases the likelihood of those guns being used against innocent citizens.(1) Organizations like the Brady Campaign for Gun Violence Prevention, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and numerous local groups have sought to inform the public about the link between lax gun laws and death/injury by firearms. High-profile shootings have occurred in places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and Tucson. Even so, the gun lobby continues to make advances in easing access to guns, from local ordinances up to the Supreme Court. Why?
Why is there such vigorous opposition to regulating handgun sales when research studies clearly show that the presence of firearms raises the likelihood of innocent people being hurt by those guns? Why do gun violence prevention groups have difficulty convincing political leaders of the need to pass laws limiting and regulating the sale of handguns? How have the pro-gun advocates been so successful at dividing the American public on this life-and-death issue?
In truth, the pro-gun forces have been far more successful in selling their message than have the gun violence prevention advocates. The gun industry has effectively created a polarizing climate of fear and distrust whenever regulations on the sale and use of firearms are proposed. Employing effective marketing strategies and image manipulation, the gun industry continues to be financially profitable and politically influential.
Seen through a theological lens, the struggle over gun policy in this country is a deeply spiritual issue, reflecting what the apostle Paul refers to as a battle with the “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6.12; Romans 8. 38). Even so, the institutional church has been largely silent and inactive on this issue. Recently, however, Christians have begun to challenge the gun industry, realizing they are uniquely equipped and called to work for common sense laws and policies regarding the sale and use of firearms.
“Whatever It Takes” Campaign
At first glance, the challenge facing gun violence prevention advocates is daunting. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), each year approximately 50,000 people die in the United States due to violence-related injuries. Over half (51 percent) of all suicides and two-thirds of all homicides are committed with firearms, most often handguns. The victims tend to be overwhelmingly male, and in the case of homicides more than half (53 percent) are under the age of 18.(4) Because of these staggering statistics, the CDC considers interpersonal violence to be a matter of public health, particularly among young people. While guns are not the sole cause of these tragedies, when combined with factors such as poverty, social stress, domestic violence, and substandard education, the presence of guns increases the likelihood that injuries and deaths will occur, especially in low-income communities. Simply put, the availability of guns is a significant risk to those who possess them and those who live with their owners.(5)
As tempting as it is to attribute these grim statistics simply to oppressive social conditions, there is ample evidence that the gun industry has taken deliberate steps over the years to increase their profits in ways that have increased the incidence of violence in urban communities. In the 1980s, when gun sales to hunters and collectors began to lag, the gun industry introduced handguns into the market and promoted “innovations” that increased their accuracy and firepower. These guns had only one purpose—to be used against other people.(6) The industry also propagated the idea that gun ownership is a constitutional right, and their efforts were rewarded in the 2008 Heller vs. District of Columbia Supreme Court decision that affirmed that right.(7) As the illegal gun market grew, gun manufacturers were accused of tacitly encouraging these new “markets.” While they consistently denied these allegations, one industry insider stated in a sworn affidavit that “the firearms industry … has long known [of] the diversion of firearms from legal channels of commerce to the illegal black market … Leaders in the industry have consistently resisted taking constructive voluntary action to prevent firearms from ending up in the illegal gun market and have sought to silence others in the industry who have advocated reform.”(8)
Unlike the auto or pharmaceutical industries, the gun industry is largely unregulated and operates without public accountability and scrutiny. Through the lobbying efforts of the National Rifle Association and other gun owner advocacy groups, the gun industry routinely opposes any and all attempts to regulate the sale and use of guns, and it has been successful in getting restrictions loosened in many jurisdictions. Hoovers.com(9) reports that approximately 300 gun manufacturers are operating in the US today, earning a combined profit of $5 billion. As Tom Diaz, author of Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, says, the gun industry is “a little money-making machine.”(10) At the same time, most firearms manufacturers operate without scrutiny or oversight because the vast majority are privately owned and therefore do not have the reporting requirements of publicly traded companies.(11)
In response, gun violence prevention advocates have sought to pass legislation designed to keep guns out of the hands of those unfit to use them responsibly. The proposed laws include measures such as comprehensive background checks on potential gun owners, limits on the sale of handguns to one per month, criminal penalties for those persons serving as straw purchasers for illegal gun users,(12) and a ban on the sale of lethal weapons such as assault rifles. Because most firearms legislation is handled at the state level, and because the political climate varies significantly from state to state, there is a patchwork of laws that vary significantly from state to state.(13)
The success of the gun lobby has been largely due to two factors. First, the gun lobby headed by the NRA is considered one of the most effective special interest advocacy groups on Capitol Hill.(14) This influence is no doubt in large part to the enormous amounts of money the NRA spends on political campaigns; for instance, in the 2008 election the gun lobby spent 41 times more in political contributions and 34 times more on political lobbying than did gun violence prevention advocates.(15)
Secondly, the gun lobby has been successful at framing the gun issue as “a cultural war.”(16) The NRA has employed an effective strategy of don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts-I-know-what-I believe. Visitors to the NRA’s website(17) will see the arguments for lax gun laws presented in terms of freedom, patriotism, autonomy, smaller government, family values, and self-defense. Studies linking increased injury to the proliferation of guns are dismissed as liberal and biased and countered with anecdotes of gun owners fending off would-be intruders. As one NRA insider once put it, the best way to understand NRA zealots would be to “approach us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.”(18) Dennis A. Henigan, author of Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy, concurs: “To the true believers, the gun is an object of religious devotion.”(19)
A faith-based response
Given the emotional nature of the issue and the financial and political power of the gun industry, gun violence prevention groups must do more than provide the public with research data and public statements. The issue must be addressed on a spiritual level—on the level of culture, values, and beliefs. People of faith are best equipped to address this dimension of the issue.
In light of the power and influence of the gun industry, the challenge facing gun violence prevention advocates feels very much like the challenge faced by David when he came up against Goliath (I Samuel 17). As the story goes, the Philistine warrior Goliath was estimated to be 6 cubits tall, or between 9 and 11 feet tall.(20) No man in the Israeli army dared to meet him on the battlefield. However, David, who was “but a youth, ruddy and fair of skin,” became incensed at the giant’s insults and volunteered to go out to fight him. Armed with only “five smooth stones,” he killed Goliath with one shot from his sling to the forehead. Despite being covered with powerful armor and wielding powerful weapons, Goliath had left that one part of his body vulnerable to attack, and thus David, the much smaller contestant, prevailed.
While it may be somewhat awkward to call upon an Old Testament battle story to urge people of faith to join the effort toward more restrictive gun laws, there are deeper truths here worth noticing. The story of David and Goliath reflects an overall biblical pattern of God’s people prevailing despite seemingly insurmountable odds, and doing so from a position of apparent weakness. Also, as in the case of David, often these victories were gained through extremely unconventional means. Moreover, as the David and Goliath story illustrates, often the victories came by focusing strategically on both one’s own strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses, while still depending on God’s intervention.
People of faith, specifically Christians, have a unique and vital role to play in efforts to challenge the false and irrational claims of the gun lobby—for five reasons. First, faith communities deal in the world of symbols and values. As has been shown, the pro-gun forces have been effective at bathing their position in emotional and deeply held American values. People of faith need to raise up alternative symbols that provoke questions about foundational beliefs and values and that invite people to examine the underlying assumptions guiding their decisions and actions. While communities of faith do not have the political authority to enforce their ethics and morals on others, they have the moral authority as a values-based group to raise legitimate moral questions.
Second, just as the gun lobby buttresses its position in personal stories, so too the Christian tradition is based in personal and communal stories. While empirical research clearly supports the gun violence prevention position, the truth of that research must be conveyed in part through stories. Stories reach beyond the cognitive realm to the heart, that emotional core from which most personal change begins.
The central person in the Christian story is Jesus of Nazareth, who taught love of one’s neighbor and enemy, who eschewed violence of every kind, and who redeemed the world through suffering a violent death. Moreover, in Christian history there are countless stories of people who brought about significant change while acting without violence toward others: Francis of Assisi, the historic peace churches, and leaders of the civil rights movement, to name a few. Additionally, people can tell their own stories. Many people are moved to become active in the gun violence prevention movement because of the personal stories of those affected by gun violence and how God helped them. People of faith are the original storytellers and must use the power of story to reinforce the overwhelming practical evidence for gun violence prevention.
Third, faith communities touch people at the grassroots level. Every week people of faith gather in houses of worship, and in less formal settings, to exercise and strengthen their basic faith convictions. By their very nature churches are grassroots-oriented. If even a small percentage of the faith community could be mobilized to work for gun violence prevention, it would be a powerful people’s movement to contend with.
Fourth, for the most part church buildings and houses of worship are safe zones where information can be shared and meaningful conversations can be conducted. These are places where difficult issues can be discussed and debated, where people in conflict can resolve differences, and where persons caught in a web of violence can find safety and solace.
Finally, and most importantly, Christians claim to operate under the guidance of a God who transcends all of human life and history. When David responded to Goliath’s challenge, he called attention not to the stones in his bag but rather to the fact that he came onto the field “in the name of the Lord of Hosts.” As this story illustrates, might does not always make right, nor does economic, social, or political power mean victory in itself. This is not to dismiss the importance of gaining social and political power, but rather it is to recognize that sometimes that power can be exercised in surprising ways.
Because of these five factors, people of faith are uniquely positioned to take on the pro-gun forces in a way that supplements and complements the work being done by numerous gun violence prevention organizations. This is not to say that the faith community can go it alone. However, given the complex and multi-faceted nature of the gun violence issue, the faith community has a unique and vital role to play in bringing about the changes need in our nation’s laws, policies, and personal practices with regard to firearms.
Models of faith-based response to gun violence
Despite the hesitancy of many church leaders to speak out on such a volatile issue as gun violence prevention, some faith communities are responding to the reality of gun violence and in the process experiencing spiritual renewal as they proclaim a message of life in the midst of a culture of death. Even though the gun lobby is powerful, Christians are offering an energizing challenge to the gun industry and its pro-gun mania.
Heeding God’s Call
Since 2009, the multi-faith group Heeding God’s Call (HGC) has been calling attention to illegal “straw” purchasing by challenging local gun shops to sign the Gun Dealer Code of Conduct co-developed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Wal-Mart; the code’s purpose is to make the gun dealer an active agent in discouraging the purchase of guns by one party for another.(21) Through the process of regular vigils in front of gun shops, public liturgical actions, and in one case an act of civil disobedience that led to a high-profile trial and acquittal, HGC continues to pressure gun dealers to take responsibility for keeping guns out of the hands of would-be criminals.
In the process HGC has employed the creative use of symbols to convey its message. For instance, at a recent Good Friday prayer service outside a gun shop in Philadelphia, paper crosses were handed out, each with the name and death date of a different gun victim. On another occasion, 300 T-shirts were strung on a plaza to represent all the victims of gun violence in the city over the previous year. Parents and friends of victims have shared the stories of their murdered loved ones, evoking the personal nature of the issue. While Heeding God’s call is centered in Philadelphia, its influence has spread to other cities such as Harrisburg, Pa.; Baltimore, Md.; and Columbus, Ohio.
The Save Your Life Campaign(22)
While at home on break from college, Jamillah Posey was shot by a 14-year-old boy who was sent by a local gang to shoot her; Posey was seriously wounded but survived and went on to earn a master’s degree in Urban Studies at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pa. Upon graduation she parlayed her personal story and training to begin the “Save Your Life Campaign” (SYL).
Beginning in her home city of Newark and her adopted city of Wilmington, Del., Posey has been raising awareness and support for organizations addressing youth violence in local communities. She has established a Facebook page(23) and an internet radio program(24) featuring youth talking about their concerns, as well as youth workers talking about ways they are seeking to bring about positive change in their communities. In the summer, SYL organizes basketball tournaments and community forums designed to bring urban youth together to talk about ways to bring safety and peace to their neighborhoods. The overall purpose of SYL is to provide positive youth activities and to promote youth as responsible members of their communities. What separates SYL from other youth programs is that that it calls upon youth themselves to address concerns such as gun violence and bullying in the belief that if youth are empowered they can make decisions that will build stronger, safer, and healthier communities.
SYL incorporates several of the principles mentioned above. Its greatest strength is the personal nature of Posey’s story and how she has transformed a potential tragedy into an opportunity to address the issue at a deeply personal level. While theirs is not an overtly Christian program, SYL and Posey operate out of Christian commitment that permeates all that they do. Moreover, SYL speaks with youth from the perspective of their street culture and in terms that they can relate to, proactively equipping urban young people with skills and perspectives that can help them avoid being caught in the despair and hopelessness that often lead young people into gun violence.
St. Sabina’s Silent Vigil
St. Sabina’s Roman Catholic Church has been a force for reconciliation and social justice in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood of Chicago for nearly 30 years under the dynamic leadership of Fr. Mike Phleger. The congregation started a community development corporation, The Beloved Community, that has addressed issues of education, housing, and unemployment. As part of their youth outreach, the church participated in Safety Net, a city-sponsored youth violence prevention program. In response to violence in their neighborhood, the youth in Safety Net decided to call attention to the violence by constructing 35 coffins, representing all the children killed in that neighborhood in the previous year. The youth then carried the coffins through the neighborhood in a silent vigil. Fr. Phleger promoted the march through a press conference, inviting church members, community residents, representatives of other faith communities, and political leaders to join in the vigil. In these and other ways St. Sabina’s continues to be a powerful voice for gun violence prevention at the local, city, and state levels, using their moral authority to send a message about the need for common sense gun legislation in Chicago and the state of Illinois.
Like the Save Your Life Campaign, this response was initiated and has been carried out by young people who were most directly affected by gun violence. Their response is based in their personal stories and a creative response that speaks to their neighborhood culture. The coffins were a potent symbol of the cost gun violence exacts on the youth of that neighborhood. With the support of Fr. Phleger and the St. Sabina community of faith, the young people have become a powerful voice for peace and safety in their community.
A Center for Peacemaking(26)
St. Rita’s of Cascia Roman Catholic Church is located in South Philadelphia, one of the most culturally diverse sections of the city, as well as a center of racial strife and violence in recent years. The church was established by the Augustinian friars in 1907 and named after St. Rita of Umbria, Italy, known as “a sympathetic and attractive model of holiness and a powerful intercessor in the most needy of cases.”
In the mid-1990s the Augustinian order decided to make St. Rita’s a national shrine, and now people come to St. Rita’s from all over the country for healing, prayers, and spiritual inspiration.
Building on St. Rita’s character as a healer and peacemaker, church leaders decided to renovate a school building into the Cascia Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution. Due to open in the fall of 2011, the center will offer programs on urban peacemaking, as well as provide a place for individuals and groups to work through conflicts and differences. The center will also house an outreach center providing legal advice, English as a Second Language classes, and a health clinic. Finally, on the ground floor of the building, a spacious auditorium will host large group gatherings, as the center hopes to bring together service providers to share ideas as well as a time of spiritual refreshment.
The Cascia Center is an impressive example of a faith body capitalizing on the symbols already in its history to address needs in its immediate community. While providing much needed pastoral care and social services, the center also embodies a proactive vision for peace and change in a heavily conflicted community, and stands to be a space where persons of all faiths and no faith can come together in a spirit of reconciliation.
The power of many Davids
These examples in no way exhaust the myriad ways that faith communities are using their unique role as ethical, spiritual, and prophetic voices for urban peacemaking. In their own way, each of these efforts moves beyond the facts, figures, and research to speak to the deep concerns and values in people’s lives. Each provides concrete illustrations of how people of faith can make a significant contribution to the effort to reduce the presence and prevalence of gun violence in urban communities.
Taken by themselves each of these efforts may seem to be meager against the powerful forces promoting and profiting from the proliferation of violence in urban communities. But as part of a mosaic of strategies, they provide a powerful challenge to the gun industry, the gun lobby, and gun rights’ true believers. Like the five smooth stones David ran through his hand, these efforts may seem wholly inadequate, but when strategically and creatively applied, these faith-based efforts can help the gun violence prevention movement prevail as it challenges and stirs people at the deepest levels of their lives and beings. Goliath will fall, and David will prevail.
Drick Boyd is associate professor of Urban & Interdisciplinary Studies at Eastern University, and a founding member of Heeding God’s Call, a multi-faith gun violence prevention movement.
1. Some of the more prominent studies linking the presence of firearms to the increase in gun-related injury and violence have been conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Center, John Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence and Injury, and the Centers of Disease Control Injury Prevention and Control.
4. Debra Karch, Linda Dahlberg & Nimesh Patel, “Surveillance for Violent Death—National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 states, 2007,” Surveillance Summaries, 59 (SS04, 2010): 1-50.
5. Lisa Hepburn & David Hemenway, “Firearm Availability and Homicide: A Review of the Literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal 9, (July 2004): 4-17-40.
6. Tom Diaz, Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America (The New Press, 1999).
7. Dennis A. Henigan, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books, 2009).
8. Robert Ricker, former gun industry lawyer quoted in Rodrigo Bascuanan and Christian Pearce, Enter the Babylon System: Unpacking Gun Culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent (Random House Canada, 2007): 100.
9. “Firearms & accessories: Industry description,” Hoovers: A D&B company. Accessed January 25, 2011).
10. Diaz, Making a Killing, 85.
11. Diaz, Making a Killing.
12. Straw purchasing occurs when someone buys guns, usually in bulk on behalf of someone who has a criminal record and cannot pass the minimum requirements for a criminal background check. The straw purchaser buys the guns legally and then turns them over (usually for a small fee) to the street dealer and the guns become untraceable. If a gun is used in a crime and traced back to the straw purchaser, he or she can simply say the gun was lost or stolen, and there are no further legal ramifications.
13. Information on the laws on gun policy in specific states can be found at Trace the Guns.
14. Henigan, Lethal Logic.
15. Information on political contributions made by various political interest groups can be accessed at Open Secrets.
16. Charlton Heston, president of the NRA at Harvard University quoted in Henigan, Lethal Logic, 78.
17. The National Rifle Association website.
18. Henigan, Lethal Logic, 78.
19. Henigan, Lethal Logic, 77.
20. William C. Martin, The Laymen’s Bible Encyclopedia (The Southwestern Co., 1964).
21. See the initial announcement of the RESPONSIBLE FIREARMS RETAILER PARTNERSHIP: A 10-POINT VOLUNTARY CODE.
22. The information for this section on the Save Your Life Campaign came from a couple of personal interviews the author conducted with Jamillah Posey on February 17, 2011 and May 26, 2011, as well as via email correspondence.
24. The information for this section was collected at a workshop held at the SCUPE Conference, Chicago, IL, March 1-4, 2011, and an interview with Cynthia Stewart, a lay leader at St. Sabina’s on March 29, 2011. See additional information on the ministries of St. Sabina’s.
26. Go to St. Rita’s Shrine and click on Peacemaker Newsletter to learn more.