Building on past success, faith leaders come together to end gun violence

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By Vincent Demarco and Brian Birch

Forty-five years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the final week of his life, issued this call:

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God… Nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion.

Appropriately, it was on Martin Luther King Day in 2011 that Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence (Faiths United) was born with the reverend’s message of nonviolence, faith, and persistence in mind.

Building on the success of its predecessor--Faiths United Against Tobacco, which successfully pushed for historic tobacco product regulation by the Food and Drug Administration--Faiths United put together a comprehensive gun violence prevention policy agenda in early 2011 and has since recruited an impressive coalition (47 members as of April 1, 2013) of prominent national faith groups to sign on in support, including a range of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh denominations.

These national faith groups and denominations have agreed to a three-pronged approach to prevent gun violence. First, do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Second, reduce the number of military-like assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines (like those used in Newtown and Aurora) in circulation. And third, make the trafficking of guns a federal crime. In other words, only sell guns necessary for hunting and self-defense to buyers who have no recorded propensity to do harm to their fellow man. And if a buyer hands off their weapon to someone else (who now illegally possesses the gun), hold them accountable.

Newtown

Since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the ranks of faith leaders demanding interfaith action on gun violence has swelled.

“We deal with the premature loss of life as part of our calling. But this was especially heartbreaking and tragic,” says Jim Winkler, chair of Faiths United and General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church. “So, while Faiths United’s supporting denominations and faith organizations were preparing services and vigils in the wake of Newtown, they set us to work developing a strategy to apply pressure on the Administration and Congress to act.”  

On January 15, 2013–just days after a face-to-face meeting with Vice President Joe Biden–Faiths United held a widely covered press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing that a letter from 47 national faith leaders was on its way to President Barack Obama, Vice President Biden, and every member of Congress. The letter urged support for the three gun violence prevention measures and was signed by representatives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as dozens of other prominent Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu denominations, altogether representing more than 80 million Americans.

Media coverage of the press event was extensive and included the New York Times, Washington Post, and CBS National News, as well as many other national and local media outlets from across the country. It even generated a response from the Vatican. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, chief spokesperson for the Vatican, complimented U.S. religious leaders for their work “to limit firearms that are making society pay an unacceptable price in terms of massacres and senseless deaths.”

Later the same week, President Obama hosted key faith leaders at the White House when he announced his gun violence prevention package, which incorporated the three measures in the Faiths United letter. Of these three measures, the most significant, and the one with the broadest popular support, is the requirement that all handgun purchasers first go through a background check before they can purchase the weapon. In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Congress enacted the landmark Brady Law, which requires that all gun dealers must first do a background check on prospective handgun purchasers before selling them the handgun. This has stopped the sales of nearly two million handguns to people who should not have them because of their criminal background or other prohibited status, and has saved an untold numbers of lives. 

Unfortunately, the Brady Law only applies to gun dealers and not to gun shows and private sales of handguns. Although there are states that expand the life-saving background checks to all handgun sales, most do not and, as a result, 40 percent of handgun sales in the United States occur with no background check. This is a terrible loophole through which many people who should not get guns, like the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech, get the guns they use to kill. That is why Faiths United is working very hard with the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, law enforcement leaders, and others to make sure handgun purchase background checks are universal and are enforced.

Faiths United also strongly supports reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high capacity gun magazines signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. Under that law, there was a 70 percent drop in the use of these weapons of mass destruction in crime, and a Washington Post study in Virginia found a significant drop in the use of high-capacity gun magazines in crime in that state. Unfortunately, that law had a 10-year sunset and was allowed to expire in 2004. Ever since, we have seen an increase in the use of assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines in crimes, including the tragedies in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut. Congress must enact Senator Diane Feinstein’s sensible measure to reinstate this life-saving measure.

Faiths United will continue to push Congress to make gun trafficking a federal crime so that law enforcement officials can do more to stop the trade in illegal guns which brings guns from states with weak gun laws to states like New Jersey and New York which have strong laws. 

Faith in Action

Working closely with national gun violence prevention organizations, particularly the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Faiths United began working aggressively to turn up the volume. Signatures from dozens of key faith leaders were collected for interfaith sign-on letters in Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, and in Ohio and were delivered both in-state and on Capitol Hill.

Faiths United also worked closely with the Religious Action Council of Reform Judaism on highly successful faith call-in days in February and April, generating more than 20,000 calls into Congress, supporting the three core proposals outlined in Faiths United’s letter. And working closely with the Washington National Cathedral and PICO, Faiths United sponsored a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend March 15-17 in which more than 400 local faith communities across the country participated.

In the three years since its inception, Faiths United has brought together the most diverse coalition of denominations and faith organizations ever assembled to address gun violence, while also helping to fight the gun lobby on concealed weapons legislation and coordinating interfaith support of commonsense measures like background checks, banning assault weapons, and making gun trafficking a federal crime. While the path to victory looks clearer than ever before, the powerful gun lobby is hoping it can push the legislative branch to act in defiance of the wishes of the vast majority of the American people.

But Faiths United, with the help of its partners and faithful people across the country, will continue to fight to make sure that does not happen. In partnership with faith leaders representing nearly 50 denominations and organizations, Faiths United calls on us all, as Rev. King did so eloquently some 45 years ago, to be coworkers with God and put an end to the senseless loss of life caused by gunfire.

Vincent DeMarco is the National Coordinator of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and Faiths United Against Tobacco.

Brian Birch is an advocacy campaign consultant for Faiths United on both the tobacco control and gun violence fronts.

To learn more about Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, visit faithsagainstgunviolence.org.