Talking — and listening — to each other about guns

Republicans were accusing President Obama’s modest executive action to increase background checks on gun purchases as being unconstitutional and the act of a dictator, when on Sunday, Jan. 10, I traveled an hour south through driving rain to Newtown Congregational Church. A documentary about an evangelical minister who had become concerned about gun violence was to be followed by “civil interdenominational conversation” about gun safety. The church stands less than half a mile from Sandy Hook Elementary School, which would give gravity to the afternoon. 

The documentary, “The Armor of Light,” is about Rev. Rob Schenck, who was raised in a small community in upstate New York and whose early ministries were in Rochester and Buffalo. He drew national attention when his pro-life demonstrators carried a preserved human fetus to shove at onlookers. In 1994, Schenck moved his family to Washington, D.C., to influence elected and appointed government officials to follow Christian pro-life teachings. As president of Faith and Action, which ministers to Tea Party members, he is headquartered on Capitol Hill in a building adorned by a granite sculpture of the Ten Commandments.  

It was the gunning down of an abortion provider by a right-to-life activist that begins Schenck’s inner struggle in “The Armor of Light.” “If my people are capable of this, I’m capable of this,” he says regretfully. He begins to worry about the true value of human life in his movement and wonders whether being pro-gun is consistent with being pro-life. 

The Armor of Light takes its title from the New Testament: “Let us ... cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). The film follows Schenck as he asks long-time Faith and Action friends and other evangelicals, “When is a Christian permitted to take a life?”  Though his colleagues in the clergy claim their priority is protecting their wives and children, Schenck admits to “surprise by how much guns factor into their lives and their spirituality.”   

Despite worries about losing the faith community that has given his life meaning, Rev. Schenck questions the NRA dictum, “The surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Spurred on by the possibility that good people can actually do bad things, Schenck says, in part to himself, “The time for the clergy to be brave is now.” 

Lucy McBath, a deeply religious, pro-choice Christian, is the mother of Jordan Davis, the African-American teenager murdered in Florida while hanging out in a car with several unarmed friends. Schenck is drawn to McBath’s tragedy.  As the two talk, she tells him, “People have more faith in guns than they have in God,” and she says that fear is incompatible with Christian love. McBath feels God directing her to use her grief to work to overturn Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The law removes the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, and famously exonerated George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of another black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Schenck, whose native New York is a “Duty to Retreat” state, humbly responds to Lucy McBath, “I assumed that, if given the opportunity to retreat, we’d all safely retreat.”  

With the lights back on at the Newtown Congregational Church, I see Reverend Schenck in front, along with the film’s director, Abigail Disney (grand-niece of Walt Disney). Rabbi Shaul Praver, a Sandy Hook first responder and prison chaplain, opens the discussion. 

As might be expected in this town where 20 school children and eight adults died at the hand of a lone gunman, the audience is uniformly concerned about gun safety. Several participants remark that the lack of empathy we see everywhere is a spiritual problem. This is what has led to both ongoing gun violence and the political impasse regarding its solution. “Stand Your Ground has distorted the Golden Rule into, Do unto others before they do worse to you,” comments one, and I think of how diffusing tension and gracefully backing down have become degraded in political discussions as not being serious or tough.

With the NRA creating a stalemate in Washington, the clergy argue that spiritual communities around the country need to take responsibility for a new kind of conversation about gun safety that is faith-based, features personal stories and is respectful and empathic. Rabbi Praver admonishes us to listen carefully and with respect to those whose views differ from ours. “Love is an act of will,” Rev. Schenck reminds us — an important lesson to carry with me as I go back out into the rain.   

Carol Ascher’s six books and many short stories and essays often explore ethical themes. Her new novel, “A Call from Spooner Street,” depicts the reconciliation between an old man and his estranged daughter. She lives in Sharon. Visit www.carolascher.net.

Ethics and guns, not so strange bed fellows

Dear Peter Riva,

I appreciated your comment which clearly shows,
In my view that this is not a battle between gun owners
and non gun owners, but the rational and the irrational;
the responsible and the reckless.

I believe there is good culture and bad gun culture. Good
Gun culture is a culture that respects life and safeguards
Life. Bad gun culture has little regard to the sanctity of
Life and recklessness is its trademark. Only 7% of gun owners
Are members of the NRA and many in this group do not regard
The NRA as their representative.

As such, we can breakdown artificial barriors and galvanize
On a spiritual platform as the primary sphere of interaction. Trying to
Establish effective laws in a culture that has not first elevated itself spirituality
Around the sanctity of life, is like scattering seeds in a parched desert. Sure, you can get
one or two crops to grow but that's it. The issue of firearms in the United States is essentially
Social problem. The garden we seek to plant will take root when the people come together
For that moral spiritual conversation.

Part of that spiritual work is recognizing our shared humanity and not
Dehumanizing a person because they own guns; and not considering non
gun owners as unpatriotic. We need to clear the slate and come together as citizens
Seeking a more peaceful and civil society. This is the work of the organization
Global Coalition For Peace and Civility, I am slowly but surely founding together
With like minded colleagues. Feel free to keep the conversation alive.

Ethics and guns, strange bedfellows

I whole-heartedly endorse your sensible discussion here... and that's what is needed: a discussion and less rights' thumping. As someone who owns guns (they are a necessary tool where I lived in Wassaic on a farm with rabid racoons and here in NM with 1.5 million acres of wilderness abutting our property) and someone who has helped publish wonderful illustrated books on the history of firearms and manufacturers, I am nonetheless struck by the faith-based firearm belief. "Faith" in this context is not about God or a chosen religion, but the extension of one's sense of identity linked to guns. Some time ago I found a way to have this conversation with dyed-in-the-wool gun owners: "Do you have a favorite gun?" I would ask. If they respond, "Depends what for." then you know the person is rational. If they respond with passionate identification with a particular gun, the warning bells ring. Then ask, "What do you use it for?" If they have no definite answer, that's worrying as it indicates an emotional not logical attachment. If they respond, "For personal safety." It indicates an emotional need (protection, and so on). That is not to say they are wrong, but in having a useful discussion, it is sometimes useful to know who you are talking to and what their stance is. As for the NRA, it is simple. 95% of their funding comes from the gun manufacturers, NOT owners. They hide under the guise of representing owners but are, in fact, the shill for the manufacturers.