Monday, April 8, 2013

Advocacy as Discipleship: Guns and Our Culture of Violence

First Quarter Publication; March 2013

Advocacy as Discipleship is produced quarterly by the Office of Public Witness to provide background information to advocates on why we, as Christian Citizens, engage in public witness ministries.

Guns and Our Culture of Violence
By J. Herbert Nelson

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. - Matthew 5:9

Our Culture of Violence

I participated in a conference several years ago in Philadelphia in which a panel discussed the media’s reaction to escalated violence in the United States. The culture of violence in our nation was illumined for me during this conference. One reporter on the panel shared with the audience that “violence sells.” She told the crowd gathered in this hotel ballroom that each night before the eleven o’clock news, her television station attempted to lead the broadcast with a story of murder. “We wait up to three minutes before the eleven o’clock news broadcast is to air for another murder to happen before determining our lead story.” I heard for the first time the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” referring to the headlines chosen to lead late night news stories in the media. We are living in a nation in which, since 1979, over 30,000 people per year suffer gun-related deaths.i  The need for the Church to speak both theologically and prophetically is long overdue.

The 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a prophetic statement entitled Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call. At the same time, the Washington, DC, political environment was overwhelmed with an economic crisis and political gridlock. The National Rifle Association (NRA) supported many political campaigns and remained one of the strongest lobbies in Washington, DC.  A consequence of the NRA’s efforts was a complete lack of political will to pass any new legislation that would reduce gun violence.ii  But we saw a turning point in the gun violence discussion with the Tucson, Arizona, shooting during a “Congress on the Corner” event that killed six persons and wounded thirteen others in front of a Safeway on January 8, 2011. Gabrielle Giffords, a sitting member of Congress, was severely wounded and is now a high-profile advocate against gun violence. Since the Tucson shooting, the Office of Public Witness has become invested in countering the violence that permeates our culture through guns, athletic competitions, video games, television programs, movies, music, common idioms, and a host of other embedded normative cultural behaviors and activities.iii

The Root Causes of Gun Violence

J. Herbert Nelson visits the Virginia Tech Memorial
Gun violence does not operate in a vacuum. The high rates of inner city poverty brought on by the suburbanization of jobs and ever-widening income inequality and unemployment have created massive pockets of poverty in many urban cities.iv Underground economies such as drug sales, prostitution, and robbery fuel turf battles, high crime, and a host of other illegal gun-protected businesses. Many of these gun deaths are directly associated with failed educational and missed economic opportunities. It is imperative that we address our collective, social failings regarding poor education and failing schools, gentrification, joblessness, high poverty rates, inequality, and other community dysfunctions. Many of these issues are at the core of gun deaths associated with domestic violence, suicide, and murder in impoverished communities.       

Another area that requires a broader discussion regarding gun violence is mental health care. We must not demonize the mentally ill in this debate. In 2012, we witnessed a number of high profile mass shootings that were committed by persons with mental health issues. But epidemiological studies show that the vast majority of persons with mental illness do not commit violent crimes and that most violent crimes are not attributable to mental illnesses.v  In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than  

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that our health care system is failing people with mental illness.  We must do better, ensuring that people with mental illness and their families have access to the care and services they need.  People with mental illness who commit violent crimes are outliers, and yet it is possible that better mental health care may have prevented even just one of the tragic mass shootings in recent years. It is important that we admit our nation is not doing enough to provide adequate care for persons with mental illnesses. Gun violence is a symptom of deeper ills prevalent in our nation. It is imperative that we address some basic issues regarding the restoration of community values and neighborly love in redirecting our culture of violence. 

Gun Laws Work

The murder of twenty-six school children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, has further exposed the culture of violence permeating our society. Adam Lanza, a mentally disturbed man, brought three legally-purchased weapons inside the school on December 14, 2012, and left a fourth in his car, according to police. Those weapons were a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle and two handguns -- a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm. The military style Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle capable of firing 45 rounds per minute in semi-automatic mode was the primary weapon. Lanza used numerous 30 round magazines. Under the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, buying some variants of new AR-15s was against the law. The ban expired in 2004.vii

Weapons of war, including assault weapons, are available to common citizens. The easy accessibility of guns, including assault rifles in the United States, is a major contributor to gun violence in mass shootings. Gun shows provide a forum for unregulated gun transfers which often place guns in the hands of people who could not otherwise legally purchase a gun. In thirty-three states, private gun owners are not restricted from selling guns at gun shows. This so-called “loophole” does not require purchasers to submit to federal background checks. Sales through the gun-show loophole comprise forty percent of gun sales in the United States, including most guns that are later used in crimes.viii   

Random gun violence makes each one of us at risk of premature death. Whether it be at the movie theater, a house of worship, on a college a campus, or at an elementary, middle, or high school, none of us are safe as long as automatic weapons continue to be available through illegal sales, limited background checks, and a host of inconsistencies that exist in present gun laws. We must call on our elected officials to engage in committed action to strengthen gun laws in this country.

Building a Movement

Elder Linda Valentine, Executive Director of the Presbyterian
Mission Agency, calls her Congressman from the OPW on
a faith call-in day to reduce gun violence.
The Office of Public Witness (OPW) is working with Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violenceix to press for common-sense measures to reduce gun violence in the United States.  Recognizing the legitimate use of private firearms for protection and hunting, there remain sensible steps that we can take, as a nation, to help prevent guns from falling into the hands of people with criminal intent.  We are calling for:

1. A ban on all assault weapons. These high capacity weapons are designed for war. There is no reason for common citizens to purchase or possess them. We do not use AK-47’s to hunt; their only purpose is to kill a lot of people - quickly. We need to reinstate the assault weapons ban to ensure that high capacity weapons are not sold to the public.
2. Universal background checks. Currently, there is no federal provision requiring a background check in order to purchase a gun and some states do not require them at all. Therefore, people who do not know how to properly handle a firearm or who have criminal records can make gun purchases.
3. Make gun trafficking a federal crime. Enforcement of gun trafficking and straw purchases, both inside and outside of the country, is weak. Many of these weapons end up in the hands of individuals who are focused on criminal intent. At present, the penalties for trafficking guns in the U.S. are on par with the trafficking of chickens or other livestock. The trafficking of guns and straw purchases should be federal crimes with commensurate penalties.

In states where these measures have been implemented, they have been proven effective at reducing gun violence.x The challenge for U.S. citizens is to become active and informed on political issues – not only those directly related to gun violence, but also poverty, inequality, poor education, our culture of violence and perpetual war, the military industrial complex, and the lack of access to needed physical and mental health care. The OPW is here to help educate members of the PC(USA) and others on how to become an effective advocate.

Action Steps that We Can Take Together

1. Pray for our President and the United States Congress as they struggle with the issue of gun violence.
2. Sign the  PC(USA) Office of Public Witness’ online petition to reduce gun violence.
3. Email our office to request post cards of this petition to use in your church and local community.
4. Encourage your pastor(s) to preach sermons, teach bible studies, and become involved in the efforts to eradicate gun violence in your local community.
5. Host a screening of TRIGGER, the PC(USA) documentary on eradicating gun violence. Hold congregational and community discussions in your house of worship.  Learn more.
6. Write and/or call your Congresspersons and the President each week stating your support for federal legislation to reduce gun violence. (See the requested actions outlined in the petition in #2). Find contact information for your elected officials.
7. Read the gun violence policy statement of the PC(USA) General Assembly and bring the bible study to an Adult Christian Education class - Gun Violence and Gospel Values: Mobilizing In Response to God’s Call


The Church of Jesus Christ is called to challenge the present culture of violence in the U.S. We cannot eradicate gun violence without addressing the underlying issues that create hostility, inequality, illegal, underground economies, and underserved, desperate populations of people. We must encourage our elected officials to implement gun laws that work, while claiming our faith as the central motivation for our advocacy.

Our role as Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace is not the absence of controversy or discord; nor is peace the quiet retreat amid confusion and rancor. Peace requires our active participation in the work to serve the common good. The words from the Beatitudes -- “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”  -- in Matthew 5:9 remind us that peace must be made. Making peace often stirs controversy. Peace represents the active process of engaging a faithful witness on behalf of Jesus Christ despite the impending struggle that will occur. Peace exposes human frailty and sin in order to make repentance possible.

Jesus affirms that his presence and teachings in the world will create division among those who are closest to him (Matthew 10:34). Therefore, the gospel is a double-edged sword that evokes unrest while creating a platform for peaceful reconciliation. The power in a deliberate effort to establish peace is found in the love that that makes it possible. As the PC(USA) General Assembly reminds us, “We must keep our ‘eyes on the prize,’ of preventing gun violence and the unnecessary deaths and injuries that result. Enough blood has been spilled.”xi  We affirm that through good organizational effort, animated by the passion for justice that comes to the people of God through the Holy Spirit, gun violence can be dramatically reduced.


i. Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing In Response to God’s Call (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, 2010), 14.

ii. Walter Hickey, How The NRA Became The Most Powerful Special Interest In Washington, in The Business Insider, Dec. 18, 2012.

iii. James E. Atwood, American and Its Guns: A Theological Expose (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012)

iv. William Julius Wilson, There Goes the Neighborhood (New York: Vintage Books, 2006); Wilson, When Work Disappears (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) Wilson, analysis of the suburbanization of jobs in Chicago which led to inner city poverty and growing social problems that have created more crime and dysfunction in African American communities. It must be noted that Chicago had over 500 murders in 2012. The escalation of the Wilson’s studies continues in that city. 

v. Seena Fazel and Martin Grann, The Population Impact of Severe Mental Illness on Violent Crimes, in The American Journal of Psychiatry; Vol. 163 No. 8, 2006.

iv. Grounded in Faith: Resources on Mental Illness and Gun Violence, a forthcoming publication prepared by the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC), a program of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), April 2013.

vii. Steve Almasy, Newtown shooter’s guns: What we Know, CNN, Wednesday, December 19, 2012.

viii. Obama Takes on the NRA, in The Week  Magazine, January 25, 2013, 2.

ix. Faiths United Against Gun Violence,

x. Deborah Kotz and Brian MacQuarrie, States with strictest firearm laws have lowest rates of gun deaths, Boston Children’s Hospital study finds, in Daily Dose: Health News, Advice and Information. Accessed:

xi. Full Rationale for Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call—From the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. 2008 Referral: Item 09-05. Direct the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to Prepare a Comprehensive Study on Gun Violence—From the 218th General Assembly (2008), (Minutes, 2008, Part I, p. 860).