Gun control overture coming to 2020 General Assembly

Where do Presbyterians stand on gun violence — one of the most divisive political issues in the country?

The 2020 General Assembly is being asked to approve an overture that would call on Congress to change federal law to:

  • Require universal background checks “for purchases of firearms in any and all venues”;
  • Ban the sale and ownership of assault weapons;
  • Restrict the use of large capacity ammunition magazines; and
  • Establish extreme risk and protection orders (“red-flag” laws) to allow courts to remove weapons when someone shows warning signs of impending violence to self or others.

The overture comes from the Synod of the Covenant, which includes the city of Dayton, Ohio. That’s where, in 32 seconds of shooting with an automatic weapon, a young man killed nine and wounded 27 others in a popular nightclub district early the evening of August 4.

That shooting came not even a day after 22 were killed and 26 wounded in a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso.

“We grieve that such hate and anger is directed at innocent people, in particular immigrants as in El Paso and people of color both in El Paso and Dayton,” the rationale for the overture states. “As Presbyterians we must speak out.”

Over the years, Presbyterians have done that — with General Assemblies taking stands on gun control repeatedly over the years. That includes the 2010 policy statement “Gun Violence, Gospel Values,” which calls on Presbyterians to “become informed and active in preventing gun violence,” although “this proposal does not preclude the legal use of personal firearms for hunting or sports-related purposes” — language that hints at the divided views in the culture and the denomination on gun ownership and restrictions.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also is thought to be the first denomination to ordain a minister of gun violence preventionDeanna Hollas, who was ordained in July, is based in Texas, and plans to work with pastors and congregations across the country in her role as the coordinator of gun violence prevention ministries for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

Polling shows that Americans in general do favor stronger gun control legislation, with a Pew Research Center survey in September, for example, finding that 60% of Americans say gun control laws should be stricter, and 71% favoring a ban on high capacity ammunition magazines. There is strong support for background checks — with 93% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans favoring making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.

There is more of a partisan split for banning assault-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. For that, nearly 90% of Democrats favored tighter rules, compared with about half of Republicans.

For congregations, the issue of gun violence has implications beyond the political as well.

There is language in the rationale for the proposed overture acknowledging the role that guns play in deaths by suicide: “Red-flag laws have been shown to reduce death by suicide.” For pastors and congregations, suicide is often a pastoral care issue — with churches holding the funerals, comforting the bereaved, offering a theological message of hope amidst grief.

And, as recent history has painfully shown, churches are sometimes targets for gun violence themselves — with pastor Clementa Pinckney and eight others were killed on June 17, 2015 when a shooter opened fire during their Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and on Nov. 5, 2017 a shooter killed 26 and wounded 20 others during a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

The Peacemaking and Justice Committee of the Synod of the Covenant proposed the overture partly in response to the Dayton mass shooting, and in recognition that there had been other losses of life in the region due to gun violence (including suicide and domestic violence), synod executive Raafat Zaki said in an interview.

The committee also sent an overture (SOC OVT On Advocating for Reduction of Firearm Violence SOC 2019 11 01) to the synod assembly asking for it to communicate with the governors and legislatures of Ohio and Michigan regarding gun violence, and calling for changes in policy in those states — including limiting gun ownership in those states to pistols and shotguns, and banning concealed carry permits for civilians.

At its November meeting, the synod assembly approved that overture, and also voted to create two funds, each with $5,000 in seed money (and with the possibility of more being added through contributions): one to support healing for people affected by gun violence, and another for healing for those affected by domestic violence.

For the Synod of the Covenant, the Dayton shooting made some kind of response imperative, Zaki said — but there also have been less publicized incidents of gun violence in recent months in the region, he said. “On a day to day basis, gun violence is a reality,” he said. “At some points, it’s hatred against immigrants and it’s racialized. Sometimes it’s domestic violence. It takes so many forms.”

In both cities and small towns, “these things are hitting so close,” Zaki said. “We can no longer have this insular sense that this only happens in urban settings,” or in places far away. “Nobody is safe. These are all our issues. So the church — we cannot afford not to engage in these issues, we cannot afford not to speak out.”

It’s early yet, so it’s possible more overtures on gun violence will come to the 2020 General Assembly as well.

Here’s another reality: Before that assembly convenes in Baltimore in June and is asked to speak publicly yet again on gun control, it’s almost certain more lives will be lost to gun violence, as Congress and the state legislatures debate what public policy on this controversial issue ought to be. It’s just a question of when and where.