Presbyterians respond to gun violence

LOUISVILLE – How are Presbyterians involved in responding to gun violence?

Next June, when the General Assembly convenes in Baltimore, gun violence and gun control will definitely be up for discussion. One synod already has sent an overture asking the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to call for universal background checks, “red flag” laws to temporarily take guns away from those seen to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others, and a ban on assault rifles.

The issue also came up Nov. 23 at the Moderators’ Conference, which brought together 120 moderators and moderators-elect from presbyteries and synods for a weekend of training and networking. The moderators watched the documentary “Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence” (now streaming on Amazon Prime); listened to a panel discussion on the ways that gun violence impacts churches; and had a chance to ask questions.

Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, said Presbyterians can speak of hope and resurrection amidst the grief that gun violence causes. (All photos by Leslie Scanlon)

Sometimes, Presbyterians are involved through theology and pastoral care. Gun violence has a ripple effect on communities and families, and churches can provide reassurance “that out of suffering and death comes the possibility of resurrection and hope,” said Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Sometimes, it’s through public policy advocacy — as Presbyterians call for stricter gun control laws involving background checks and bans on assault weapons.

Last summer, the PC(USA) ordained Deanna Hollas as a minister of gun violence prevention  — apparently the first denomination in the country to create such a position. Hollas is coordinator of gun violence prevention ministries for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.

Hollas told the moderators that “I don’t deserve that attention” from the media — “the church deserves the attention” for the policy statements that previous General Assemblies have crafted opposing gun violence, including the 2010 “Gun Violence, Gospel Values” statement.

And she said that the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness has helped to identify 15 states where Presbyterians will work hard on gun violence issues as the 2020 election approaches, “to put some energy and put some pressure to hopefully let those senators know this is an issue people of faith care about.”

Last summer, Deanna Hollas was ordained in Texas as a minister of gun violence prevention.

Those 15 states are: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Hollas said that list was developed in consultation with Everytown for Gun Safety, the parent organization for Moms Demand Action, and represents states seen as “shiftable” on gun violence issues — where possibly a senator might be up for re-election or be seen as open to conversation on gun violence issues.

The conversation at the Moderators’ Conference made it clear that Presbyterians across the country are struggling with responding to gun violence — in everything from how to keep congregants safe to working with teenagers and children who experience lockdown drills at school.

Some Presbyterian churches post signs asking worshippers not to bring guns inside. Some lock their doors during Sunday worship. Some church leaders have developed evacuation plans and taken active shooter training.

Some Presbyterians are law enforcement officials or serve in the military, carrying weapons as part of that duty. Some are hunters. Some carry guns for personal safety. Some have friends or family who’ve been the victims of gun violence, or died by suicide involving a gun.

Diane Ludington, vice moderator of the Presbytery of Great Rivers, spoke of the importance, in the polarized debate over gun policy, of acknowledging that many who own and use guns do so responsibly.

In eastern Kentucky, Transylvania Presbytery recently approved a statement on gun violence at its meeting in August — a “communal cry of lament.” That statement recognizes in part “that the trauma of gun violence extends far beyond the somber counts of the dead and injured. To the witnesses, the first responders, the families, the schools, and the communities at large that are left to pick up the shattered pieces: we see you.”

In that statement, Transylvania – which encompasses both the city of Lexington and rural sections of Appalachia – also called for a ban on assault-style weapons, and urges Presbyterians to be in touch with their elected representatives on gun violence issues.

Carl Horton, coordinator for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, pointed the moderators to a year-long series of webinars called “Standing Our Holy Ground,” on gun violence and how faith communities can respond, that is being organized in collaboration with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. The webinars cover topics including the impact of gun violence on young people; the role mental health plays; and the ways that so many deaths are rippling through urban communities.

Video from past webinars, along with study guides, are available online for church leaders and small groups to use.

Perhaps PC(USA) grants could be used to fund research on gun violence, suggested Cherry Oakley, vice moderator of the Presbytery of New Brunswick.

Cherry Oakley, vice moderator of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, asked whether PC(USA) grant money could be used to fund research on gun violence — research that might help communities be safe, and which the Centers for Disease Control has not been doing.

“That’s a great idea,” Horton responded.

Diane Ludington, vice moderator of the Presbytery of Great Rivers, said she appreciated that the “Trigger” documentary “talked about gun violence, not just guns.”

Ludington said her husband is a retired police officer and hunter, and she lives in a community “of responsible gun owners. I struggle with how to talk about that when the overall issue is so polarized.”

She said her husband still suffers post traumatic stress disorder – some 20 years later – from an incident that occurred during his law enforcement service, when he had to shoot a man in order to keep that person from killing others.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance deals with all kinds of ripple effects, Kraus said – including sending in trained teams to work with communities where there’s been a mass shooting and providing support to congregational leaders and increasingly to first responders.

The statistics, collected by Everytown and others, map the pain. Each year, more than 36,000 Americans die from gun violence — 61% of them by suicide.  Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide. Firearms are the second-leading cause of death for American children and teenagers (following motor vehicle accidents).

Every day, another 100 Americans die by gunfire.