The current landscape of gun violence: A Q&A with Deanna Hollas

In 2019, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained Deanna Hollas as the nation’s first gun prevention minister — she’s the gun violence prevention coordinator for Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Recently, Leslie Scanlon of the Presbyterian Outlook spoke with Hollas about soaring gun sales during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and about American attitudes towards firearms.

The Pew Research Center reports that close to half of Americans (48%) see gun violence as a “very big” problem in the country; about 4 in 10 American adults (44%) say they live in household with a gun; and about half of Americans (53%) favor stricter gun control laws, although there is not necessarily agreement about what those proposals should be.

Here’s the Outlook’s conversation with Hollas, edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: What are your thoughts as we are starting to emerge from the pandemic, and also experiencing episode after episode of gun violence? It felt like we had a little bit of a breather for a little while during the pandemic. Then — wow.  

A: “It’s not surprising, in that the pandemic led to record gun sales. More gun sales than we’ve ever had” — nearly 23 million firearms sold in the U.S. in 2020. “So if you have more guns, you have more gun violence. … What we had a breather from was mass shootings. But 2020 was still a record year for gun deaths” — with nearly 20,000 dying from gun violence in 2020, the highest number in at least two decades.

“The places where we see the most gun deaths are in the home. Suicide is still the leading cause of (gun-related) death. Domestic violence. Unintentional shootings. Just last week here in my area we had a 9-year-old who found a gun in the car and killed his 11-year-old friend. Unsecured weapons are still a big problem. Access to guns is what leads to gun violence.”

Q: How has the pandemic affected the work that you’re doing? 

A: “Initially, no one was really interested in gun violence. They were just trying to figure out how do we worship, how do we gather? That allowed for us as an organization to take a pause and do a deep dive and a deep study around abolition … to examine the connection and history between guns and race, and also begin to ask some different questions, like whose voices are we listening to when we do our gun violence prevention work? And really it was pretty illuminating that a lot of it is white gun owners — that’s who has really been driving the gun violence conversation. The question we’re asking is, ‘How can we listen more to the voices of the people who are impacted by gun violence?’ Women, youth, people of color.”

Q: When you use the term abolition in this context, what do you mean? 

A: “Liberation. And liberation for all people, to be able to be free of the systems of white supremacy that have influenced and infiltrated our country here in the United States. The gun is the number one way that white supremacy is enforced. This goes all the way back to the Second Amendment. Virginia would not ratify the Constitution without the Second Amendment. And the reason why they wanted this, Virginia particularly, was for slave patrols,” with able-bodied white men being required to serve in armed slave patrols.  “That history of the Second Amendment is often left out in all of our discussions around the Second Amendment. The idea is that it was put there so that we could rebel against England and we wanted to make sure that the people are always free against a tyrannical government. Well, this tyrannical government they were afraid of was this newly-formed government that was going to take their slaves away. So the Second Amendment is actually in our Constitution to uphold the institution of slavery. Through these slave patrols, which has then now become our modern-day policing, many of the police forces we have are of direct descent from these slave patrols. “

Q: What have you learned about the history of gun laws in the U.S. and the growth of the gun manufacturing industry?

A: “Before the Civil War, most guns were manufactured by individuals.” In the first half of the 19th century, mass manufacturing of guns began to take hold, “so then you had the creation of the gun industry. You had these manufacturers that had a product they needed to sell. And it’s a non-consumable product.”

One of the first pieces of gun-control legislation was the National Firearms Act, signed into law in 1934 in response to Prohibition-era violence from organized crime, and that banned the sale of fully-automatic weapons. The source of this violence: “White men,” Hollas said. “These were white men.”

The 1968 Gun Control Act banned mail order sales of rifles and shotguns, and prohibited most felons, drug users and people found mentally incompetent from buying guns.  The political backdrop of that included the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; riots and protests in a number of American cities; and the decision by some prominent Black Panther Party leaders to publicly carry guns. “Black men started to claim their Second Amendment rights,” Hollas said. To some, “that wasn’t OK.”

The current debates over gun regulation are taking place in a market with booming gun sales and record levels of gun violence. “Mass shootings sell guns,” Hollas said.

Q: Because people want protection?  

A: “We buy the marketing line that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The only solution we have for protection is to own a gun. Again, the reality of that is absolutely not true. You’re more likely to be hurt with that gun than you ever are going to be able to use it for some form of self-protection. But it doesn’t matter. Because the marketing is what’s driving all of the conversation.”

Q: When Presbyterians call for action on gun violence, are elected officials listening?  

A: “Some are and some aren’t. It’s very clear that it’s those who choose to put the need and the desire of the people first, versus those who are putting the needs and desires of corporations first. … I think since Sandy Hook (the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut), there has been a big shift,” with the development of a grassroots movement calling for gun violence prevention.  “When Sandy Hook happened, you had Moms Demand Action that really came to the forefront and was able to be sustainable. … And with the Parkland shooting in Florida in particular, then you have an upswelling now of youth movements. That has shifted politicians.”

Hollas got involved in 2016 with Moms Demand Action. “Texas had just passed a law allowing guns on college campuses, and I had a kid in college. And I saw how her friends were reacting, which was to buy more guns. It was terrifying. … Sandy Hook was when things began to shift. The people began to rise up and to say: ‘We don’t have to live like this. And we won’t live like this.’ That has now gotten politicians to start to listen.”

Q: Almost immediately after the COVID-19 vaccine became available and things began to open up a little, we had a series of mass shootings — in Boulder, Atlanta, Indianapolis and more. How does this repetition of mass shootings affect people? 

A: “We become overwhelmed. We start to feel like it’s hopeless, that there’s nothing that we can do.”

Q: What can help?  

A: “Have some spiritual practices, first and foremost. The line in [response to] gun violence is ‘Thoughts and prayers.’ And thoughts and prayers are not enough, but the foundation for where we need to start is have a way to settle our nervous system, to ground and reconnect. To know that there is a God, and there is something greater in this moment. …

“And then the next thing is to take action. This has also been proven in trauma research — that what’s healing in trauma is to have a sense of empowerment and a sense of change.”

Q: What can congregations do? 

A: Some possibilities:

  • Download the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit.
  • Create memorials, ceremonies and rituals for victims of gun violence. “We need to learn how to listen to the stories of those who are impacted, and that is hard work to do,” Hollas said. “That’s how we show our solidarity with those who suffer, is being able to hear their stories, and let that move us into action.”
  • Write and call elected officials.
  • Get involved with efforts to get guns off the street, such as RAWtools, an organization that turns guns into garden tools. Some congregations have sponsored gun buy-back programs in partnership with local police departments — such as this Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. That congregation created a buy-back program after a double homicide outside the church; asked parishioners to donate money to purchase the guns; and had such a demand they ran out of money within an hour.

“We can give an option to folks who no longer want guns,” Hollas said. “Maybe they’ve inherited these guns, they’ve changed their mind, or have guns that have been used in suicide.”

Q: Because there’s so much gun violence, it feels sometimes like a devaluing of life. How can we keep from being desensitized?

A: “The big danger is then we begin to normalize it, which is what the gun industry wants. They want you to become numb to it. They want you to feel helpless. They also want you to take action — to go buy a gun. To feel that is your only choice and your only solution. We have to resist that. We can be a witness to resisting that as the church, to say we choose a different path. We worship a God who is a God of liberation and one who has promised us that the way of life is a way of love, of building community, of being there for one another.”

Q: What do you say to the many Presbyterians who are gun owners and who want to be responsible — who maybe are hunters or want a gun for protection. Maybe they grew up with guns and it’s part of their way of life. What kinds of conversations do you have with people who are responsible gun owners?  

A: “First of all, I wonder about the responsible gun owner part. My dad was a hunter and he was a gun owner. But his definition of how he stored his guns and mine were different. He used to just keep them in his closet, because we all knew what to do. … The conversation I have is are they locked, in such a way that nobody’s going to be able to get hold of them but you? … I really want to question how are they stored. Let’s make sure that you really are being responsible. And the second requirement that I like to encourage and invite my responsible gun owners into is working to make sure we have gun safety laws. Because there was a time in this country when we did understand that gun ownership and responsibility went hand in hand. Here in Texas, we have the largest number of registered gun owners, so we used to have some of the strictest gun laws in the country. But those have been dismantled over the years. … If you are a responsible gun owner, then I want to see you advocating for responsible gun laws.”

Q: Are we seeing the discussion about gun legislation moving from the federal level to the states and to local government? How important is what state and local regulations are compared with federal legislation? 

A: “Super important. Licensing is a great example. Right now that is currently being regulated by all the states. Some states do not have licensing requirements at all.” For example, people say “Chicago has all this crime and has one of the strongest gun laws in the country. Well, it’s because Chicago is a really quick drive over to Indiana, which has some of the weakest gun laws in the country. That’s why the necessity of federal laws is important. You’re only as safe as your neighboring state.”

Q: Are there shifts in the legislative priorities of groups like Moms Demand Action that are working against gun violence?  

A: “The biggest shift that they’re making is in listening to voices of color and people who are impacted by gun violence,” day after day.

Shortly after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, Hollas was at a Moms Demand Action event where participants had a moment of silence for those who had been shot. Immediately after that, an activist from Baltimore told the crowd that “while what happened in El Paso was tragic, do you know how many people died in Baltimore last night? I just want you to care about the people in Baltimore as much as you care about these mass shootings. That’s the shift that’s happening. Being able to listen to the people who are impacted by this daily gun violence – to listen to their stories, and to listen to their solutions.”

Q: Following the pandemic, with all the economic insecurity and loss and grief, do you think we’re in for a season of increased incidence of mental health problems and suicide?  

A: “I think we are. One of the biggest increases is actually coming from children and youth. …

“People start to feel in despair because they don’t have access to mental health services, they don’t have access to healthcare, they don’t have access to economic sustainable conditions. And then you toss into that easy access to a gun.”

Q; What are the challenges in getting Presbyterian congregations involved in doing this work?

A: “The challenge has been a lot of congregations saw this as a controversial issue or a partisan issue. … And that’s beginning to shift, I’ll say sadly because of mass shootings. Mass shootings motivate white people to take action. And school shootings. Our children, our youth, are begging us to care. That’s also what tends to get congregations involved. It’s often a movement being pushed by their children saying, ‘We’re tired of being targets.’ … They know we don’t have to live like this. They know it’s a choice.”

During the pandemic, many of “those gun sales were first-time gun owners. Folks who would normally advocate for gun safety laws feeling that our lawmakers are failing us. Our institutions are starting to fail us, so it’s leading folks into a place of panic and fear, and then thinking that the only answer to that is a gun.”

Q: What haven’t we discussed that you’d like people to consider? 

A: “The most important is really unmasking the power of the gun industry. When we don’t bring that into the conversation, the role that needing gun sales is having, then it becomes sort of that this is about personal piety, and whether or not an individual gun owner is doing the right thing. But this is a structural problem. That’s what’s important — that we begin to understand the forces that are driving this. The gun industry. White supremacy. Those I think are the two big power forces that we need to look at. … This is a systemic problem, and we need to start addressing it that way.”

Second, the importance of taking action.  “There are ways to do that involve legislation,” but there are other approaches too. “You can disarm. You can advocate for safe storage. You can go out and buy gun locks and make sure everybody has gun locks. … That’s what encourages me, is that people are interested and involved. The fact that this is kind of a divisive subject is starting to go away. … It’s not just white male gun owners driving the conversation anymore.”