Presbyterian gun owners address the complexities

For gun-owning Presbyterians, control is – and isn’t – a cut-and-dried issue, Leslie Scanlon finds.

Hand of man hold candle flame light at night with bokeh background

There was one clear takeaway when Oregonians narrowly voted in November 2022 to approve Measure 114 — one of the nation’s strictest gun control measures, banning the sale of high-capacity magazines except for military or law enforcement use: People are weary of the bloodshed and grief. They want the gun violence and mass shootings to stop.

“We’ve had too many funerals,” said Mark Knutson, a Lutheran pastor from Portland and one of the leaders of Lift Every Voice Oregon, the grassroots group that worked to squeak the legislation through. Measure 114 passed by a 50.7% to 49.3% margin.

Some of those advocating for stricter regulation have never owned a gun, and never want to.

But here’s what’s not so obvious. The advocates for Measure 114 also included Presbyterian gun owners — people who are long-time hunters or recreational users of guns, but are every bit as opposed to gun violence as some who have never pulled a trigger.

Todd Jessell

Todd Jessell, 83, and a member of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, estimates he owns about a dozen guns — mostly rifles.

“I just like guns,” Jessell said. “They’re neat. They’re fun to work on. I love the beautiful wood.”

Guns have always been part of Jessell’s life. From his teenage years. “I just love the outdoors,” the long-time hunter says.

After serving in the Navy, Jessell began a career in pollution abatement in the chemical industry. In college, he was a competitive shooter, placing nationally for an Oregon State University team.

Despite that history, Jessell wrote a public statement in support of Measure 114, writing that the legislation “won’t take away our guns. But it will reduce gun suicides, unintentional shootings, and anger-fueled crimes.”

Measure 114 requires a permit, criminal background check, fingerprinting and firearms training for those buying guns. It also prohibits the sale, transfer and manufacture of gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds, banning them unless they are owned by someone in law enforcement or the military, or by a gun owner who purchased them before the new law passed.

Since November, two lawsuits have challenged the measure. The first, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, argued the measure is unconstitutional because it violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, court records show. The second, filed in the Harney County Circuit Court, questioned whether the measure violated the Oregon constitution’s guarantee of a right to bear arms.

Both federal and state courts have said the regulations cannot go into effect until trials have been held, according to reports by Jefferson Public Radio.

Presbyterians, such as retired minister Thomas Campbell-Schmitt, were involved in the campaign for Measure 114.

“We continually say this is not about taking your guns away,” said Campbell-Schmitt, who served on the Lift Every Voice Oregon leadership team. “It’s about safety and saving lives. … We’re evangelists for gun safety.”

“We continually say this is not about taking your guns away, it’s about safety and saving lives. … We’re evangelists for gun safety.” — Thomas Campbell-Schmitt, retired minister

Jessell said he got involved after hearing Campbell-Schmitt give a presentation about gun violence.

“I said, ‘I’m going to have to take a stand, and not be wishy-washy.’ My stand is that I have a love for guns. They’re fun to shoot and hit a target. … You have a right to own a gun, certainly.

“You also have a responsibility to make sure the gun is used safely,” he said, which is why he supports the provisions in the Oregon legislation requiring training and waiting periods for purchasing firearms, and a ban on large-capacity magazines.

In the United States, the relationship between religion and firearms is complex.

Houses of worship have been the scenes of mass shootings – among them, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018; at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017; at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, in 2022.

Analyzing data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study, Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, has found that close to half of White evangelicals either own a gun or live in a household where someone does, along with about 40% of mainline Protestant and about 27% of Black Protestants.

Close to half of White evangelicals either own a gun or live in a household where someone does, according to Burge.

A Pew Research Center report from 2017 found that about four in 10 U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, and at least two-thirds have lived in a household with a gun at some point in their lives. A majority of gun owners (66 percent) own more than one weapon, the study found. About three-fourths of gun owners said owning a gun is essential to their freedom. About two-thirds said protection is a major reason why they own a gun, with 38 percent citing hunting.

Michael Fox, a disabled Army veteran and the commissioned lay pastor of Horseshoe Presbyterian Church in Sanford, North Carolina, like many Americans, is a gun owner.

“I’ve always owned guns,” Fox said. “I am a responsible gun owner. My congregation has a very large population of gun owners.”

He grew up in Michigan, part of a family of “very outdoorsy people” who fished and hunted deer and turkey. And Fox, who says he “leans Republican,” thinks the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the government go too far when they support policies that would limit the types of guns that people could own.

“In our congregation, members have expressed anger” at PC(USA) support of policies that would restrict gun ownership, Fox said. “They feel the church is invading their rights as constitutional Americans to exercise their God-given right” to own weapons. “They feel they’re being infringed upon.”

“Most gun owners are responsible gun owners” and are skilled in using their weapons, Fox said. For him, the best approach to ending gun violence is not to restrict ownership of certain types of weapons, but to seek stricter controls to prevent people with mental illness from obtaining weapons.

“Nobody can control a madman,” Fox said. “In the Presbyterian Church, we realize that very well. We know demonic forces, and we know what evil is out there.

“In these little rural churches, 75 percent or more of the men are armed. I know several women who are armed. I can name a dozen in my church alone. These are law-abiding citizens. Raise children. Legal gun owners.”

Fox said he supports the idea of background checks and waiting periods to buy guns. But he doesn’t understand the emphasis in the public debate on banning semi-automatic rifles. “A gun is a gun is a gun,” he said. “They all shoot bullets … You can do as much damage with a gun with seven bullets in it,” as with an assault rifle.

“I don’t believe everybody should own weapons. But I do believe that people who legally own them should be left alone. … There are so many weapons in the United States they’ll never be able to control them. They’ll never be able to confiscate them.”

A cradle Presbyterian, Fox said he loves the Reformed tradition. But he says the people in his congregation are “just leave-alone types of people.”

“They’re not going to do it,” Fox said. “They’re going to find another church, they will start another church, where they can worship God with their gun at their side and feel welcome.”

“In these little rural churches, 75 percent or more of the men are armed. I know several women who are armed. I can name a dozen in my church alone. These are law-abiding citizens. Raise children. Legal gun owners.” — Michael Fox, comissioned lay pastor at Horseshoe Presbyterian Church in Sanford, North Carolina

In Oregon, some gun-owning Presbyterians did support stricter gun control legislation.

Michael Dugan, a former district attorney in Deschutes County in central Oregon and an usher at First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon, returned a reporter’s phone call after a day spent hunting in Colorado with his son. “It was a great hunting trip,” Dugan said. “We went hunting for elk and we actually found some. Didn’t shoot any, but we found them.”

Dugan grew up in a small town in southwest Oregon, following in the footsteps of a father and older brother who hunted. When he was 12, Dugan took a hunter safety course and qualified for a hunting license. His father bought him a hunting rifle with room for five bullets — a weapon he is now passing on to his granddaughter, who has started hunting.

Michael Dugan (right) on a hunting trip with his son, Daniel Dugan.

“I grew up hunting, around guns, and have lived by the rule that the hunter has limited capacity in the magazine,” Dugan said. “For big game, maximum of five shots. … You could have three shots at a bird.”

Dugan said he supported Measure 114 in part because he thinks the required waiting period will help reduce the number of gun-related suicides. He also opposes the sale of weapons with large-capacity magazines for civilian use — the type of weapon often used in mass shootings.

As a district attorney for more than two decades, “I had a shotgun, had the magazine loaded, which was right by my bed for 24 years,” he said. “For personal safety. But I didn’t need an AR-15.”

In Bend, where Dugan lives, a man carrying a semi-automatic rifle entered a grocery store on Aug. 28, 2022, and killed two men – both Army veterans – before killing himself. Most gun owners “are appalled by the mass shootings,” Dugan said. “Many of us would question the need to have an
AK-47 to go deer hunting.”

Cyndi Wunder, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baker City, Oregon, supported Measure 114, even though she knows gun control is “a very sensitive conversation” in her congregation and her community. She grew up in this part of eastern Oregon, close to the Idaho border, and describes it as “very conservative. It’s very rural. It’s very independent. When it comes to having guns and weapons around, they are tools we use all the time. We don’t use military-grade weapons all the time. That’s a different thing.”

Cyndi Wunder

Wunder is familiar with guns. She was formerly married to a soldier, and, “I love to do mounted shooting,” a competitive shooting sport done on horseback. She’s had congregants encourage her to carry a gun when she rides her horse on the wilderness trails around her home, where bobcats, cougars and bears are part of the landscape — not always seen, but always nearby.

“I grew up knowing there was a pistol in the glovebox. The reason it was there was we ran into rattlesnakes all the time. … I would not be shocked if I saw someone go into the grocery store with a pistol on their hip. It probably means they’re heading out hunting or going out in the desert or the forest. … Guns are part of our way of life. We hope that people are responsible about it.”

While she has carried guns in the past, Wunder does not do so now, influenced in part by a passage from Deuteronomy 30,  about choosing life, and not death. And she supported Measure 114 in part because of its restriction on the sale of semi-automatic weapons. “Does anyone in this area need a military-grade weapon?” she asked. “No, we don’t. If you need to protect yourself, you can get a pistol or a rifle.”

She also supports the measure in the legislation requiring firearms safety training. As children, “it was really drilled into us. You don’t touch a gun, you don’t point it at anyone.” She recounts an event in which a neighbor accidentally shot a child while cleaning a gun.

“He had to live with that. It was horrible. We grew up with the awareness of what guns were for and how to be safe around them. That was a good thing.”

Influenced by his paternal grandfather, Jessell also grew up comfortable with guns — picking walnuts to earn money to buy his first deer rifle as a teenager.

As an adult, he bought a second home with a friend on a trout stream in Montana. “We hunted up there on a ranch” — ducks, pheasants, deer, occasionally elk. He’s not a trophy hunter, but loves the taste of well-prepared venison and the adventure of the outdoors. “I had a fairly intense job, and it was just great to get out for a weekend or a few days. … I love to get ready for it, the anticipation, to get your gear out and get ready to go.”

But Jessell said he became increasingly distressed about gun violence following the mass shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A friend who owns a gun shop in Montana acknowledged that military-style guns are popular, even though many contend they’re not needed for hunting. Jessell said his friend told him, “I sell a lot of guns, But the AR-15 platform is where I make my money. The younger guys love them. …
And there’s just a huge after-market of parts you can put on and trick them up.”

Jessell said he hopes that Oregon’s stricter legislation – if it survives legal challenges – will reduce the number of gun-related deaths through suicide and mass shootings.

“We’re never going to eliminate gun violence,” Jessell said. “I hope we can reduce it significantly. Our goal is to save human lives.”