This week approximately 300 people from across the county will gather in Philadelphia for a peace conference entitled “Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace.” Sponsored by the historic peace churches (Quaker, Mennonite and Brethren), the stated purpose is “to strengthen our witness and work for peace in the world by inspiring hope, raising voices, taking action.” The conference organizers hope that participants will not only leave the conference with encouragement and inspiration, but also have developed concrete plans for addressing the needs for peace, justice and reconciliation in the war torn places of the world. While the focus of the event is largely in international, I was part of a small group folks early on who advocated that we also needed to address the gun violence at home taking place on our city streets. I felt we could not address the wars abroad without also taking on the war at home.
So,on Saturday, January 17, the conference will conclude with a gathering of
1500-2000 people of faith from across the Philadelphia metropolitan area demonstrating in front of a gun shop named Colisimos that is notorious for selling handguns that have end up killing and seriously wounding hundreds of people, mostly young people, in Philadelphia and surrounding communities. We have asked Colismos to sign a Code of Conduct that has been endorsed by the Mayor’s office and has been signed by Walmart, the leading gun retailer in the country. The purpose of the Code of Conduct is to ask the gun dealer to take common sense steps to reduce the likelihood of guns getting illegally into the hands of criminals. If you live in the Philadelphia area I encourage you to join us. You can get more information at http://www.peacegathering2009.org/saturday-witness/take-action.
However, beyond the action we are taking on Saturday, this event is an effort by a number of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders to say to the people of Philadelphia that there is hope that deaths and injury due to gun violence can be reduced. This past year Philadelphia has seen a 15% decrease in homicides due to gun, but only a 3%drop in violent crimes over all. We can do better as the current death rate is still about one per day, and this event is saying we will do better.
This action is saying to our elected officials that we should pass common sense legislation that will significantly reduce the presence of unregistered guns on our streets: Legislation like the “One Handgun a Month” law that limits the purchases of one handgun every month. Legislation like the “Lost or Stolen” bill which requires a gun owner to report a gun to be lost or stolen within 24 hours of discovering that loss or theft. Legislation like can be found in New Jersey that requires extensive background checks on potential gun owners, so that guns do not get into the hands of unstable or irresponsible people, unlike the cursory background checks that are done in states like Pennsylvania.
These bills are designed to inhibit the process referred to as “straw buying.” Straw buyers are individuals with no criminal records who are hired by underground gun dealers to purchase guns on their behalf. The guns are registered in the straw buyer’s name, but quickly transferred to the underground dealer and then sold under the table to other people, many of whom are under the age 18 and/or have prior criminal offenses. When that gun is used in a violent crime and traced back to the straw buyers, if they say it was “lost” or “stolen” they face no criminal charges. By making the process of straw buying a more serious offense with even the threat of jail time, these bills are would impede and discourage the would be straw buyers, and reduce the flow of unregistered and illegal guns.
However, beyond even bringing hope to those victimized by violence and changing gun laws, our hope is to challenge National Rifle Association who see any effort to control the sales of guns, even illegal guns, as somehow limiting their Second Amendment rights. When I explain the proposed bills many people why it has been so hard to pass these bills. Very simply it is because the NRA fills the campaign coffers of elected officials and stirs up fear among legal gun owners by characterizing any attempt to limit gun sales an issue of curbing patriotic rights. The propsed bills have no bearing on legal gun owners, but are designed to discourage illegal sales.
This action is also a challenge to the gun manufacturers themselves, who profit handily through the sale of illegal and unregistered guns. The legal gun market is basically saturated, and so the “growth market” for guns is the underground market. The gun industry has been largely shielded by the Bush Administration from any prosecution but with a new president, there is hope for a new and more just approach.
Those who have planned this event (I have played only a minor role) recognize that the culture of violence that has gripped our society from the White House to the Pentagon to the city streets to the rural areas will not be changed by one conference or one civic demonstration. So we are committed to work beyond Saturday mobilize our churches, synagogues, mosques, community groups and legislatures so that a new spirit and a new attitude toward guns and violence can be fostered in our hearts and in our community.
I invite you to join us this week and covet your prayers. At times this struggle seems a bit like the Biblical story of young David taking on Goliath. The NRA and the gun lobby are powerfuls force, and we who are opposing them are small by comparison. However, as I recall, size and power did not prevail that day on the Philistine plain, and so I/we go forth in hope, and the expectation that peace can and will prevail.