[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians have a range of ways they can support efforts to end gun violence, through prayer, education and advocacy, Episcopal bishops said in a June 28 webinar, “Doing Our Part,” that was organized by Bishops United Against Gun Violence.
The hourlong Zoom event, which was livestreamed on Facebook, came after a volatile week for advocates and opponents of tougher gun laws. On June 23, the Supreme Court expanded the rights of gun owners to carry firearms in public by striking down a New York law. Two days later, on June 25, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill that that has been praised for directing the most significant new federal gun safety measures in nearly 30 years.
“Much has been happening in our country,” Michigan Bishop Bonnie Perry said to open the webinar. “Our federal government has passed a piece of sensible gun legislation into law; our Supreme Court has struck down a sensible piece of gun legislation. What all of this means is that we need to educate ourselves, organize ourselves and work at the state level to keep people safe.”
The stories of recent tragedies set a somber tone for the event. Bishops spoke of their grief for the 10 people shot and killed May 14 at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York; three people shot and killed June 5 at a home in Saginaw, Michigan; and three parishioners shot and killed June 16 at an Episcopal church’s potluck meal in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.
Episcopalians in Alabama are “only beginning to get through the first layer of grief and pain and shock, enough that we’re starting to wake up a little bit and ask ourselves what’s next?” Alabama Bishop Glenda Curry said during the webinar.
What’s next, Perry and other participants said, should be a renewed commitment to advocate for change at the local, state and federal levels.
“The Episcopal Church has advocated on gun reforms since at least the 1970s, and that advocacy continues today,” said Rebecca Blachly, director of the church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations. Her office advocates for church policy positions that have been approved by General Convention. “There are just so many resolutions where the church has spoken powerfully about the need to address this crisis that harms so many every day around our country.”
Firearms were used to kill more than 45,000 people in 2020, Blachly said, including more than 24,000 suicides. She suggested Episcopalians sign up to receive alerts from the Episcopal Public Policy Network, which coordinates efforts to contact members of Congress and urge them to pass legislation addressing the crisis of gun violence and other issues.
The legislation signed into law by Biden, Blachly said, includes provisions that encourage crisis intervention for people deemed a threat to themselves or others, make it more difficult for people convicted of domestic abuse to obtain guns, strengthen requirements for young adults seeking to buy guns and provide money to improve mental health care for young people in crisis.
“This legislation isn’t everything that General Convention polices would ask for, everything that we had hoped for, but it’s something,” Blachly said. “It’s significant. It’s a step, and I think it shows that it is possible to have change even at the federal level, even when there’s opposition.”
Advocacy is just as important at the state level, Perry said. She described the involvement of Michigan’s Episcopal bishops in a campaign to strengthen the state’s gun laws, through measures such as universal background checks, safe gun storage requirements and prohibitions on guns in the state Capitol and other government buildings.
In April, Perry was joined by Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford Ray and Bishop Prince Singh, bishop provisional of Eastern and Western Michigan, for an End Gun Violence Michigan lobby day at the Capitol in Lansing. More than 150 Episcopalians and people of other Christian denominations and faiths participated.
The lawmakers and other state officials “kept saying over and over again, ‘It matters that people of faith have come to be with us and to ask for this,’” said Perry. She is one of three co-conveners of the Bishops United Against Gun Violence network. Ray and Singh also are members.
“Defending, protecting and respecting the dignity of children, youth and adults is my calling. It is our calling as baptized Christians to be peacemakers wherever we are,” Singh said in the webinar. “We can address this moral health issue of gun violence now.”
The bishops also discussed gun-related resolutions that will be considered by the 80th General Convention when it convenes July 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland. Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, spoke in support of B006, a resolution he proposed that would encourage Episcopalians to advocate for their state legislatures to pass anti-gun violence measures with support from the Office of Government Relations.
“Work needs to be done at the local-state level,” said Douglas, a founding co-convener of Bishops United. “It’s at our state levels that we can effect real change.” The measures he cited included expanded background checks for gun purchases, limits on the capacity of gun magazines, restrictions on military-style weapons and so-called red-flag laws, which are focused on lawfully taking guns from individuals suspected of posing threats of violence.
Pennsylvania Bishops Daniel Gutiérrez, also a Bishops United co-convener, spoke about Resolution B003, which addresses untraceable firearms known as “ghost guns,” and Resolution B007, which outlines seven strategies for reducing violence in communities that have suffered from high numbers of gun deaths.
Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe, who also serves as provisional bishop of the Diocese of Western New York, spoke of how Episcopalians in the diocese responded to the mass shooting in Buffalo by praying for the victims while also recommitting to the work of racial justice. All 10 of those killed in the shooting were Black, and authorities filed hate crime charges against the 18-year-old suspect, who had aligned himself with racist ideologies.
And as members of a mostly white diocese, Western New York Episcopalians sought “not to take the spotlight,” Rowe said, “but to stand in solidarity with Buffalo’s Black community.”
Curry, the Alabama bishop, described rushing to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church when she heard of the deadly shooting there on June 16 – she lives about five minutes away in Birmingham – and she joined in prayer with others gathered outside the church while police investigated. Earlier at the church potluck, Bart Rainey, 84, Sharon Yeager, 75, and Jane Pounds, 84, had noticed 70-year-old Robert F. Smith sitting alone and invited him to their table. He responded by pulling out a handgun, shooting and killing them, police said.
Curry said she was grateful for the support of Douglas and other bishops across the church, who shared with her liturgical resources that have been developed after past massacres, such as Bishops United’s Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting. On June 17, a day after the killings at St. Stephen’s, the diocese held a prayer service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the neighboring suburb of Mountain Brook. Hundreds of people watched the service on a livestream, and as many as 800 attended in person, Curry said.
”It was a groundswell of people praying, from all denominations, all faiths, all across Birmingham and the state, and of course, we heard from people all over the world,” Curry said. She saw that turnout as a reminder that Episcopalians are people of prayer, especially in the midst of tragedy.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.