Presiding Bishop provides testimony on gun violence

Posted Feb 12, 2013

[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs] Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has submitted written testimony to the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, for the hearing on “Proposals to reduce gun violence: protecting our communities while respecting the Second Amendment.”

“I urge lawmakers to press for comprehensive and universal background checks for firearm ownership, regardless of where and how a gun is purchased; for bans on the availability to civilians of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; and for policies designed to better regulate the manufacture of guns,” the Presiding Bishop states in her testimony. “The Episcopal Church also supports the highest level of accountability for violation of all existing laws pertaining to violence in our midst.”

The following is the full text of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s testimony.





FEBRUARY 12, 2013
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee:

On behalf of The Episcopal Church, a multinational Christian religious denomination of two million persons headquartered in the United States, I am grateful for the opportunity to present this testimony on the urgent task of reducing gun violence in our communities.

The United States has witnessed far too many public shootings in recent months and years.  Far too many lives have been cut short or maimed by both random and targeted acts of gun violence.  The school shooting in Newtown, CT horrified Americans and people around the world, yet since that day several times as many young people have died by gunshot.  Each year, gun violence claims the lives of more than 3,000 children in the United States.  The victims of each of these shootings are members of our families, religious congregations, and communities, and we continue to grieve for the living as well as the dead.

I commend the resolve of lawmakers who believe that the moment has arrived when our nation must come together to ask the difficult questions, and to discern what may be equally challenging answers, about how we can begin to break the cycles of violence that lead to massacres in suburban schools and routine death on the streets of our cities.  It is abundantly clear to me, as I travel to communities across this country and engage in conversation with people from many walks of life, that Americans have begun to find the resolve to grapple with the complexities of violence in our culture.

This is no easy task.  Just as the root causes of cyclical violence in our culture, and the ways in which that violence is expressed, are varied and complicated, so too are the solutions.   We must resist the temptation to use the present moment of national angst as a pretext for pre-formed political agendas or simplistic responses that are better suited for sound bites than for meaningful, long-term change.  We all share a responsibility to examine the many facets of cycles of violence in our society, and to discern equally comprehensive responses that will address the causes, means, and effects of violence.

I would suggest that we might start by examining three different levels of response.

First, we should fearlessly examine our underlying cultural attitudes toward violence, as well as the ways those attitudes are expressed, consciously and unconsciously, in our communities.  There is a dangerous paradox in how our culture treats violence, glorifying it on the one hand while also trivializing it.  Violence – whether physical, verbal, or mental – finds routine expression in our entertainment, recreation, politics, and our view of world affairs.  Violence and aggression, the polar opposites of civility and righteousness, come to be associated with strength, heroism, and success.  Once that connection is made, these attitudes insidiously reframe our views of family and community relationships.  Violence almost always begets further violence.

Society at all levels must take responsibility for building a culture that refuses to tolerate any notion of violence devoid of consequence or moral clarity, or any sense that any human life is exploitable or expendable.  Families, faith communities, schools, governments, the entertainment industry, and others all have responsibilities in this area.  As Episcopalians, we are committed to examining our own cultural attitudes toward violence through efforts in our own congregations and communities, to repent of our own roles in the glorification and trivialization of violence, and commit ourselves to another way.

I urge our nation’s leaders to encourage this same form of accountability in other aspects of our national life.  Examine entertainment and recreation, yes.  But also examine how civility is lived out in our national affairs, particularly the rhetoric that diminishes and demonizes those who hold competing opinions.  Examine how tolerance and understanding are taught in our schools.  Encourage each American to examine his or her own attitudes.  Let us challenge ourselves, as our Church declared nearly two decades ago in response to this same conversation, to “create sanctuaries for our children, so that all may come to identify and value themselves and others as the precious children of God that they are, and that they may come to know peace in their lives and to create peace for future generations.”

Second, let us think seriously together about psychological wellness in our culture.  Many have noted that the Sandy Hook shooter, like so many others in recent similar tragedies, appears to have been mentally ill.  We have become accustomed to hearing the acquaintances of a perpetrator express their lack of great surprise at his or her actions, given previous inappropriate behavior.  In many such cases, documented failures to provide adequate mental healthcare to at-risk adolescents or adults have become a routine part of the story.  In other settings, including many urban environments in which violence has become routine, access to mental healthcare is often essentially unavailable, or is so stigmatized or misunderstood as to be rendered meaningless for those at risk.

The Episcopal Church, like many other faith communities, has long called for a more serious approach to mental healthcare in America:  wider availability; the elimination of stigma associated with its use; and better adaptation to a variety of cultural, economic, and educational settings.  Social progress in this area has been slow.  Where can we now identify points for change?  How can we commit to welcoming the outcast and ensuring that all members of all communities have access to the full range of healthcare, including mental healthcare, needed for their full flourishing?

I challenge lawmakers to address this question as comprehensively and creatively as possible.  One promising approach is reflected in a new bipartisan legislation introduced last week by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) known as the “Excellence in Mental Health Act.”  That legislation seeks to create new community mental health centers and to upgrade existing ones, and to allow those centers to bill Medicaid and private insurance for treatment just as they do when providing physical-healthcare services.  I urge lawmakers to consider this and other such responses, and to treat mental healthcare as a budgetary priority as well.

Finally, I believe – as The Episcopal Church has said continually over more than 40 years – that the role of guns in our society’s culture of violence cannot be ignored. The easy accessibility of guns to those prone to commit crimes, and the danger posed by the increasingly lethal character of both the weaponry and ammunition available, are constants running through much of the recent violence in our culture.

I want to be clear that The Episcopal Church supports the constitutional right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.  We recognize that law-abiding gun owners are not responsible for the crimes we are discussing today and should not be the focus of our responses to those crimes.  Nevertheless, our Church is clear that federal, state, and local gun laws and enforcement activities should focus their efforts on keeping guns out of the hands of children and those who would use them to commit violent crimes.  We also stand for tighter curbs on weaponry designed primarily to enable more effective killing of other human beings, such as what are commonly referred to as military-style assault rifles.

I urge lawmakers to press for comprehensive and universal background checks for firearm ownership, regardless of where and how a gun is purchased; for bans on the availability to civilians of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines; and for policies designed to better regulate the manufacture of guns.  The Episcopal Church also supports the highest level of accountability for violation of all existing laws pertaining to violence in our midst.

As Christians, we believe that all God’s people should be able to live in peace.  As the prophet Zechariah dreams, “old men and women shall again sit in the streets…And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing.”  The prophet reminds his hearers that even if this seems impossible, with God it is not (Zech 8:4-6).

Today, I urge our nation’s lawmakers, and indeed all Americans, to commit to the work of making peace possible in every street and each community of this nation.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this testimony, and please be assured of my constant prayers for you and all who undertake the costly work of public service.