A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS
A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS
O Lord, on whose protection our health, safety and security depend: We implore your healing of a nation divided and unable to find common purpose in resolving the scourge of gun violence; lift souls and offer hope to all whose desperation would end in self-inflicted death; bring forbearance and love to our homes so that frustration and anger may be diffused through conversation not violence; oversee those places where we gather to learn and worship that they may be safe sanctuaries for all who enter them; be present where we work that mutual respect and just relationships might govern our economic lives and disagreements be resolved through engagement not revenge; join us where we walk and play that our streets and turf may cradle dreams not bodies; and strengthen, encourage and support all who strive to find shared cause in preventing gun violence; all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Survey the nature and scope of gun violence in the United States
Examine the causes of gun-related homicides, suicides and unintended death
Explore the evidence-based benefits and limitations of strategies to reduce gun violence
Discuss potential opportunities for faith communities to intervene in the cycle of gun violence
Genesis 4:1-16 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.” Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Exodus 20:13 You shall not murder.
Psalm 69:19-28 You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies. Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents. For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more. Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
Matthew 5:38-39 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Barry Jr. had been murdered in a drive-by shooting on St. Louis’ north side – right next to his house – several days earlier. His father was certain he knew who did it. But, the police couldn’t connect the dots. Barry’s family was the bedrock of the small Episcopal church where I served as vicar. They were a large, extended family. They were involved in everything we did. And, they were deeply loved. Planning Jr.’s funeral was complicated – honoring the wishes of the family, the traditions of the black community and the Anglican liturgy all of us treasured. Everything was scheduled for Thursday morning. I called Barry Sr. to confirm the details. However, he lamented we needed to delay the service. What was the problem, I wondered. Family travel plans? Money? The police investigation? No, the funeral had to be postponed because it would take another week for the morticians to restore Jr.’s face to a point where it could be viewed.
The Rev. Marc D. Smith, Ph.D.
Bishop’s Deputy for Gun Violence Prevention
The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri
Although the ongoing debate about gun violence in this country is replete with data and statistical analysis, it is at its core a human tragedy. Too many of us are forced to imagine our lives or those whom we love ending in a hail of gunfire from a speeding car. Too many of us have to wonder whether our bedroom walls are thick enough to stop an errant bullet. And, too many of us fear for the lives of our children in schools, theaters and dance clubs.
However, despite the daily coverage of carnage on America’s streets and the popular perception of a nation beset by violent crime, 2014 was actually the safest year in the modern history of our country (Sharkey). Although the homicide rate in the United States rose from 4.6/100,000 population in the early 1960s to 10/100,000 people in the 1990s, it fell to 4.4/100,000 by the middle of the current decade. To be sure, this was significant progress. Unfortunately, the national homicide rate has again begun to increase in the past several years – now at 5/100,000 population. And, the United States continues to have a gun homicide rate 25 times as high as other developed countries (Bloomberg).
Understanding the nature and extent of gun violence in America, as well as developing strategies to reduce it, are complicated by questions of both definition and context. While homicides are at the forefront of news coverage and public consciousness, suicides in fact account for the overwhelming majority (62%) of the 31,000 annual firearms deaths in the United States, with another 2% resulting from unintentional causes (Miller, Azrael and Hemenway). Thus, although firearms are the common denominator in the “gun violence” conversation, the circumstances which surround their use vary significantly. And, the consequences for public policy are equally profound. For example, limiting the capacity of gun magazines will have no effect on suicides, nor will the availability of gun locks likely impact the number of gang-related shootings.
The different settings in which gun violence occurs also shape the public’s perception. Mass shootings like those at Sandy Hook School, the Pulse Nightclub and Las Vegas’ outdoor concert venue capture headlines several times a year. Our hearts are torn by the stories of lives cut short, heroic sacrifices to save others and the pain of those who survive. Calls to action – legislative, judicial and therapeutic – begin almost immediately following these tragedies. And, at least for a time, they focus the debate on gun violence and its prevention. However, public mass shootings – where four or more unrelated people are killed in a single incident – are relatively rare (146 between 1967-2017) and account for a small percentage (<2%) of all firearm deaths (Overton). Consequently, we often find ourselves debating the causes of and solutions to gun violence based on tragic, but nonetheless infrequent, events. The reality is that most “mass shootings” are not public, but rather private, events – the result of domestic or family violence.
Public mass shootings also raise questions regarding the extent to which mental illness is a significant factor in firearm homicides. Research conducted over the past 25 years has consistently demonstrated that mental illness contributes little to the level of violence in the United States. To be sure, there is evidence of serious psychopathology among many public mass shooters. So, too, can it be argued that street and domestic homicides often have mental health issues as a subtext. However, the same research also notes that few of these individuals seek treatment before they commit a violent act and, therefore, are not entered into a database that would preclude the purchase of a gun. And even if individuals with psychiatric conditions were comprehensively screened, there is no evidence that future homicides can be prevented. Thus, while improved mental health care is an essential component of public policy and the care of those at risk for suicide, it does not appear to be the universal “solution” to public mass shootings or other firearm homicides that some have suggested (Swanson, Robertson, Frisman, Norko, Lin, Swartz and Cook).
Together, these factors – our perception of the extent of violence in the United States, the number of firearm homicides and the sensationalism of random, large-scale, public massacres – define our sense of personal vulnerability to gun violence. The insidious racism that continues to color our understanding of each other and the world we share further exacerbates these preconceptions. Yet, we are not equally at risk. Among males age 15 – 24 (the cohort most likely to be homicide victims), black men are 19 times more likely to be murdered than those who are white. And, these deaths are far more likely to be the result of local feuds, among people who know each other, feel disrespected and hold out little hope for their lives. “I ain’t gonna live to 23. What difference does it make if I die today?” is a refrain too often shared among young black men who sense no opportunities for the future (Rich).
So, as we attempt to engage in a discussion of public policy options to address gun violence in our nation and the potential role of faith communities in facilitating this conversation, we are reminded of the inherent complexities which frame it.
The United States is in the midst of one of the safest periods in our history, with the most pronounced gains having been made in America’s cities. However, despite this progress, homicide rates have recently begun to trend upward, and several cities (including Chicago and St. Louis) are experiencing levels of gun violence not seen in decades.
“Gun violence” is too broad a classification to yield reasonable debate and evidenced-based solutions. Rather, the discussion must focus on the distinct aspects of each type of firearm- related death: homicide; suicide; and unintentional.
The attention given to public mass shootings (a very small percentage of gun-related homicides) obscures the racial, socioeconomic, political and psychological factors associated with the majority of intimate firearm murders and strategies to reduce them.
It also is critical that we organize this discussion around rigorously tested scientific data – not anecdotal experience, the bias of human prejudices or the self-serving hype of advocates on all sides of this issue. The late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously quipped that, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Toward that end, several findings in the research on gun violence (in addition to those previously cited) have been consistently reported and confirmed.
There are almost as many guns in circulation (300 million) as there are people in the United States, an increase of 50% in the past 40 years. Although the number of households which possess these guns has declined from 50% to 33% in the past 20 years, the number of guns owned by each individual has increased dramatically. Thus, a smaller number of people own a substantially larger percentage of guns. And, in those states where the proportion of households owning guns is high, the rate of gun-related deaths is seven times that for low ownership states.
The presence of a firearm in a household is not without considerable risk. Compared to homes in which a gun is not present, the homicide rate is three times higher, and the firearm suicide rate is 17 times higher in gun-owning households. It is important to note that the markedly increased risk of suicide is independent of the prevalence of mental illness among the victim or other members of the household.
The use of a gun for self-defense or to protect personal property is greatly exaggerated in popular and political debate compared to its use for other purposes. Firearms are 11 times more likely to be used to attempt or complete a suicide and seven times more likely to be used in a homicide or criminal assault by a member of the household. Furthermore, this weapon is four times more likely to be the culprit in an unintentional shooting death, especially of a child.
Perhaps most striking when considering the civilian use of a firearm for self-defense is the limited likelihood of success and the potential consequences. In a recent study conducted and widely reported by the Rand Corporation of the New York City Police Department (Rawlings), the data demonstrate that only 18 – 30% of the shots fired by officers pursuing a suspect hit their target. There is no evidence that civilians – even with training – would equal, let alone improve, on this “hit rate.” Thus, more than 70% of the shots fired in the midst of a criminal encounter by either police officers or civilians will miss their target and potentially strike an innocent bystander.
Finally, no discussion of gun violence and policy options in response to it can be engaged without consideration of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The right of private gun ownership was upheld by the Supreme Court in Heller v. District of Columbia (2011), although reasonable restrictions also were deemed permissible. Despite this decision which attempted to balance various claims and rights, concerns continue to mobilize advocates on both sides of the issue. On the one hand are those who interpret Heller as a license for totally unregulated gun ownership. On the other are those who focus on the Supreme Court’s endorsement of sensible regulation. No doubt, there are some who would ban private ownership of all guns. And, there are those who would welcome “open carry” as a social norm. The reality is that, except at the extreme margins, few want to ban private gun ownership, and few want a return to the “Wild West.”
For society, the church and people of faith it has become abundantly clear that the nature of gun violence is so complex that no simple or single solution is available. Strategies to reduce homicides, suicides and unintended firearm deaths may share some similarities but also will differ on key elements. The relative impact of gun locks, mental health services and mandatory waiting periods will vary depending on the type of gun violence attempting to be reduced. And, enhanced background checks, improved school security and the regulation of bump stocks and high-capacity magazines are only components of a potential solution to the multi-faceted gun violence problem in our country. And perhaps most notably, we are and likely will be for decades to come a nation with hundreds of millions of firearms already in circulation.
By Billy Collins, Ph.D.
Poet Laureate of the United States (2001-2003)
Recorded by the author and published with his written consent
Boy Shooting at a Statue
It was late in the afternoon,
The beginning of winter, a light snow,
And I was the only one in a small park.
to witness the boy running alone
in circles around the base of a bronze statue.
I could not read the carved name
of the noted statesman
who loomed above, one hand on a cold hip,
the other thrust into his frozen waistcoat.
And the boy had only his hand for a gun,
but as he ran, head down,
he would lift a finger to the statute
pulling an imaginary trigger
as he imitated the sounds of rapid fire.
Evening thickened, the mercury sank,
but the boy kept running in the circle
of his own footprints in the snow
as he shot blindly into the air.
History will never find a way to end,
I thought, as I left the park by the north gate
and returned to the station of my desk
where the sheets of paper I wrote on
served as pieces of glass, through which I could see
swarms of dark birds circling in the sky below.
How important are guns in your life, the life of your family and that of your community? How are guns used in your family and community?
What is your perspective on gun ownership, gun safety and governmental oversight and regulation of firearms? Are there specific experiences that have shaped your beliefs? How do Scripture and your faith inform them?
To what extent do you believe that gun violence is a problem in your community? If it is a significant issue, what are the factors that contribute to it?
What strategies would you advocate to reduce the rates of gun-related: (1) homicides; (2) suicides; and (3) unintentional deaths? Please explain.
Is there a distinct role for people and communities of faith in facilitating civil debate and responsible action related to the prevention of gun violence? If so, how might this be organized and pursued by your family, congregation and community, as well as with leaders at all levels of government?
THE REV. ANNE KELSEY
Someone escaping a crisis might say they dodged a bullet. Editors use bullet points. Lipsticks can look like bullets. And police pick them up from crime scenes. The word itself comes from the 16th century word boule, or ball: a boulette was the diminutive form meaning a “small ball.” Minnie balls were developed for rifled muskets used in the 19th century war in Crimea and American Civil War. Very small metal pieces shot at great velocity from any kind of gun inflict horrendous damage on human flesh and are currently a scourge on American public life. When I was taking this photo, I was acutely aware that photographers use the word “shoot” to describe the process of taking a picture. We go on “photo shoots.” I am now thinking about how photographers “capture” their images, the impact of “shooting” them and what production, printing, and displaying of those images mean. I had never looked at a bullet shell until I took a close-up of one and read the word “Winchester” imprinted on the cap, a word that seems to me to be part of the American culture.
COLLECT IN TIMES OF CONFLICT
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
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Collins, B. “Boy Shooing at a Statue” in Clements, B., Teague, A. and Rader, D. (Eds.). Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
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Rich, J. A. Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Swanson, J. W., Robertson, A. G., Frisman, L. K.,Norko, M. A., Lin, H., Swartz, M. S. and Cook, P. J. “Preventing Gun Violence Involving People with Serious Mental Illness” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Webster, D. W. and Vernick, J. S. (Eds.). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Sharkey, P. Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.