More than 30,000 Americans die each year from gun violence, yet gun control has not emerged as a significant agenda item for faith-based organizations seeking to affect public policy. In fact, polls show that while the public is still supportive of some gun control laws, Americans are increasingly against further restrictions. Several developments, most notably a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, could affect that dynamic.
The case, the District of Columbia v. Heller, is the first time the high court has heard a Second Amendment case since 1939, and the court has never ruled on the controversial question of whether the Second Amendment guarantees individuals a right to bear arms. The case concerns a restrictive gun control statute in the District of Columbia and the decision, expected in June, could reignite the gun control debate and galvanize both proponents and opponents—and religious activists who have struggled to put the issue front and center. The ruling could also propel gun control as an issue in the presidential campaign.
Why it matters
The passions surrounding the gun control debate have opened a fissure in American society, a split that also affects religious communities. The toll from gun violence is enormous, and it affects urban, suburban and rural communities. It also affects houses of worship, which have occasionally been the site of shootings, including a Colorado church last year.
Several developments are shaping the gun control debate:
• The Supreme Court ruling in the District of Columbia v. Heller, which is expected in June.
• On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2008, a student burst into a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University and fired, killing five students before turning the weapon on himself.
• The December 2007 shootings at a missionary training center near Denver and a well-known megachurch, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, left four people dead, and the gunman was eventually stopped by an armed guard at the church.
• The April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 people dead was the worst case of gun violence by a lone perpetrator in U.S. history and cast a light on the accessibility of handguns.
• Experts say the emergence of the so-called “religious left” provides an opportunity to reframe the debate. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence last year launched a faith-based initiative, the God Not Guns Coalition, which tries to put the issue in the context of ending gun violence. The coalition held its first nationwide “God Not Guns Sabbath” in September 2007.
Throughout the 1990s, gun control emerged as a salient issue, especially in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999 and culminating with the Million Mom March for “sensible gun laws” that took place on Mother’s Day 2000. Since then, however, the issue has moved to the back burner in spite of continued headline-making tragedies as well as the regular annual toll in gun deaths from suicides, accidents, and homicides. (The Million Mom March organization is now under the umbrella of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.)
Gun control was one of a handful of issues that did not spark the interest that was expected in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, according to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. As an article he co-wrote in December 2007 said, “A survey conducted days after the massacre found that just 37% of Americans favored a ban on handgun sales, down 10 points from 2000.” (See those poll results here.)
Interestingly, a November 2004 analysis from Gallup showed virtually no difference in opinions on gun control between regular churchgoers and those who attend services less frequently or not at all. This similarity exists despite the fact that regular churchgoers and gun owners tend to be conservative.
Politically, the question of gun violence is already becoming more prominent (see this May 17, 2008, New York Times article) and is bringing with it a number of charges and countercharges by the candidates and their surrogates. Sen. Barack Obama and fellow Democrat Sen. Hillary Clinton have each sought to portray themselves as friendly to gun owners while backing gun control laws, while GOP contender John McCain has portrayed himself as a friend of the NRA, despite past conflicts with the group. The campaign is also bringing its share of gun gaffes. Former GOP candidate Mike Huckabee had to apologize after joking to the NRA convention in May about Obama ducking under a chair because someone aimed a gun at him. (Read a May 17, 2008, item about it on The Washington Post’s campaign blog.) Hillary Clinton also had to explain why she cited the June 1968 assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy as a reason why she should continue to run against Obama. (A May 24, 2008, Washington Post article details the controversy over her remark.)
Also, there is increased legislative activity on behalf of gun control at the state level, as this April 15, 2008, New York Times story shows.
While many religious groups have policy statements decrying gun violence and advocating gun control, those statements are often a decade old or more, and gun control advocates say that few religious groups are making gun control a priority. The push for a faith-based action for gun control is also complicated by the fact that gun ownership and opposition to gun control are part of the religious worldview of many Christians, especially evangelicals and Pentecostals in the South and West. Southern Baptists and Mormons, in particular, are influential voices opposing restrictions on gun ownership. In fact, a 2006 nationwide poll commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation found that half of all hunters and anglers identified as evangelical Christians.
In 2002, Richard Land, the chief public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, decried what he called “a long-term assault on your Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”
Here are statements from a representative sampling of major religious organizations and denominations:
• The National Council of Churches has long advocated a reduction in gun violence through gun control. Read a March 15, 2000, statement, “Interfaith Call to End Gun Violence.”
• The Catholic bishops have cited the need for reducing gun violence a number of times. In November 1994 U.S. bishops released a pastoral letter, “Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action,” which addressed gun violence. In November 2000 the bishops adopted a statement titled, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” in which they say that “in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.” (Read the news release.)
• The United Methodist Church has an official statement on criminal justice and restorative justice in its Social Principles and a statement on gun violence in the Book of Resolutions.
• The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began speaking out on gun violence after the wave of assassinations of public figures in the late 1960s. It adopted its fullest statement on gun violence and gun control in 1990 and amended it in 1998. Read a summary of the PCUSA’s positions and the text of the statements.
• The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1994 adopted a broad statement on community violence that also cited gun violence and a 1993 resolution by the Churchwide Assembly that calls for “passage and strict enforcement of local, state and national legislation that rigidly controls manufacture, importation, exportation, sale, purchase, transfer, receipt, possession and transportation of handguns, assault weapons and assault-like weapons and their parts, excluding rifles and shotguns used for hunting and sporting purposes, for use other than law enforcement and military purposes.” A 2001 article in The Lutheran summarizes the ELCA’s record.
• The Episcopal Church passed its major statement against gun violence in 1976 and since then the Episcopal Public Policy Network of the ECUSA has issued a number of calls for gun control.
• The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence was founded by Jim Brady, the former White House spokesman who was wounded in the head during the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981, and his wife, Sarah. The Brady Center says it is “working to reform the gun industry and educate the public about gun violence through litigation and grassroots mobilization.” It is one of the leading organizations in the gun control debate, and it is the umbrella group for several other groups, notably the newly established God Not Guns Coalition, which says it “seeks to raise awareness of gun violence as a spiritual and moral crisis.” God Not Guns is promoting an annual “Sabbath weekend” each September to encourage religious leaders to speak out against gun violence from the pulpit. Contact Alicia Horton, director of community mobilization, at 202-289-5766, Ahort@bradymail.org.
• The amicus briefs in the District of Columbia v. Heller case list a number of religious groups, but one amicus brief in particular includes a number of religious organizations supporting the gun law. They include the American Jewish Committee; the Anti-Defamation League; the American Jewish Congress; the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America; the Methodist Federation for Social Action; the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Clifton Kirkpatrick; the Friends Committee on National Legislation; and the National Council of Jewish Women.
• The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is a leading advocacy group that works with faith-based organizations “to secure freedom from gun violence through research, strategic engagement and effective policy advocacy.” Contact director of communications Ladd Everitt at 202-408-0061 ext. 103, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Violence Policy Center is a prominent Washington-based lobby that approaches gun violence as “a broad-based public health crisis of which crime is merely the most recognized aspect.” Contact Mandy Wimmer at 202-822-8200 ext. 110.
• The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has a “Swords Into Plowshares” campaign that seeks to end gun violence. The center also has an extensive backgrounder on gun violence in America. Contact publicity director Sean Thibault, 202-387-2800.
• The Chicago chapter of the anti-gun violence organization, CeaseFire, has a “Covenant for Peace in Action,” which was joined by more than 170 of the city’s religious leaders. View a further list of signatories, or contact Daniel Dighton at 312-996-8775, email@example.com.
• Aaron Zelman is director of a Wisconsin-based organization called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. The group filed an amicus brief in the Heller case. Contact 262-673-9745.
• Jay Alan Sekulow is chief counsel of the American Center for Law & Justice, a religious freedom advocacy groups associated with the religious right. The ACLJ filed an amicus brief in the Heller case against the gun restrictions. Contact 202-546-8890, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund, an adjunct of the conservative Christian advocacy group, the Eagle Forum, filed an amicus brief against the District of Columbia’s gun law. Contact the forum’s legal counsel, Douglas G. Smith, in Chicago at 312-861-2000.
• John W. Whitehead is founder of the Rutherford Institute, a legal advocacy group associated with conservative Christianity. The Rutherford Institute, based in Charlottesville, Va., filed an amicus brief in the Heller case against the gun restrictions by the District of Columbia. Contact Whitehead at 434-978-3888 or through Nisha Mohammed, email@example.com.
• John Snyder is head of the Arlington, Va.-based St. Gabriel Possenti Society, a Catholic group that promotes self-defense through gun ownership and is named after a Catholic seminarian in Italy whose “marksmanship and proficiency with handguns single-handedly saved the village of Isola” from a band of Garibaldi’s nationalist soldiers in 1860. The group claims Possenti as the patron saint of “handgunners.” Contact 703-212-9863.
• The Foundation for Moral Law, headed by former Alabama Judge Roy S. Moore, who gained notoriety for his battle to have a Ten Commandments monument installed at the courthouse, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Heller and against the District of Columbia. Contact Moore in Montgomery, Ala., at 334-262-1245.
• Benjamin Wittes is a fellow and research director in public law at The Brookings Institution and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. Contact 202-797-6090, or through the communications office at 202-797-6105.
• Ron Sider is president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, which has been promoting social justice issues among evangelicals for more than 30 years. Contact 610-645-9390, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• John Green is a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. He is also professor of political science and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. Green is a leading expert on trends in religion and politics. Contact 330-972-5182, email@example.com.
• George Barna is head of The Barna Group, an evangelical research company in Ventura, Calif. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Barna wrote an essay arguing that gun control was not the main issue raised by the massacre, but parental control. Contact 805-639-0000, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Jim Wallis is founder and editor of Sojourners and author of The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America (2008). Contact through Tim King, 202-745-4636 or email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Stephen A. Kent is a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and an expert on religions and their views on crime and responses to violence. Contact 780-492-2204, email@example.com.
• Richard Cizik is vice president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, which includes 43,000 congregations from 50 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Contact 202-789-1011, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• David B. Kopel is an associate policy analyst and expert on firearms issues with the Cato Institute. He wrote the book The Samurai, the Mountie and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? Contact 202-842-0200.
• Robert J. Wuthnow is a sociologist of religion and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University in New Jersey. He is a leading expert on public activism by faith-based groups. Contact 609-258-4742, email@example.com.
• Douglas E. Cowan is a professor in the religious studies department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He wrote a 2004 essay, “God, Guns and Grist for the Media’s Mill,” for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, which he co-edits. Contact 519-884-4404 ext. 607, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Randall Balmer is a professor of American religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of several books on evangelicalism and American religious history. In his most recent book, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America – An Evangelical’s Lament (2006), he criticizes his fellow evangelicals for abandoning their progressive past. Contact 212-854-3292, email@example.com.
Several earlier ReligionLink editions may be useful for finding experts:
• “The religious ‘left’ reasserts itself”
• “A guide to African-Americans and religion”
• Several editions under the topic of religion and politics, particularly “A source guide to religion and politics.”
• The outcome of the District of Columbia v. Heller case before the Supreme Court could overshadow all other initiatives. The Cornell Law School has a site that provides background and links to amicus briefs on Supreme Court cases, including the District of Columbia v. Heller. The Supreme Court’s Web site also has information on the Heller case, Docket No. 07-290.
• Search ScotusBlog for entries – rich with links – on D.C. v. Heller.
• Polls show that despite a number of high-profile shootings and other incidents, and despite diminishing crime rates in many regions, the public’s enthusiasm for gun control is waning and is at its lowest level since the mid-1990s. Gun owners are more likely to oppose gun control, and about four in 10 Americans report having a gun in their home. Still, a majority of Americans wants current gun control laws enforced more rigorously even if they don’t support new legislation or a ban on certain guns.
• A survey released May 14, 2008, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is titled “Public Rejects a Ban—but Supports Controls.” An April 2007 analysis also showed that the image of the National Rifle Association was improving as support for gun control slipped.
• Similarly, a 2007 Gallup Poll analysis concluded that “Americans are generally satisfied with the current state of gun laws in the United States, and fewer Americans are saying they would like gun laws in the country to be stricter.”
• Read a roundup of recent surveys from PollingReport.com.
• Read an April 20, 2007, Catholic News Service story, “Solution to campus violence much more than gun control, experts say,” with reflections from Catholic experts in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.
• Read an April 8, 2007, column, “Time to put our faith in ending gun scourge” by New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis on the “God Not Guns” initiative.
• Read the transcript of a July 13, 2007, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program, “God Not Guns,” about the role of religious groups in the gun control debate.
• Read a Dec. 12, 2005, Boston Globe story, “From pulpits, a call to halt gun violence,” about Boston pastors joining in a push against gun violence.
• Read the transcript of a July 23, 2004, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program, “Utah Gun Laws and the Church,” about a state law allowing concealed weapons in churches.
• Dan Wakefield is a veteran writer and Unitarian in Boston and author of The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate (Nation Books, 2006). Read an excerpt in the April 24, 2006, issue of The Nation. Contact him through book publicist Anne Sullivan, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Eugene V. Gallagher is a professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London. He specializes in issues relating to religion and violence, and wrote the entry “Law Enforcement and Religious Groups” for the 2003 Encyclopedia of Religious Freedom. Contact 860-439-2169, email@example.com.
• Bryan Hehir is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is an expert on religion and American society. Contact 617-384-7776, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Dale Kuehne is an associate professor in the department of politics at St. Anselm College, a Benedictine school in Manchester, N.H., and senior adviser to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. He also is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. Contact 603-222-4108, email@example.com.
• W. Clyde Wilcox is a professor of American government at Georgetown University and an expert on conservative Christian politics and culture. He has written about the nexis of certain strains of evangelicalism and gun ownership. He also co-edited the 1998 book, The Changing Politics of Gun Control. Contact 202-687-5273, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• James Kelly is a professor of social work and director of the Grace Ann Geibel Institute for Justice and Social Responsibility at Carlow University, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Pittsburgh. In a story after the Virginia Tech shooting, he told Catholic News Service that for most people, gun violence has still “not risen to the level of social problem that requires a universal approach.” Contact 412-578-8853, email@example.com.
• Joel C. Hunter is the pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., and author of Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won’t Fly With Most Conservative Christians, in which he calls on Christians to be politically involved without sacrificing the Christian mission of service to the poor and weak. Contact via Robert Andrescik, director of communications, 407-949-7147, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Laura R. Olson is a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and an expert on conservative Christians in politics. She is co-editor of the book Christian Clergy in American Politics. She says there is definitely unrest within the evangelical community over how politically aligned it has become with certain issues, and she expects to see some “peeling off” of evangelical voters to the Democratic Party in future elections. Contact 864-656-1457, email@example.com.
• John K. Cochran is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida in Tampa and has written widely on religion and crime. Contact 813-974-9569, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Steven Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where he specializes in religion and politics. Contact 334-844-5370, email@example.com.
• Kenneth J. Collins studies American Christianity at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He can comment on the evolution of evangelicalism in the United States. Contact 859-858-3581 ext. 2368 or 2213.
• Catherine Wessinger is a professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. Wessinger writes about religion and violence with an emphasis on the troubled history between new religious movements and law enforcement. Contact 504-865-3182, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Dwight N. Hopkins is a theology professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. His specialization is in African-American and liberation theology. He wrote a 1996 article for The Quarterly Review titled “Guns, Violence and the Church: Structural Analysis & Prophetic Church Witness.” Contact 773-834-0006, email@example.com.
• The Rev. Russell Johnson is senior pastor at Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio. He and the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus have been accused by other Ohio pastors of using their churches as political platforms to advance conservative policies and Republican candidates. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
• Byron R. Johnson is a professor of sociology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who has written widely on the relationship between religion and criminal behavior. He is the author of the entry “The Role of Religious Institutions in Responding to Crime and Delinquency” in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Contact 254-710-7555, Byron_Johnson@baylor.edu.
• Don Lindley is an assistant professor of criminology at Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver and was a member of the Denver Police Department for 33 years. Contact 303-458-4928, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• J. Budziszewski is a professor of philosophy and government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action. Contact 512-232-7229, email@example.com.
• Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert on Christians in politics and the cultural attitudes of believers on issues of violence and gun control. Jelen wrote an essay, “The Electoral Politics of Gun Ownership,” for the 1998 book The Changing Politics of Gun Control. Contact 702-895-3355, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Franklin E. Zimring is William G. Simon Professor of Law and Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School. He specializes in issues of criminology, violence and family law. Contact 510-642-0854, email@example.com.
• Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, founded in “to assert an authentic progressive Jewish presence in the campaigns for social justice in Southern California, home to the nation’s second largest city and second largest Jewish community.” Contact 323-761-8350, firstname.lastname@example.org.