Monday, March 17, 2014

Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence

Sermon for Gun Violence Sabbath Sunday
March 16, 2014
by The Rev. John Kirkley

This weekend, faith communities across the nation are gathering to remember those who have lost their lives to gunfire, to pray for those whose lives have been forever changed because of the loss of a loved one, and to continue the discussion on how communities of faith can work together to help reduce gun violence. In 2010, guns took the lives of more than 30,000 Americans in homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.  In any two-year period, the number of Americans who die from gun violence exceeds the total number of American deaths in the Vietnam War.[1]  We are suffering an epidemic of gun violence.  Some 50 denominations, including The Episcopal Church, are part of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, which has formed to respond to this epidemic.   

While tragedies like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown make headlines, we tend to overlook the trauma of everyday violence affecting children, especially poor children of color, in too many of our communities.   On average, eight young people under the age of 20 are killed by gun violence every day in the United States.[2]  Firearm homicide is the second leading cause of death (after motor vehicle accidents) for people in this age category,[3] and the leading cause of death among young African-Americans; nearly one in four American teens have witnessed a shooting.

One of those teens is 19-year-old “Hayden,” who lives in East Oakland.[4]  Her world began to unravel in 2008, when her mother was shot in the leg by a random bullet, leaving Hayden to care for her two younger siblings.  A week later, an uncle who lived with the family was shot and killed.  He was the third uncle she has lost to gun violence since 2001.

Hayden describes her response, “I was traumatized, I was hurt.  I didn’t know how to feel.  It’s someone you see everyday, and you don’t get to see him anymore.”  She then recounts the recent deaths of five other friends.  Another stray bullet killed a sixteen-year-old girl, who was like a sister to her.  Gunfire also killed a fifteen-year-old friend as he walked through a nearby park.  Another young man was shot multiple times as he went to the store.  

These were random shootings, and they left Hayden in a constant state of terror.  She fears gunfire.  She no longer walks around her own neighborhood. She would leave class to visit her uncle’s gravestone.  Not one of her teachers asked her about the disappearances.  She dropped out of high school, unable to cope with the well of grief that overwhelmed her. 

Hayden has since found refuge in the East Oakland Youth Development Center, where she earned her GED and now works as a tutor.   She is one of the survivors of an epidemic of violence that is saddling a whole generation of children with the burdens of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  In 2012 there were 2,000 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people in Oakland, compared to a national average of 387 violent crimes per 1,000 people.  Children are growing up in a war zone that leaves them isolated, traumatized, and vulnerable to repeating the cycle of violence.[5]

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice surveyed thousands of teenagers about how often they were exposed to sexual assault, domestic battery, child abuse, and community violence.  More than 60% reported at least one incident in the previous year, and 40% percent were victims of two or more violent acts.  10% were victimized five or more times.[6]   This epidemic of violence disproportionately affects communities of color, but it is, in fact, everywhere. 

Recognizing and healing this trauma is an important step in interrupting the cycle of violence.  Javier Arango is a beautiful example of what is possible.   The night of his high school prom, Javier was caught in a blast of gunfire that left him a paraplegic.  Terrified of being in a wheelchair in a tough neighborhood, he secured a bullet-proof jacket and a gun, and joined the Border Brothers gang.  He began to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, trying to ease the memory of his shooting and the shooting deaths of three close friends.

Eventually, at the age of 22, Arango quit gangbanging and found help from Catholic Charities of the East Bay.  It was there that he learned he was suffering from PTSD.  According to Arango, “There is basically a war going on in Oakland.  It’s not that you leave the war.  You always live inside the war.  You’re not going back home.”

But instead of being a soldier and victim in this war, Arango has become a kind of front line paramedic.  Now 24-years-old, Arango works at Catholic Charities as a youth specialist leading “trauma circles,” gatherings of high-risk adolescents to confidentially talk about how to cope with their experiences of violence.  He is helping young people to realize that such violence isn’t normal and that they deserve a better future.  “I want the government to make more programs to help out more and to understand that we’re all human beings,” he says.  “We just happen to live in a cold world, in a messed-up world, in a dirty world.  But we deserve all the opportunities that anybody else deserves.” 

We are at the beginning of a movement that understands the toxic stress that children experience in Oakland, and other communities like it, as a public health issue.  Gun violence is part of a larger structure of racism and poverty that produces extreme manifestations of trauma, similar in its effects to survivors of mass shootings and war.  Arango knows his place in this movement.  “It’s like I’m putting my brick into building a better community,” and he goes on to note that when he was growing up there were no “original gangsters,” or wiser people who had recovered from the trauma and could provide guidance to a better way of life.  “We didn’t have people like that,” he said.  “But there’s me now.  I could do it.”

What is our place in this movement?  How are we rebuilding safe, healthy communities where everyone is treated like a human being?  What can we do?  Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence advocates common sense policy prescriptions that should be enacted without delay.[7]  The first is to require universal criminal background checks for gun purchases.  The current system only applies to about 60% of gun sales, omitting online sales and purchases at gun shows.  In 2012, some 6.6 million guns were transferred without a background check on the purchaser.  A national survey of inmates found that nearly 80% of those who used a handgun in a crime acquired it in a private transfer.

Since the Brady Law was passed in 1994, about 2 million gun sales have been blocked, and about half of those blocked attempts were by felons.  Background checks save lives, and states with universal criminal background checks have experienced dramatic decreases in gun related domestic violence, suicides, police murders, and guns exported to other states.  Nine out of ten Americans support universal background checks, including 75% of NRA members. 

Secondly, we need to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.   Such weapons were developed solely for the purpose of killing as many people as quickly as possible in military combat.  There is no justification for allowing our neighborhoods to be turned into war zones.   The shooters at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, and Newtown all used high capacity magazines that would have been banned if the Brady Law ban had not been allowed to lapse in 2004.   There is overwhelming public support for the ban, including more than 70% of gun owners.

A related measure is to strengthen the laws punishing gun trafficking.  Today, criminals can easily buy guns from unlicensed dealers or with the help of “straw purchasers” who pass the background check.  Those who traffick these guns are generally only prosecuted for paperwork violations, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock.   We need to empower law enforcement to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and their criminal networks.

These are common sense proposals with broad public support.   Their enactment would be a good first step in limiting the epidemic of gun violence that is traumatizing a generation of children; children like Hayden and Javier, who are our neighbors, kids in our own schools, congregations, and communities.  It is the least we can do for them.

Measures also need to be taken to strengthen the infrastructure of our public health and public education systems, and reform the criminal justice system to reintegrate rather than stigmatize former felons, reduce recidivism, and end the so-called war on drugs that disproportionately criminalizes men of color for the nonviolent possession and sale of drugs.   Gun violence and mass incarceration of men of color are related phenomenon.  We need to address both issues together to break the cycle of violence. 

The PICO National Network, a faith based community organizing project, has initiated the “Lifelines to Healing” campaign to do just that.[8]  I’ll be attending an organizing meeting to learn more about the campaign this coming Thursday.  Mary Balmana, a member of our parish, is serving on the recently created diocesan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention as well. 

Gun violence prevention is not about ideology.  It is, finally, about people like Hayden and Javier.  It is about recognizing them as our brothers and sisters in Christ, as part of the world that God so loved that he sent his Son to heal it.  In keeping with our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being, let us continue the conversation about how we, individually and together, can be lifelines of God’s healing love for the world.

[2] The Brady Campaign averaged three years of data from death certificates (2008-2010) and estimates of emergency room admissions (2009-2011) available via the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System,  Data retrieved 12/28/12.
[3] National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (2007 (deaths) and 2008 (injuries)),  Calculations by Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2009.ii
[4] The following stories and quotes about “Hayden” and Javier Arango are from “Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland” by Rebecca Ruiz, published in the December 11, 2013 edition of the East Bay Express.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Go to for background on these policy prescriptions.

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