Last week the gun debate came walking into my community. I mean that literally. A young man began walking around with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder in the suburban community where I live and pastor a church. I heard about it first in an email from the local police chief. There had been numerous calls to 911. In encounters with the police, the man gave only his first name and explained that he “wanted to educate the public about his right to carry this weapon,” according to the Police Chief, who added that the individual, “also wanted to gauge the political climate of Abington Township.”
His behavior was indeed completely legal in our suburban community. Only our dysfunctional Pennsylvania state government could address it. The police advised everyone to avoid contact with him. Our Preschool classes canceled their outdoor walks that fine spring week. We joked to cover our feelings of deep unease. “Can you imagine a child coming home and saying, ‘Mommy, on our walk today we saw three dogs and a MAN WITH A GUN!’”
Then things got scarier. According to the newspaper, as the man continued walking the streets with his semi-automatic weapon, his friends became alarmed. They told police that “he had joked about “shooting up” his schools — first the local high school, which he attended as recently as last June, and then the branch campus of Penn State, which he attended earlier this year. He also talked of suicide. One friend said they didn’t take the threats seriously at the time because the man had a “dark sense of humor.” But after he purchased the AR-15 in March, friends grew more concerned.” His internet searches included “Columbine”, “Sandy Hook”, “Parkland: and “AR-15s used in mass shootings”. The police were able to have him involuntarily committed for evaluation.
If the 19 years since Columbine have taught us anything, it’s that all our communities are vulnerable. Poor communities of color just a few miles south of my neighborhood face gun violence every week. It takes something like the man with the assault weapon on our sidewalks to break through our white privilege.
I write about gun policy because I am angry. I am angry because we do not need to live like this. More young lives do not have to be cut short in this way. It is long past the time that we should rise up and say, “Enough!” There are plenty of things that can be done if we muster the political will.
I’ve heard it said that nothing happened after Sandy Hook, and if you look at the national level, that’s true. But it’s not true that nothing was done. The state of Connecticut has drafted some of the toughest gun laws in the country. Connecticut is one of only five states that have “red flag laws,” laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. They expanded a ban on the sale of assault weapons, they prohibited the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds and they required that if you already had an assault rifle or a high capacity magazine, you register it. They required background checks for all firearms sales and created a registry of weapons offenders. And gun deaths began to drop – homicides, suicides and accidents.
Politicians who don’t want to pass stricter gun laws will tell you stricter laws won’t work. Our government will not do any research on how we might approach this as a public health crisis. Why? Because Congress outlawed the research. Why? Because the NRA didn’t want the research done. Why? Because according to Gabby Gifford’s organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, it would show that states with stricter gun laws have fewer gun related deaths and states with more lax regulations have more deaths. And gun manufacturers don’t want those laws because they might cut into their bottom line. But it’s their bottom line versus children’s lives.
Connecticut has had the fastest drop in violent crime of any state over the last four years. Nicolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, could not have bought the semiautomatic rifle he used, or the high capacity magazines in Connecticut. Do not let politicians tell you it can’t be done. We can have change. What it will take is all of us. God has given us a vision. Through the prophets, God has given us a vision of people bearing swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and AR-15s into garden tools. Jesus of Nazareth has given us a vision in which the sorrowful find consolation, the gentle in spirit possess the earth, those who hunger to see right prevail will be satisfied and the peacemakers will be called God’s children. We can have change, but it will take all of us.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.