TACKLING the “epidemic” of gun violence which blights poor communities in the United States cannot be achieved by better firearms-regulations alone, bishops of the Episcopal Church have said.
Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a network of more than 70 members (News, 11 April 2014), held a three-day conference in Chicago last weekend to explore the “unholy trinity” of gun violence, racism, and poverty, asserting that the three evils cannot be solved independently.
From Good Friday to Easter Day there were 45 shootings in the city of Chicago alone, the Bishop of Chicago, the Rt Revd Jeffrey Lee, said. “We simply cannot ignore that.”
Bishop Lee, who hosted the conference, said that not only was this a “public-health crisis”, but the bishops’ “baptismal commitments to respect the dignity of every human being and work for justice and peace” meant that they should act.
Chicago was chosen as the location for this year’s conference because it is widely seen as the epicentre of a new surge in gun crime. There were 4300 shootings in the city in 2016, and more homicides (764) than any other US city.
The network was remarkably united in its belief that “sensible gun regulation” was needed, despite including bishops from all corners of the US and from various theological backgrounds, Bishop Lee said.
When asked whether intervening in such a highly charged political issue was a risk for the Church, Bishop Lee said no: polling suggested that a large majority of US citizens of all political affiliations favoured measures such as universal background checks.
“[Some] people say they don’t want politics in church. They probably don’t want Jesus then,” Bishop Lee said, noting that in some parts of the US it was easier to buy a gun than a car.
“The right to own weapons is assured, so we are really talking about sensible gun regulation under the banner of gun safety. The emphasis is on stemming the flow of illegal weapons into the most vulnerable parts of our city.”
Although it would be a victory to enact new gun regulations, however, “that alone is not the answer to this epidemic,” he said. The conference delved into the intersection of gun violence with racism and poverty, and it was here that the Church also needed to speak out and act.
One priest doing this is the Revd Carol Reese, the Episcopalian chaplain of a hospital in Chicago which takes in many of the victims of shootings from some of the poorest neighbourhoods. Ms Reese told the conference that the level of despair among young people from districts most affected by gun violence was “staggering”.
A parish in Bishop Lee’s diocese has teamed up with its local police department and begun standing on one street corner that has seen the worst of the violence as a “public witness” in an attempt to stem the bloodshed. He said that this action had led to a striking fall in gun crime.
“It is the intersection of social forces that keep some people in despair, living without hope. Even those living in enclaves untouched by the worst of gun violence are still involved. Every life that is taken by illegal weapons diminishes every single one of us.”