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We can’t afford to lose hope’: interview with the Bishop of Colorado on gun violence

12 May 2023

A US bishop was caught up in a school shooting that hardly made the headlines. Interview by Francis Martin

The Episcopal Church in Colorado

The Bishop of Colorado, the Rt Revd Kym Lucas

The Bishop of Colorado, the Rt Revd Kym Lucas

LAST year, there were 51 school shootings in the United States, Education Week reports: the highest since the news organisation started keeping records. So far, in 2023, there have been 18 incidents in which people have been killed or injured in a school shooting.

“We’re in a pandemic that doesn’t require a face mask. We’re in a pandemic that is led by fear, that is led by doubt and violence in our schools,” the dean of East High School in Denver, Wayne Mason, said in March, after he was shot and injured by a student. Another member of staff was injured in the attack. The 17-year-old perpetrator was subsequently found dead with self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

In total, there have been 201 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, but, because the organisation defines a “mass shooting” as one in which four or more people are injured or killed, events like the one at East High School, Denver, do not even make it into this statistic. So frequent are these occurrences that they leave barely a mark on the news cycle in the US, let alone political discourse.

For those involved, they can be life-changing, however. The Bishop of Colorado, the Rt Revd Kym Lucas, was caught up in the lockdown that followed the shooting at East High School. She spoke about her experience, and reflected on the transformation required to end the pandemic of gun violence in the United States.


FM: Can you explain what happened on 22 March this year?

KL: It was a morning like every other morning. I have 15-year-old twin boys who go to separate high schools, and I was rushing to get them ready and out the door, and [then] myself ready and out the door. As I was about to leave for work, my husband and I received a text from one of our twins, who attends East High School here in Denver, that he had left some things at home that he needed for school, and [he] asked if I could drop them by on my way to my office.

As I was going up the steps into the school, I heard sirens. And I was standing at the front desk where Mr Mason usually greets us — he knows us by sight — and there was no one there. As I was standing there, several police officers came in with their flak jackets on and their weapons, and they said: “We have a report of shots fired.”

At this point, one of the school administrators dragged me off into an office on the first floor and said: “We’re in a lockdown. Can you come with us?” and locked all the doors. We were in the room while the police canvassed the building.

Apparently, about two minutes before I entered the building, there had been shots fired. And, as the news went around on social media, we learned that a student had shot two of the administrators of the school and fled. We were on lockdown until the police could assure [us] that the suspect had actually left the building, which took almost three hours.

Do you worry when you send your children to school, given the number of shootings?

Absolutely. I worry all the time. And it is something that I’ve spoken about. I have been the Bishop of Colorado for four years, and I don’t recall a year where I haven’t had to speak about a shooting somewhere that people should feel safe, like the grocery store or in their school. As a parent, it’s terrifying. And it’s terrifying that we have a generation of children who will have this as their normative experience: “active shooter” drills, and this threat, this realisation that they’re not safe.

From a UK perspective, we find it very difficult to get our head around the idea that preparation for such events is part of everyday life. How do you think that affects people?

I think it’s really hard. Part of the struggle here is that our relationship with guns is out of balance. I grew up in a small town in a rural area where my family hunted; so I grew up with guns — rifles and shotguns. They were tools.

AlamyHigh-school students in Boulder, Colorado, protest on 5 April in the wake of school shootings in their state

Nowadays, it seems like guns are part of people’s identity in ways that aren’t really healthy. And it’s becoming more and more difficult to have a reasonable conversation about what gun safety could look like for the protection of our children.

I actually made a remark once that we’re making a Faustian bargain with our guns, and [afterwards] got death threats because it was very public that I had said that. It’s sad. People want to always bring up their Second Amendment rights, and I think we’ve used the Second Amendment to care more about guns than about our children’s safety.

You speak about this as problem that is getting worse. What do you think is driving that?

Honestly, I consider that the gun industry in the United States has a brilliant business plan: they put guns out; bad guys get a hold of them; they do horrible things; people are terrified; and they buy more guns. It would be a brilliant business plan if people weren’t dying for it. People get more guns to feel safe, and guns can’t make you safe. But that’s the way it seems to work.

It has been very hard to get the political will to make real change. I mean, there have been some changes, some laws enacted, but it’s a hard-fought thing. For me, the tough thing is, why is it necessary for private citizens to have weapons of war? We don’t need automatic weapons. If we’re hunting, we don’t need weapons of war in our house.

And we have all sorts of other issues: we have things that are called “ghost guns”: you can buy a kit, and the kit is legal to sell, but you can put it together in such a way that you’ve created a legal gun. So there are all these strange loopholes that are happening because the gun lobby in the United States is very powerful. There’s a lot of money behind it.

In the wake of some of the recent school shootings, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, Tim Burchett, said: “We have some very sick, evil people doing some very bad things, and revival seems to be the way to go.” His supposition was that the issue has nothing to do with access to guns, but that religious revival would sort the problem out.

I do think it is a proposition around hearts and minds, you know. How do we move hearts and minds? And what’s been particularly troubling for me is that, somehow, guns have been equated with not only patriotism, but they’ve also been equated with religious faithfulness, which is an odd combination for me.

When I tell people what I do, I say: “I’m a follower of Jesus. And I mean that Jesus who said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The one who said, ‘Those who live by the sword [or the gun!] will die by it.’” It is very odd notion that somehow being a follower of Jesus makes you an advocate of violence, or even a proponent of violence, in terms of gun ownership. I find that very strange.

How do you think change can be effected?

That’s something I pray about a lot. And I’ve been praying about it ever since March 22, actually. One of the things that that comes to my mind is that, in 1955, Mamie Till decided ­— after her son Emmett was lynched, brutally — that she was going to show the world what that was like. She was going to show the way that her child had been brutalised and abused and murdered.

She was ridiculed and reviled for that, for having an open casket so people could see that; but what I know is that her courage to do that, to make the United States face the ugliness that it wanted to turn a blind eye to, made a difference. And so I think that’s what has to happen: it’s going to be about some parent having the courage to make us face the brutality and the viciousness and the ugliness that we don’t want to look at.

Everything right now, at least in our political atmosphere, is always escalated to shrillness and vilification, and so that makes it very hard to have conversations. April 20 was the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre here in Colorado that happened in 1999. The problem for me is that that we’ve gone this long and there’s been really no significant reduction in gun deaths in this country.

The whole process of vilification of those who don’t agree with you, to my mind is unChristian, but it is part of our culture now, in ways that are really destructive and really prevent us from making meaningful change so that all of our people can feel more safe, especially our children.

What has the Episcopal Church been doing?

I’m a member of a small gathering of Episcopal bishops called Bishops United Against Gun Violence. And part of what we do is to advocate for gun safety. We try to promote it in real ways. Here, in the Episcopal Church of Colorado, we’ve been working around how suicide is related to gun ownership and working on suicide prevention.

We have a high suicide rate here. Statistically, the most likely fatality from a gun is a white male killing themselves. And so we have tried to wrap our arms around that, in terms of how we educate people, etc. We’ve advocated for mental-health assistance and [its] availability for people who need help, and we actually have folks on Capitol Hill talking to our leaders in our government about how we can more actively stop this nonsense.

Coming out of Covid, it was clear the sense of isolation that people were experiencing. The sense of loneliness, the sense of alienation, is very real. And the young man [the shooter at East High School] was 17 years old. And my thought was: how many ways has our society failed that child that he feels like he needs to have a gun at his school?

Denver’s public-school system had previously removed armed police from school campuses, owing to “concerns for the treatment of young students of colour”. You remove armed police because of problems with institutionalised racism, but those armed police are there in the first place only to combat another terrible problem in society. When you think of it in those terms, do you ever lose hope?

It’s awful. I always say that there are so many ills and demons for us to fight. But there’s an attorney here by the name of Bryan Stevenson, and he says: “You can’t be an advocate for justice if you don’t have hope . . . that things can change.” And so that’s what I hold on to: I hold on to the reality that things have changed in the United States. Have we combated institutional racism? No, we fight it every day. But we’ve come a long way. I think we’ve come a long way in the battle against misogyny and the battle against violence.

We just have to keep at it. We can’t afford to lose hope, because the only way that we can advocate for those kinds of changes is from a place of hope, from the willingness to believe that things can be better for all of us.

This is an edited transcript of a conversation with Bishop Lucas. The full interview can be heard in this week’s Church Times podcast.

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