by Donald Schell
Hearing the terrible story from Ellicott City, Maryland - a homeless man killing a parish priest and parish administrator and then shooting himself, I felt again how suddenly and completely guns change things. And though I live on the other coast from Maryland, our church is small or our connections wide - Mary-Marguerite Kohn, the co-rector of St. Peter’s had been my daughter-in-law’s teacher in Loyola Maryland’s graduate program in pastoral counseling. The shooting in Ellicott City is our story, our church’s story, and it’s personal.
I was surprised to hear people say of that shooting, “I never imagined something like that could happen in a church.” Church isn’t safe. It never has been safe, but it’s seeming more dangerous today thanks to people’s ready access to guns.
I thought of Dr. George Tiller, murdered while serving as an usher in his church on a Sunday morning because, in his medical practice, he offered women legal abortions.
Closer to my home in San Francisco, I thought the parish in this diocese where a distraught divorced father in a custody fight sent someone to get his children out of Sunday School and shot them and himself in the church parking lot.
In a society that chooses to arm people for violence, the church is no safer than a high school, a shopping mall, a university campus, a post office, an office building or any of those other places where principle- or suffering-crazed obsession or other insanity has triggered random violence.
What would it take our society and nation to develop a will to limit access to weapons designed to kill human beings? What would it take us to make a real public conversation about violence? What would it take us to stand up to the NRA?
Recently The New York Times ran an opinion page piece by a hunter who had resigned his NRA membership because, over the time he’d been a member he’d seen the National Rifle Association, become the Concealed Handgun Association, the Semi-Automatic Weapon Association, and the Armor-Piercing Bullet association. None of this, he said, serves hunting. The NRA doesn’t serve hunters or public safety, it serves the corporate interests of weapon manufacturers who have found a substantial market for the weapons people use against people. America is the most heavily armed nation in the world. And of first world nations our rate of gun suicide and gun murder makes us one of the most dangerous. This hunter’s voice of protest joined police and law enforcement officers have been making the same point for some time. But it’s difficult to find lawmakers who aren’t afraid of the NRA. An elected official advocating reasonable controls on murder weapons know when it comes time for re-election the NRA will target them with massive advertising support for a gun friendly opponent.
As a priest, as a city dweller, as a person who likes to walk and doesn’t believe gated communities make us safe, as someone who enjoys the energy and diversity of great cities, I’m wondering what it would take for shared work and public places that count on easy public access to join forces together to demand new gun laws.
State and national legislators are afraid of the NRA’s money. But is advertising money the final word in electoral politics. Have corporate interests bought the controlling share in our electoral process?
The NRA, liberally funded by gun manufacturers, fiercely defends the ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ guns give us. Do corporate dollars always speak louder than shared concern expressed in a public voice? What could we learn from other life and death public health struggles? What was the people’s part in standing down the cigarette manufacturers lobbying dollars? How did physicians and cancer researchers and cancer victims and bereaved families enact laws limiting smoking in public places and raise taxes on cigarettes for anti-smoking campaigns. (And what can cautionary tale do we learn from the tobacco lobby’s recent rebound victory in California preventing what initial polls showed would be landslide vote mandating a California tobacco tax hike that would have brought California’s tobacco tax in line with other states?)
Easy access to guns puts all our public assembly places, our gathering places, anywhere services of any kind are offered to friend and strangers at risk. If people who go to church combined their voices with people who enjoy movies and theater, people who shop in grocery stores or malls, people who attend colleges or send their children to schools, could we make a voting voice loud enough that legislators would listen?
Church and so many other activities that we value depend on people’s willingness to venture into public spaces. In a war zone, people don’t venture out to church or school. Stores and theaters struggle to survive. Look at the struggling businesses and tiny churches in our poorest neighborhoods, the prime market for the gun manufacturers. Where are those neighborhoods’ movie theaters? Why do the large grocery store chains that sell groceries at reasonable cost avoid those neighborhoods? The war zone is all around us. How can those of us who believe in community and public life defend the safety of our public places?
No other first world country has a rate of gun deaths like the United States of America. That’s the safety and freedom that the NRA has won for us in their skewed interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
What’s at stake here? Manufacturing profits and advertising dollars convince us that we need to arm ourselves against the criminals and desperate, deluded people that they’re also arming. Responding to “A letter from an exhausted, exasperated young person” posted as the Lead here at the Café, Murdoch Matthew recently offered statistics from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, detailing the radical drop over the past thirty years in public participation, social gathering, and the conclusion that “During the last third of the twenty century all forms of social capital fell off precipitously”
There are undoubtedly other things that have contributed to this precipitous decline, but what caught my attention is Putnam’s reporting an enormous increase in people’s reported fear and mistrust of strangers. In a culture of fear, wouldn’t we expect to lose some ability to gather people whether for pleasure or for the good of others?
Hearing one terrible story after another, gun deaths in America first haunt us, but then they numb us. We avert our eyes because we feel powerless. Numbness, that is our unacknowledged fear and denial make us pretend places like churches or schools are safe.
Ellicott City got me thinking about times guns have come close to home for me. I was startled at thirteen personal gun stories I carry, my fifty years worth. It took me several days of noting down reminders to gather the list, because recalling some of them was an effort. I’m as much in denial as any American. Do you have a list like this -
My 1960’s gun stories -
1. As a young teenage in hiking near my grandmother’s summer place, a friend on I came on a path we’d never seen before. It led to tiny shed in dense forest on a bit of public land, something that sounded like the place the killer had lived near St. Peter’s, Endicott City. Being kids, we looked in and found a stash of porn magazines, the biggest handgun I’ve ever seen, and shelves and shelves of canned beans. We were smart enough to know that staying around there was a bad idea. My friend wanted to take the gun. “That could be trouble,” I said. But we were frightened enough of “the guy” who lived there that we didn’t tell anyone about what we found. Four or five years later, I went back, thinking that if “the guy” was still there that the park rangers should know. The shed was empty and the roof partially collapsed. It had obviously been abandoned for at a couple of winters.
2. In college one night, a drunken classmate screaming his estranged girlfriend’s name repeatedly woke the campus. Next morning, we learned that he’d evaded the campus police for several hours, hiding between his stalking forays while terrified friends who knew he was carrying a handgun tried to find him and let them take the gun away. His friends had finally discovered him shortly before dawn, curled up with his gun asleep under some stairs. They disarmed him (and got rid of the gun) and got him back to his room.
In seminary New York City’s Chelsea in the late 1960’s we heard gunfire every day.
My 1970’s gun stories –
3. The only gun incident I recall from my time as a college chaplain at Yale was a student killed in a mugging. I didn’t know the student though friends did. He’d been walking home after dark through an area of New Haven we generally avoided. And as a Westerner, I remember the uncomfortable irony that Winchester and Colt, ‘the guns that won the West’ and figured in shoot-it-out Western movie and legend had been manufactured in New Haven and Hartford.
4. As a parish priest in Idaho, a homeless transient threatened me in my office with a rifle because I’d told her all the churches in our town contributed to the Salvation Army and they handled all requests for transient aid. She didn’t point it at me. She just said, “I could kill you with this.” And I said, “Please put it away, and let me call my friend the Salvation Army lieutenant to get you the help you need.” She did, I phoned, and he helped her.
5. Our senior warden in Idaho wore a sidearm pistol to church and everywhere. He was mayor of a tiny neighboring town and had fired the town’s police officer for stealing guns from the police stock and selling them. State police told our parishioner he’d better carry a gun and watch his back.
6. Later still serving in Idaho, an elderly parishioner told the congregation she’d wakened to two armed burglars going through the jewelry on her dresser. She screamed the names of her two grown sons with such courage and clarity that the intruders fled, never guessing that the house was empty except for her. Though her presence of mind drove them off, she lost her vibrant good health and her will to live and died of pneumonia (her sons said of a broken heart) months later.
My 1980’s gun stories -
7. My wife and I and our four year old daughter moved to San Francisco to join a handful of people founding St. Gregory’s Church the year after ex-City Supervisor Dan White bypassed a metal detector to kill Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. Our first gun experience in the city was a strangely anxious visitor who’d come to church for two Sundays before she showed various parishioners she was carrying an unlicensed concealed pistol in her purse. Parishioners told the clergy and we confronted the woman who showed us the gun. We told her she could not bring the gun to church, and that if she did we’d report her to the police.
8. Later, while St. Gregory’s was still renting a separate chapel of Trinity Church on San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill, our neighborhood of apartment houses, senior homes and hotels, and St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, suffered the skilled assault of a self-trained body-armored ‘survivalist’ laden with semi-automatic weapons. He had hijacked a car after his own broke down. The stranded driver called the police who guessed his route through the city and set up a barricade. His way completely blocked by police cars with their lights flashing, the ‘survivalist’ got out of the car and began shooting, and in a standoff that lasted over an hour he killed police officers and people trapped in surrounding buildings until a police sharpshooter killed him. Two days later we began a candlelit prayer vigil at the shooting site and then marched with people of the neighborhood and a large contingent of San Francisco police officers to continue the service at Trinity/St. Gregory’s, a block and a half away.
9. Downtown at the 101 California Street office tower, a failed businessman armed with semi-automatic weapons killed seven people, and wounded four others before he was killed. After that shooting, the canon pastor of Grace Cathedral and I organized a march downtown with broad citizen and police participation.
My 1990’s gun stories -
10. By this time the church had purchased property and was gathering energy and making plans to build our own church building. Walking home one night from a parish meeting in our new neighborhood, I was robbed at gunpoint, five doors away from my house.
11. The convenience store directly across the street from us has been robbed twice, the second time, the owner tried to resist the robbers and was pistol-whipped. We began a neighborhood watch on our block.
12. Early one New Year’s morning our next-door neighbor had his guns taken away by the police after someone reported he’d been firing them into the sky. He simply bought new guns, but told us angrily that he was convinced it was my daughter who had reported his New Year’s celebratory volleys to the police. A year or so later our neighbor shot and killed a tenant who had threatened him.
13. Our older son was robbed at gunpoint his senior year in high school. He was downtown, on his way home late from a graduation party. The robbers had directed to an ATM to take out as much money as he could withdraw.
My 2000’s gun stories –
14. My uncle in Virginia committed suicide with a handgun. He was grieving my aunt’s death, desperately lonely and struggling with depression. His daughter had gotten the police to take a gun from him because he was threatening to commit suicide with it. He had no trouble getting a new gun.
Retelling the stories, I wonder at what I did and didn’t do, what I did and didn’t think of. I also know as a pastor that when I’ve told these stories and thought about them with people that I’ve heard surprisingly many stories like them. As a preacher I want us to know that life is dangerous and that sooner or later we’ll all die. But as a pastor, when we’re sharing these stories, I’m also hearing my own and others feeling powerless or uncertain how to act when guns are everywhere. Do our gun stories, what we’ve experienced and what we hear, keep some people home while others wonder what someone acting strangely in church might be capable of doing?
What would it take for us together to speak against the profitable business of manufacturing ready means for criminals and madmen to kill? What if we began to tell our stories and listen to others’ stories? Could we find common voice with other people who count on the safety of churches, schools, stores and shopping malls, offices buildings, theaters, and the streets we walk on?
Ultimately the cost of Columbine, of Texas Tower, of Virginia Tech, and of stories like mine and yours, stories of places we live, of friends and neighbors, stories of guns pointed at people we know and love, ultimately the cost is fear, not just fear of strangers but fear of any face-to-face community.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.