Faith coalition backs Obama gun plan

A coalition of faith leaders formed to support policies that reduce death and injury from gun violence today commended President Obama and the administration for the plan to reduce gun violence that was announced Jan. 16.

"We believe Congress has a moral imperative to enact the life-saving measures proposed by the president and vice president," said the statement from Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of more than 40 national faith denominations and groups representing tens of millions of Americans.

"By banning assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines, this plan will do much to keep these weapons of mass destruction out of the wrong hands and prevent future tragedies like we saw last month in Newtown, Conn.," said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and chair of the faith coalition.

"By making sure that every handgun purchaser must go through a background check, even those purchasing guns at gun shows or in a private sale, this proposal will do much to reduce the day-to-day carnage that gun violence causes in our nation," he added. "And the proposal will do much to reduce the gun trafficking, which is a source of much of our tragic urban gun violence, by imposing stiffer penalties on this activity."

Organization pledges support

Winkler also pledged the support of the organization to help garner support for the proposals. "We at Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence will do all that we can to make sure that the faith community across the country is mobilized in support of what the president and vice president have proposed to save lives," he said.

The president's plan called upon Congress to require background checks on anyone buying a gun, restrict ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds and reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

Obama also signed 23 executive actions to strengthen background checks and expand school safety programs. Bill Mefford, an executive with the Board of Church and Society, was in the audience for the signing.

On the anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an interfaith gathering of national religious leaders had sent a letter to President Obama and Congress calling for urgent action to respond to the gun violence crisis in the United States.

The letter, signed by 47 national religious leaders representing more than 80 million Americans, reflected diverse faith traditions including Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.

Winkler and Harriett Jane Olson, chief executive of United Methodist Women, were among those who signed the letter.

Olson said members ofUnited Methodist Women long have been concerned about escalating gun violence, particularly in the United States and authored the original resolution on the issue thatGeneral Conference offered.

"We don't feel we are critiquing the (U.S.) Constitution or the amendments," she said. "We think that appropriate regulation is what's necessary to preserve freedom and not the absence of regulation."

She noted that churches have free exercise of religion, but that doesn't prevent them from having to comply with local building codes.

"It's a similar thing," she said. "There is an appropriate role for government in the freedoms that are carved out by the Constitution."

Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence was announced onMartin Luther King Day, Jan. 17, 2011. It was then a coalition of 24 denominations and faith-based organizations announcing their support for policies that reduce death and injury from gunfire. Two years later, the coalition has grown to 40 groups representing tens of millions of Americans in faith communities across the nation.

Many of the faith leaders who signed the letter participated in a Jan. 15 news conference at the United Methodist Building in Washington to announce their letter to Congress and President Obama. That news conference was on the 84th anniversary of the birth of Dr. King, who was assassinated, and one month and a day after a shooting in Newtown, Conn., that resulted in the deaths of 20 elementary schoolchildren, seven adults and the shooter.

Immediate action urged

The religious leaders urged the president and Congress to act immediately to accomplish the following:

  • Every person who buys a gun should pass a criminal background check
  • High-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines should not be available to civilians
  • Gun trafficking should be a federal crime

Such actions are necessary, the faith leaders said during their news conference.

"This is not just good policy; it is a moral imperative," said the Rev. David Cooney, assistant to the bishop of the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference. "We need strong enforceable laws to reduce violence. We can take the better road."

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of public witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said political leaders can resolve the problem if they only have the will. "We are living in a society in which gun violence is making everyone vulnerable to premature death," he said."With over 30,000 gun deaths a year in the United States, it is time that faith leaders and others call elected officials to committed action so that gun laws are stiffened and lives are saved."

Sister Carol Keehan D.C., president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the USA, emphasized that banning assault weapons and requiring universal background checks are common-sense measures. She pointed out that members of the association's hospitals see the results of gun violence every day in their emergency rooms.

"Sadly, gun violence is too routine," Keehan said, stressing there is no valid use for assault weapons off the battlefield.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical who heads the progressive Christian group Sojourners, took strong issue with recent comments by Wayne LaPierre, the outspoken executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. Wallis called LaPierre's statement after Newtown that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" "morally mistaken" and "religiously repugnant."

Eighty percent of the NRA's funding comes from gun manufacturers, Wallis said. "That makes it a lobbyist for gun manufacturers," he pointed out.

Sayyid Syeed,national director for Interfaith & Community Alliances of the Islamic Society of North America, cited the Muslims' sacred text, the Qu'ran. He said the text states, "If you kill one person, it is as if you are killing all persons."

Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, decried the injustices of the U.S. system in which a gun can be sold legally without a background check to a person who otherwise would fail one, and those suffering from mental illness cannot access the resources they need.

Faith communities asked to contact Congress

Laser announced that as part of this effort, faith communities across the country are being asked to join in contacting members of Congress on Monday, Feb. 4, to demand comprehensive gun-violence prevention measures. Such measures would include banning assault weapons, requiring universal background checks, providing financial support for mental health services and instituting policies that address our country's culture of violence such as school safety and anti-bullying legislation. She said the Interfaith Call to Prevent Gun Violence would ensure that elected officials are held accountable for the safety of communities.

Vincent DeMarco, national coordinator of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, said the faith leaders essentially are delivering three messages on preventing gun violence: It is a moral issue. Laws work. There is power behind the fact that the 47 faith leaders represent more than 80 million Americans.

"Nothing we do will interfere with hunters' rights to have a gun," DeMarco stressed.

*Rhodes is communications director of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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