For us at Harrisburg (Pa.) Brethren in Christ (HBIC), this is bigger than an academic discussion or political agenda. It is about stopping carnage. In the past five years, our congregation has lost eight sons, brothers, a nephew, and a young man just beginning to attend HBIC—all murdered in cold blood.
I am tired of burying people and attending funerals. I am weary of watching families’ loved ones taken from them suddenly and without warning.
Let me be clear here. Hunters and rifles are not the problem. Skeet shooters are not the problem. Gun collectors are not the problem. And while I do not personally choose to carry, legal handguns are not the problem.
The real problem is the proliferation of illegal handguns flooding our communities, as easily accessible as buying a beer to any teenager with money. We have kids in our youth group who could take us directly to the locations these handguns are sold; teens know where these places are.
Often, illegal handguns flood our communities through straw purchases, where a non-criminal enters a gun shop alongside a criminal to purchase handguns on their behalf.
Once outside, the criminal pays the straw purchaser a sizable fee for their efforts, in addition to the price of the gun. The criminal then sells these handguns to anyone with cash, including teenagers.Years ago, as I watched my congregation suffer, I decided I could not be like the priests who walked by the bloody, beaten man on the road to Jericho.
The proliferation of guns on the streets — especially with teenagers “packing heat” — makes our cities more dangerous. In recent years, shootings in Harrisburg have become more random and unpredictable. Gun violence once confined to gangs, certain clubs, and domestic situations now happens anywhere, anytime.
Many of these shootings are known as “dis” shootings. Someone feels disrespected or threatened. Someone flirts with someone else’s girl, and there’s a funeral the following week. If I’m a young man and I’m upset, it’s one thing; if I’m a young man and I’m upset and I’m holding a lethal weapon, it’s a whole different ballgame. What may have ended in a shouting match or fistfight now easily and all too often ends in homicide.
I will never forget the night I received a call at 3 a.m. from a woman in our congregation.
Her grandson, Eric, had been shot. When I arrived, none of us, including Eric’s mother, was allowed to approach the crime scene. Finally, police asked the mother to identify her son’s body. As long as I live, I will never forget the anguished scream I heard that night as a mother saw her dead son for the first time.
He had flirted with another man’s girlfriend and was murdered for it.
Years ago, as I watched my congregation suffer, I decided I could not be like the priests who walked by the bloody, beaten man on the road to Jericho. Jesus calls us not only to bind wounds but to help prevent them. At HBIC, we teach our kids peace and peacemaking. Even a few skills in this area go a long way.
We have joined Heeding God’s Call, a national ministry organization focused on stopping the flow of illegal handguns into cities. In the wake of a handgun murder, our local chapter holds a prayer vigil for the victims and their families at the location the shooting took place.
The victims’ families often joins us as we pray.
We also set up a mobile display at schools, parks, and churches, with T-shirts bearing the names of shooting victims and the dates their lives ended. It is profoundly moving to see a row of these shirts hanging on crosses.
We also help people in our congregation with the ongoing process of healing after losing a loved one to gun violence. We bear and bind each other’s wounds.
And we pray. We pray for those in pain. We pray for protection. We pray for God’s shalom, his peace, to come to Harrisburg and this nation. We pray to stem the flow of illegal handguns into our communities.
Prayer is still our greatest weapon.
There are ways the Brethren in Christ can contribute in this area. For instance, we can support limiting handgun purchases to one handgun per customer per month. This effectively eliminates the profit motive for criminals who would go broke selling only one illegal handgun a month, while still leaving room for the enthusiast or collector. The few states that have enacted stricter gun laws have seen gun-related homicides decrease dramatically — by roughly 40 percent.
In conjunction, we could pass a law requiring all stolen or lost guns to be reported to police immediately, providing accountability to the straw purchasers. We can also repeal the law barring local communities from obtaining information from the federal government as to where the illegal handguns come from. The overwhelming majority of all illegal handguns come from an incredibly small minority of gun shops and gun shows. By obtaining these records, communities would be empowered to confront these injustices.
I’ve heard the argument that if criminals want to get their hands on guns, we won’t be able to stop them. And I agree. But teenagers and young adults shooting other teenagers and young adults over manageable conflict issues are not shootings committed by professional criminals. The problem goes much deeper than that.
Our Lord still lives and wants to invade this world with his peace. He wants to change hearts and destinies. And he calls us to be his voice. The Anabaptist voice needs to be heard — now more than ever.
Adapted from “The Peacemakers,” an article for the spring/summer 2016 issue of BIC U.S.’ In Part magazine.