“You think you have a Second Amendment problem? Maybe what you have is a serious Second Commandment problem!” These words were spoken to me in a coffee shop in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, less than a mile away from the former site of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Let me back up and give you some context. My nephew Daniel Barden was murdered in that school in his first‐grade classroom. That may be all of the context you need. I had come to talk with pastor Matt Crebbin these six years later as part of the “relentless networking” I am doing to try to understand how I can be a more effective advocate for changes to stop gun violence in our country. As a Quaker for more than 40 years, I find the basics come easy. I try to recognize that of God in everyone, and from this premise, so many traditional Quaker values flow: not using violence in any way, respect for every individual, even those with whom I strongly disagree or whose actions I find contrary to all that is good.
I came to see Crebbin because he is the current head of the Newtown Interfaith Council (and the pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church), and I wanted to understand if these councils were a channel I should pursue in other towns—even nationally—to encourage people to call, vote for, and demand change. What I had totally forgotten was that six years earlier, he had opened up his parish hall as a place for our family and scores of others to grieve and meet and comfort each other after Daniel’s funeral at another church in Newtown. Those days were a blur, but I recall that we never asked for it: they reached out and asked us to accept their loving hospitality. The arrangements had been made, the food was prepared and ready, and his congregants tenderly welcomed us to seek shelter with them for that time. Upon realizing I was meeting the pastor who was so kind to us, I profusely thanked him. I was almost in tears, as usually happens to me when I am faced with recalling the details of those days. Such are the unexpected fruits of relentlessly networking: sometimes you end up just where you started.
So, what is that Second Commandment problem? We are commanded to love God and not graven images or other objects, and not to “bow down to them or serve them.” The problem is that for some people in the United States, guns have replaced God as the source of their trust and as the authority they turn to in order to resolve conflicts. Our cowboy‐heritage culture takes pride in having killing power in our control so that we can right wrongs and protect our families. The truth is that the presence of guns in many situations leads to the death of innocents. As Quakers, we want to live lives that “take away the occasion of all wars.” This leads me to two kinds of actions. The first is to try to reduce the normalization and proliferation of guns in our country, because more guns lead to more gun deaths. The second is to try to change people’s hearts so that they do not want to own guns. In what is probably an apocryphal account, George Fox answered William Penn’s question about whether he should continue to wear his sword by saying, “Thou shouldst wear it as long as thou canst.” Fox did not want to command Penn to put it down. He wanted the “order” to come from Penn’s heart, and sure enough, it did, and he put down the sword for good. (Experts now doubt this exchange actually took place, but the story still stands strong in Quaker culture.)
The problem is that for some people in the United States, guns have replaced God as the source of their trust and as the authority they turn to in order to resolve conflicts.
It was a mass shooting that took my nephew away in his first‐grade classroom. Our lives are forever changed by that terrible day. In a suburban Connecticut town, that day in December was a tragic discontinuity, a single incident of trauma that still leaves fresh tragedy in its wake. Ten months ago, one of the parents of another student killed himself. Seven years later, the terrible ripples still spread.
Although mass shootings get the media coverage, there is much more trauma—continuous trauma—in many urban areas, which suffer from many more gun killings than mass shootings produce. When I see the damage a single incident like the Sandy Hook massacre did (and still does), I can only imagine the continuous trauma suffered by our inner‐city brothers and sisters. As Friends we must reach out with action to help all the communities ravaged by gun violence.
By far, the biggest toll is from gun‐assisted suicides: two‐thirds of all U.S. gun deaths. Suicide by drugs or medicine overdose is fatal only about 5 to 10 percent of the time, but suicide attempts with guns are fatal almost 100 percent of the time. Leaving a gun with a person in crisis can lead to that person’s self‐inflicted capital punishment, where a moment’s despondent impulse forever eliminates the chance of recovery, transformation, and personal redemption. As Quakers who do not support capital punishment, we must feel urgency to remove guns from any situation where suicide is a possibility.
How can I as one person impact this national issue? I am using modern and traditional ways to amplify my voice to reach a wider audience, hence my working with interfaith councils and monthly meetings. I also write op‐eds and use my own social media accounts. A variety of activities seems to be my path. This allows me to try different things while meeting more and more people (relentless networking!). For example, a major project that we just finished was working with the city of Norwalk, Connecticut, to run a gun buyback program. This was sponsored by my monthly meeting, and we partnered with the mayor’s office and the police department. This served the dual purpose of getting 42 guns off the street and out of homes (including two assault weapons), while keeping the issue in the public eye. You may ask, “What happens to the guns that are turned in?” Well, in our case, the police are dismantling them and will give us the pieces. Then, we are working with an amazing group (associated with the Episcopal Church) that has a forge and anvils, and together we will convert the pieces into gardening tools. What a modern twist on beating swords into plowshares! We will donate the tools to community gardening centers.
Finally, as I looked for ways to amplify my voice, the wider body of Friends provided me with an incredible boost. I had long admired Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) work on issues like social and economic justice, nuclear arms, prison reform, and the environment. I contacted them to offer my voice to their work on gun violence. A few meetings and a few more conference calls and I could feel the momentum building at FCNL. They started to invite my participation.
My first activity was to co‐host with FCNL executive secretary Diane Randall a livestream broadcast about the Quaker response to gun violence and to discuss the latest legislative priorities and strategies on gun violence prevention from the FCNL office in Washington, D.C. The session went very well, and the FCNL staff lined up three visits the next day with Connecticut senators and congressmen. What an inspiring introduction to the power of working with a national Quaker organization! I continue to join them on various activities such as helping train this year’s group of 20 young people, their Advocacy Corps, to be community organizers working on gun violence prevention.
I am now trying to be a visiting Friend and travel to meetings (monthly, quarterly, or yearly) outside my area to bring in more people on all sides of this issue. We are working on scheduling sessions now, so I hope some readers may reach out to me on this.
If Americans had a change of heart and saw that guns caused many more problems than they solved and didn’t keep them anymore, then the Second Amendment wouldn’t matter. It would sit unused on the shelf of history.
So FCNL has been my megaphone to reach a national audience, and they say I have been a unique part of their message. But in my heart, I know that these activities on the national scale are necessary but not sufficient. John Woolman is an inspiration to me with his tireless travel to address slavery in the 1700s. He spoke to monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings, but he also labored with countless individual slave owners. What Woolman did was not a legislative solution but a solution of the heart: changing people’s minds about slavery. Like Woolman on slavery and Penn’s decision about his sword, if Americans had a change of heart and saw that guns caused many more problems than they solved and didn’t keep them anymore, then the Second Amendment wouldn’t matter. It would sit unused on the shelf of history. I know that that seems like an unattainable objective. It won’t happen in my lifetime. But staying quiet only acquiesces to the current powers that be.
I invite readers to take the issue of gun violence seriously and with urgency. “It can’t happen here” already did happen. Before 2012, living in suburban Connecticut seemed a world away from Columbine, Virginia Tech, and other massacre sites. “It can’t happen here,” but for a lot us, it did. Add Charleston, Las Vegas, Parkland, El Paso, and so many others. When I helped at that training session for the FCNL Advocacy Corps, one of the questions asked was: “It’s more than a year since Parkland. When we talk to people, will there still be urgency and immediacy on the issue?” I wanted to answer: “Sorry to say, but there will be another one soon. I don’t know where or when, but here it comes.” I didn’t say that because I didn’t want to be a “downer” for the group, so I let other leaders speak their minds. Two days later at an El Paso Walmart, a shooter murdered 22 people. In all, mass shootings took 53 lives that month. It’s urgent and immediate. There is much work to do. Won’t you join me?