Church leaders call for stricter gun control

BY GEORGE PIPER | SALT LAKE CITY | April 22, 1999


SALT LAKE CITY (April 22, 1999) -- Tragedies like Tuesday's school shooting

in Littleton, CO, and last week's deaths of two people at a Church of the

Latter Day Saints library in Salt Lake City might not have happened if

stricter gun controls existed, argues a western U.S. Episcopal church

leader.

Speaking bluntly in the aftermath of the deadliest school violence in U.S.

history that claimed 15 lives, Carolyn Tanner Irish, bishop of the Episcopal

Diocese of Utah, called the United States a virtual armed camp. The shock

isn't that armed students shot up Columbine High School in suburban Denver,

she says, but that the scene does not play out more often in our country's

schools.

"I think we're so invested in what is wrong in our violent society that we

won't do anything to keep it from changing, and that includes the deaths of

our children," she says.

Irish isn't the only church leader to take aim at lax gun laws. The Colorado

Council of Churches is urging churches to take up gun control with their

congregations and political leaders, while a United Methodist Church leader

lumped the issue with other problems facing youth today.

"We've got to understand that we've got a serious problem here," says the

Rev. Lucia Guzman, director of the Colorado Council of Churches.

National denominations began to combat the gun control issue years ago, and

are taking incremental steps. Last year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

adopted a resolution that requested Presbyterians remove guns from homes.

The action, says spokesman Vernon Broyles, focuses on handguns and what are

termed assault weapons and does not target hunters or gun collectors.

While the issue is likely to heat up again, Broyles says the faith community

should be channeling its efforts toward recovery in Littleton instead

battling legislators and pro-gun groups.

"As we gathered today to talk about our response, we agreed that the most

important thing now is to provide pastoral care for those people who have

been devastated by this tragedy," he says.

But in Utah and Colorado, Irish and Guzman are using this week's violence as

a springboard to get churches to pressure elected officials into tightening

gun laws.

Guzman already met with city and state officials, urging them to reconsider

proposed concealed weapons legislation and to tell the National Rifle

Association to cancel is national meeting scheduled, ironically, next week

in Denver.

In response to the tragedy, two Colorado lawmakers pulled bills from the

1999 session that would have gutted already limited gun control laws in the

state, and the NRA is reducing its gathering from three days to one.

Stopping the violence in America's schools and neighborhoods requires a

two-pronged approach, says Guzman.

Troubled youths turn to resentment and anger, says Guzman, and when you add

guns to the mix you've got war between children. Understanding and

preventing what drives teens to violence is as important as restricting

access to weapons.

Churches tend to avoid political battles, she says, but the faith community

needs to be courageous and risky in challenging secular leaders to implement

positive changes. What path to take is uncertain, but Guzman points to the

federal government's war on terrorism as a good model for tackling the

potentially deadly duo of guns and troubled teens.

While lamenting the role that Tuesday's school shooting played in rekindling

the issue, Guzman is confident that it won't die down anytime soon in

Colorado.

"As a religious community, we have to keep the issue in front of city and

state leaders and our congregations," she says.

Irish says she won't let the gun control issue fade either. She's already

called a meeting of Salt Lake City church leaders on Saturday, where she

will advocate a special session of the Utah State Legislature to alter gun

control laws and request a safe place for people to turn in their weapons.

Churches across the country should take similar action, she adds.

An outspoken supporter of stronger gun control legislation since coming to

Utah in 1996, Irish unsuccessfully fought for stricter concealed weapons

laws in 1997. A combination of cowardly legislators taking pro-gun money and

the media constantly feeding violence across the airwaves contributes to the

situations like Littleton, she contends.

Churches and their members wield enormous power, but rarely channel it, says

Irish. "If we're not willing to speak up and use it, then we're guilty," she

says.

Posted April 22, 1999


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