Unless and until we also grapple honestly with the daily violence visited upon our inner cities, this tragic epidemic will not end. Unless and until we develop and maintain comprehensive and targeted violence prevention policies that are not just focused on more cops, we will continue to bury dozens of Americans, every week.
While any community is vulnerable to the scourge of gun violence, we can no longer disregard the facts and data which reveal how America’s cities are the hardest hit: Former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ted Heinrich found that in 2010, 70 American cities accounted for 41 percent of all murders; 10.6 percent of all murders occurred in just 14 of those cities.
Members of the clergy know too well the human cost this represents – when first responders leave any crime scene, we’re the ones to whom the community members turn in search for answers and comfort. I recall the funeral I had to officiate of one of my teenagers who was a victim of gun violence in the Bay Area. I remember his weeping grandmother asking “Why did God take my baby?” I recall how during my eulogy, I asked the 500 plus young people present how many of them had attended one, three, five funerals? And to my dismay, I counted to as high as ten funerals and at least half of the youth, weeping, still had their hands lifted high in the air. And this doesn’t even address the question of those who survive, are injured or are permanently disabled, their lives forever scarred by a bullet’s path.
And yet, the best research reveals how less than 1 percent of the population of any given city is responsible for as much as 70 percent of shootings. We’re held hostage by a tiny minority of individuals whose behavior needs to be challenged, interrupted, and hopefully, corrected. If we’re to be freed from the plague of gun violence, the conversations that clergy hold with our congregants must move beyond our sanctuary walls.
All Americans must convene a national conversation that includes faith leaders, young people, law enforcement, formerly incarcerated individuals, and policy makers to build a moral consensus around how to address violence and legislate public safety. We must enact commonsense policy reforms, such as universal background checks and assault weapons bans, and we must also invest in proven, comprehensive, and targeted gun violence prevention strategies.
Projects such as Boston Ceasefire can have a remarkable impact on the number of shooting incidents a city sees, reducing gun violence by as much as 68 percent; street outreach programs, involving neighborhood residents as violence interrupters and mentors, consistently reduce violent crime and facilitate reconciliation within a community; applying a public health approach to gun violence challenges community members to address their own habits of violence and commit to low-risk behavior, replacing hopelessness with a sense of self-responsibility and transformation.
My partners in gun violence advocacy are anxious to cooperate with everyone and anyone, from President Obama down to the high schoolers in our pews, not just to advance gun violence reduction, but to change our culture and save lives. We’ll mark Inauguration Weekend as a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath; houses of worship across America will incorporate the message of ending gun violence into our worship, as we remind ourselves and each other that every shooting statistic represents a life lost, a family shattered.
But it’s not just clergy calling for multi-pronged, community-based strategies – law enforcement professionals know the importance of such approaches, and have been urging government and community leaders to work together for years.
In its 2007 report, the International Association of Chiefs of Police wrote “To effectively reduce gun violence, a well-planned, comprehensive approach that entails both prevention and policing strategies is necessary.”
The report goes on to say that law enforcement leaders “need public support; they need partners in every community; and they need elected officials, in Congress and in state legislatures, to stop catering to special interests and instead act in the public interest to reduce the terrible, and escalating, risk of gun violence in America.”
We must recognize that the pain witnessed in Newtown is shared across the country: White, Black; city, suburb; rich, poor, all of us are scarred by the epidemic of gun violence. It is simply not enough to say the right words, or pass a new law or two, and continue to hope for the best. We must seize this opportunity to unite the pain of all the families of America who find their lives tragically interrupted by gun violence.
We’re told in Scripture to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep; we’re also commissioned to “seek the peace of the city.” As a nation, we’re in mourning; our shared moral imperative is to not merely bind wounds and dry eyes, but to seek peace for all our citizens, and take action to genuinely heal the source of our mourning.
We have it in our power to do this holy work, but only if we care for all Americans, those in Chicago, Camden, and Detroit as much as those in Aurora, Columbine, and Newtown – and only if we do it together.
Pastor McBride is the director of the PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign, a faith-based effort to reduce gun violence.