As I lay awake at 3:30am last Friday morning grasping that I am now the closest Unitarian Universalist minister to the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, I realized I would need to revise my sermon on my congregation’s theme “letting go” and write something completely different. I decided this because of my absolute and total frustration with our country’s obsession with guns and our unbelievable inability to do anything about it. You can listen to the full sermon here.
After the latest mass shooting in Oregon, I was unable to sleep, wondering like so many others, how many people have to die, how many school shootings have to happen in order for us to let go of this endless stalemate on gun safety.
First let me confess: I was a suburban Jewish kid, and we didn’t go hunting, we didn’t own firearms, and I don’t really remember knowing anyone who did. It seemed like a distant world to me. Then at the age of 18 I went to school in Utah where they closed the public schools for a couple of days each year for the “deer hunt.” I understood for a number of reasons that the culture of growing up in Utah was far different than growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. I have tried to understand this cultural difference through the years as I struggle with my personal growing awareness of the worship of guns and the inability of our country to overcome the money and power of the gun lobby.
My journey has led me to trying to understand, beyond the NRA and Fox News talking points, the desire for this apparently deep seeded American need for defending gun ownership and gun use. This journey, this quest for understanding has only grown more frustrating and I must admit, infuriating with each new school shooting and the reports in places like my hometown of Chicago where 50 people were shot in the last couple of weekends.
This frustration became deep horror and sadness after the Newtown Shooting, where 20 children and 6 adults died through a barrel of a gun. We held a vigil that night at my congregation in Solana Beach and a group came together wanting to do something about this. A few people took the lead and did what they felt they could locally and created a petition to the Solana Beach city council. The petition had a variety of things that were being requested, including regulating the number of stores that could sell guns.
We chose a day and three of us went to the City Council to present the petition. The City Council, much to their credit, took the petition seriously and listened to us and advised us that it was going to be researched and discussed and we would be informed of the date it would be brought back up in a meeting for discussion and action. At that follow up meeting, the chamber was full and it wasn’t that long before I discovered that most of these 50 or so people were there because of our little petition. They were there because this petition of ours was perceived as a threat and it appeared as if the owner of the gun store in town was at the center of this turnout. What we from UUFSD discovered is that we acted out of emotion and did not do enough research on what the city actually could or could not control so part of our requests was not something they could constitutionally grant. Then, when it came time for public comment, we were seriously outnumbered and it was amazing that although some did express sadness and remorse for the shooting, most fell back on what seemed like the talking points that could have come straight from the PR folks at the NRA.
Then something unusual, “off script” if you will happened. The gun store owner, some of his people and my little group ended up on the patio of city hall after the meeting. I can’t remember how things started but the conversation was cordial, all of us agreeing that it was a horrible and tragic event and if we began a conversation between the two sides maybe we could find some common ground about gun safety in schools. A Fox News affiliate came out and filmed the story and did a surprisingly fair and balanced take on it. Mr. Greg Stockwell, the Gun store owner and I decided to have lunch to talk about common ground. We talked about Universal background checks. We also talked about sponsoring civil public discussion around issues of community and school safety and ways to bring people together in conversation. And we got to know each other a little. I talked about my background and childhood and he talked about growing up in a rural area in the middle part of the country where hunting with his dad and using guns was just as much as a part of his childhood memories as not using guns were a part of mine. Click here to watch a short video about our conversations.
I left this meeting on a high. I thought I had finally figured out a way to have an impact, to apply my desire for ministry of crossing boundaries in the world to engage for the common good. I thought all of this until I received an email from Greg that basically said that he was no longer able to work on this together. And that was it. It was the last I heard from him. I can only think that working with us on these issues was threatening to those who could apply pressure to this small business owner. To me this was so sad.
And now, I feel sick that this has happened again without any meaningful change in this country. And I am torn and tentative about what I would have to let go of if I were truly going to do what I could to speak up to challenge the gun lobby. What do any of us really need to let go of to do the work that needs to be done to really affect deep systemic change in the world? Is it our need for personal or financial stability? Or is it frustration, fear and anger or do we need to not let go of that and hold on to it to motivate us?
These are all things that we are faced with in life, these constant questions, what do I hold on to and what do I need to let go of in order to move on, or be happy, or have a balanced life, or enter into a meaningful relationship. And these questions are certainly important when called to take on systems of power or privilege or oppression or violence. What do we hold on to and what are we willing to let go?
I am trying to figure that out for myself. There is much brokenness out in the world. There are so many worthy things that I could spend my time and energy dealing with. I need to come to terms with what more I can do and what it will take for me to do it.
As a start, we are working on an interfaith vigil here on December 14th, the third anniversary of Newton. Vigils in and of themselves don’t change things, but they can help support those who do and they can help raise public awareness and keep on the public’s mind the need for change.
Already a week has passed, and will gun violence fade again? I have not given up on the deep seeded belief that we can help spread the word of kindness and compassion, of love and equality, of justice.
I invite you to consider taking one of these steps to begin the conversation:
- Invite local NRA members and their families over to the church for dinner with their children and your children and promise to not talk about anything political at the first meal;
- Sponsor a community forum on gun safety moderated by a well respected member of the community who can help everyone with brainstorming ideas on how to keep the community as safe as possible, listening and not debating; or
- Invite the local Gun Store owner out for lunch.
I believe we can help change the world because part of stopping gun violence is to have a world where fewer feel alone and lost. I am not sure where we all go from here, it is risky and it can be scary, but this I know, this must change and we are the ones, we all are the ones.
May this be so.
Rev. David Miller
Rev. David Miller is the Parish Minister at UU Congregation of Fairfax in Fairfax, VA