American Baptists take on gun violence

American Baptist Home Mission Societies directors approved a statement intended to equip churches to take action on reducing the impact of guns on American life.

By Bob Allen

Directors of American Baptist Home Mission Societies unanimously adopted a statement Jan. 23 recommending 10 measures aimed at combating gun violence in the United States.

The measures, approved during a two-day retreat in Atlanta, include a ban on assault weapons, requiring criminal background checks for sales at gun shows, strengthening regulations of gun dealers, required reporting of lost or stolen guns to law enforcement, and restoring firearms research funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

abhms clifford johnson“We want to provide the tools for local churches to take action,” said Clifford Johnson, president of the board that oversees the domestic mission arm of American Baptist Churches USA. “This will be a board of action. If we are to be true to our history, we have to speak out on issues like gun violence.”

The statement deplores acts including the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., as symptoms of the “daily toll of gun violence in the United States.”

“Firearms are a part of the history and fabric of our nation,” the statement reads. “Changes in the laws governing the ownership and use of firearms must take into account this uniquely American experience and the ways in which our understanding of the right to keep and bear arms has developed over time.”

American Baptist leaders noted the Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees an individual the right to “keep and bear arms,” while also making it clear that such a right is “not unlimited.”

“Nor should it be,” the statement continues. “The liberties we enjoy are often in tension with one another, and no right should be so broadly construed as to undermine the ability of the broader community to maintain order and the peace necessary for human life and flourishing.”

The statement calls specifically for:

-- Decreasing the firepower available to civilians by banning assault weapons and prohibiting the sale of large capacity ammunition magazines.

-- Closing gaps in the background check system including requiring criminal background checks for all sales at gun shows.

-- Implementing a common-sense, comprehensive approach to help law enforcement prevent gun trafficking that will decrease the availability of illegal guns, including licensing handgun purchasers and strengthening the regulation of gun dealers.

-- Strengthening record-keeping of gun transfers, and requiring the reporting of lost or stolen guns to law enforcement to ensure better accountability of guns for persons involved in the supply of guns to the illegal market.

-- Increasing resources and capacity for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and repealing existing statutory restrictions that hamper the agency’s ability to combat illegal gun trafficking.

-- Developing new technologies to help law enforcement more effectively trace crime guns and developing safety features to childproof guns.

-- Encouraging local efforts to prevent and reduce gun violence.

-- Urging firearms retailers to implement protocols aimed at preventing the sale of firearms to prohibited purchasers such as “straw purchases,” buying a gun for someone who is prohibited by law from owning one or does not want his or her name associated with the purchase.

-- Improving the National Violent Death Reporting System and restoring firearms research funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

-- Encouraging greater societal attention to issues of mental health and illness as well as cultural issues including the pervasiveness of violence in entertainment and the media.

“Pursued together, we believe these measures will reduce gun violence while maintaining access to firearms for individuals for the purposes of self-defense, sport and hunting, and we reject the rhetoric that misleadingly portrays these goals (reduced violence and legitimate access) as incompatible,” the statement concludes.

“In the name of the Prince of Peace, we encourage our constituent congregations and the membership thereof to join us in support of these measures as we commit ourselves and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies to the patient work of reform, of taking the sensible steps necessary to reduce gun violence in our land.”

Aidsand wrightrigginsEstablished as the Home Mission Society in 1832 to work on America’s frontier, American Baptist Home Mission Societies now ministers across the United States and Puerto Rico through initiatives that focus on discipleship, community and justice.

From 1972 to 2010, the society operated under the name National Ministries but reclaimed its historic moniker as more descriptive of the organization’s work to those outside of American Baptist circles.

Recently American Baptist Home Mission Societies declared its mission center in King of Prussia, Pa., a “gun-free zone” and encouraged churches to consider similar efforts to “alleviate the proliferation of guns in our communities and the nature in which they are out of control in so many of our lives.”

“Too many of our children are dying,” ABHMS Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins says in a video on the ministry website. “Too many of our citizens live in fear, and an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth as a result of using these weapons ultimately leaves our entire country blind and toothless.”