Bringing God into the gun debate

ATLANTA — Yes, the Constitution’s Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms. But does it address the moral implications of owning them? Some local and national religious leaders believe it does not.

The Dec. 14 massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by Adam Lanza underscores the need for a discussion about firearms, pastors, rabbis and others agreed. Lanza, 20, who may have suffered mental problems, used an assault rifle to kill 20 children and six adults at the school.

But that conversation, they said, needs to go beyond gun ownership’s legal considerations.

Bishop Robert Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta likened the Newtown tragedy to the 1963 bombing of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four girls — an act so awful it helped prompt a national conversation on racial prejudice and civil rights.

“It brought a lot of people together who might not otherwise have had a conversation,” said Wright. “Of course, it (gun ownership) is a moral issue. A firearm gives you the power of life and death.”

On Dec. 23, diocese church-goers got the chance to sign a petition against gun violence.

“The killing of the holy innocents of Newtown, Conn., has moved our nation and our state to tears,” the petition read. “Now it must move us to action. As followers of the Prince of Peace, we must confront our nation’s addiction to violence and guns.”

The petition is gaining momentum, Wright said.

“We can certainly retain our Second Amendment rights — I support the Second Amendment, by the way — and take steps to make sure our country is great in peace and in safety,” Wright said. “This tragedy has keyed us up to have an important conversation.”

It’s a conversation already taking place in houses of worship across the country, as well as on websites, blogs and elsewhere.

“Surely, we have lost our minds,” Plemon el-Amin, imam emeritus of the Atlanta Masjid of al-Islam, wrote in Higher Ground (, a blog by Plemon and three other religious leaders. “May this tragedy be the one that awakens our hearts before we lose our souls as well!”

The shootings prompted the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA to renew its call for stronger gun laws. At a Dec. 20 news conference in Washington, the organization urged Congress to heed the council’s 2010 resolution calling for stricter access to assault weapons.

On Dec. 21, a week after the shootings, the bells of the council’s member churches tolled in memory of the victims. Druid Hills United Methodist joined that clangorous chorus. The church has nearly 500 members and is diverse, said its senior pastor, the Rev. David Allen Grady. He’s heard some parishioners call for more gun-control laws, while others have not.

No one, he said, has echoed Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the National Rifle Association. On Dec. 21, LaPierre called on Congress to put armed guards in every American school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

“What we need,” Grady said, “is a more compassionate society.”

The nation needs to take better care of its mentally unbalanced population, not pass more gun-control laws, said Ray Newman, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Newman, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and pastor at a Hall County church, represents Georgia’s largest Protestant organization, with nearly 3,600 churches comprising 1.4 million members, at the Georgia Legislature.

Too many people, he said, have a “knee-jerk reaction” to guns whenever a shooting disaster occurs. “The fact of the matter is, it’s a Utopian idea, not having any guns.”

Does any Scripture apply to the tragedy in Newtown? Newman thought for a moment. “The Ten Commandments,” he said. “One says, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’ ”

Rabbi Neil Sandler of Ahavath Achim, a Buckhead synagogue, said the Torah’s Book of Leviticus advises people not to put “stumbling blocks” before the blind — an admonition, he said, that can be interpreted making sure firearms aren’t available to the mentally ill.

“Life is too valuable for there not to be more regulations … than there are at present,” he said.

Lawmakers need to take a hard look at gun statutes, said Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., America’s largest traditionally African-American protestant organization. It comprises 6.5 million members.

“Gun control has a moral dimension to it,” he said. When the Second Amendment was written, Scruggs said, “it wasn’t talking about the assault rifles that we have today.”

Religious organizations need to help lessen a “culture of violence,” said Frank Broome, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Foundation of Georgia. The organization, based in Macon, comprises more than 120 churches across the state. “The ultimate answer to this (violence) is community — living in peace within our community,” said Broome, an ordained minister.

Since the shootings in Connecticut, said Broome, he’s spoken to pastors across the state, and believes most of their parishioners favor tightened controls on weapons that spit bullets.