Special Statement for Martin Luther King Jr.’s BirthdayThis statement was delivered by Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson at a press conference held in Washington, DC, on January 15, 2013. Religious leaders and Faith Against Gun Violence came together to press for tighter gun regulations to stop gun violence in the United States.
First, let me give honor and praise to our Creator for the opportunity to speak with the press today regarding the eradication of gun violence in the United States. I am the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC. I represent nearly two million members of our denomination. I also represent today the National Council of Churches which includes 37 Christian denominations and their over 100,000 congregations and 45 million persons in the United States. Our collective presence of interfaith leaders gathered today is a witness to our belief in the need for faith leaders to bind ourselves together on both national and local levels. We are aware that pressure from the gun lobby and gun owners continues to mount around this issue. But we believe that political leaders in Washington can resolve this problem and achieve meaningful gun reform if only they have the will.
As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday today, it is imperative for us to be reminded that he was a man who advocated for peace and justice. I am convinced that if he were here today, this issue would be the priority of his leadership. In the United States today, since 1997 we are witnessing gun deaths of more than thirty thousand persons per year. From the Revolutionary War in 1775 to the Persian Gulf War in 1991 which totaled 116 years there were 650,858 persons killed in combat. In the eighteen years from 1979 to 1997 we have experienced 651,697 deaths by guns. There were 839 more persons killed by guns during this 18 year period in the United States than in 116 years of foreign wars involving the United States.[i] No longer can faith communities stand idly by and commit to performing burials while bowing to lobbyists whose motivations are driven by a false standard of profit and power. We stand today on the premise that faith does have something to say about life and death. Therefore, it is imperative that we declare that our Creator affirms life abundantly while giving leadership to those of us who will challenge the false choice between guns and freedom.
We have gathered to call for:
1) a ban on all assault weapons. These are weapons of war and there is no reason for common citizens to purchase or possess them. We do not use AK-47’s to hunt deer! Therefore, we are calling for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban which lapsed in 2004.
2) We are calling for universal background checks. Presently, there is no federal provision for background checks and some states that do not require them at all. Therefore, persons that are mentally ill or do not know how to fire a gun or possess criminal records can make gun purchases.
3) Gun trafficking should be made a federal crime. Currently, prosecutions only happen through a law that prohibits selling guns without a federal license, which carries the same punishment as trafficking chicken or livestock. We must empower law enforcement to investigate and prosecute straw purchasers, gun traffickers, and their entire criminal networks.
We must not minimize the struggle of families who mourn the loss of those children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Newtown community tragedy brought this issue of gun violence to the forefront in public debate. However, it is a greater tragedy that we live in a culture of violence that self-perpetuates and makes gun violence acceptable. According to one journalist, each evening on the eleven o’clock news many television stations wait until two to three minutes before the broadcast to determine the lead story, because they are waiting for the possibility of a late night shooting. The common term in the media for this is “if it bleeds, it leads.” Newtown is representative of a long list of tragic community killings through gun violence. Our purpose here today is to declare that our faith perspectives and holy books call us, first and foremost, to love one another, not to protect ourselves against one another.
In inner city and some rural communities today, the criminal element connected to guns is rampant due to a lack of economic opportunity – dismal job prospects; low wages; and historic, flawed, and failing public education. Without opportunities, children are forced to choose gangs, guns, and incarceration over graduation. All of these dismal realities of community life are perfect for drugs, trafficking, prostitution, and other public safety issues stemming from illegal activities that create an environment for guns to neutralize the affects among criminals in a community. If the real truth is exposed, we would realize that none of us are safe in this country. Shopping malls, political rallies, temples, mosques, churches, schools, including college campuses, and a host of other public venues are all potential sites for gun violence at any given time. The challenge of eradicating gun violence is that there must be a change of heart and Spirit in our nation. This issue of creating peace for our nation is tied to justice and how we treat our neighbors and whether each person has an opportunity for economic livelihood.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would remind us that the United States is a great nation, when it measures its greatness on its moral and ethical actions. “Let us be first in love,” he would declare. Guns must be brought under tighter legislative restrictions for the purpose of saving lives and restoring the integrity of our commitment to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We stand together today, because we know beyond all else that God is love. Let our love bind us together to challenge the onslaught of gun violence in our nation. Tell Congress and our President to pass legislation that will tighten gun laws in this country. God is love!
Read more articles on Unbound about gun violence, and find worship, education, and policy resources here
Tell NBC to air PC(USA) gun violence documentary “Trigger” and schedule a screening in your area
Take action now with Groundswell to create a gun-violence-free culture
Pledge to host a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath – an MLK action from Groundswell
Get involved with the Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
[i] James Atwood, America and It’s Guns: A Theological Expose (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) Appendix p. 227-228.
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson directs the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness. Dr. Nelson founded and pastored Liberation Community Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. There, he served as Associate Director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. A third generation graduate of Johnson C. Smith University, Nelson earned a B.A. in Political Science/Urban Studies and a Master of Divinity from its seminary. While serving as the Pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rev. Nelson earned his Doctor of Ministry at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, with a dissertation entitled “A Community Based Model of an African American New Church Development in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Focused on the Educational Needs of Poor African American Children.”