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November 22, 2010

Heeding God's Call in Maryland

The involvement of faith leaders in efforts to strengthen gun laws in the United States goes back decades if not further. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for example, was originally founded by the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society and other religious organizations in mid-1970s. An exciting campaign known as “Heeding God’s Call,” however, is providing the faith community with new opportunities to take the lead in reducing gun violence in our country. Originally started in Pennsylvania, Heeding God’s Call has now spread south into Maryland.

The mission statement of Heeding God’s Call calls for the campaign to “unite people of faith in the sacred responsibility to protect our brothers, sisters and children.” The campaign realizes it mission by: 1) Helping local faith communities organize advocacy campaigns to encourage gun shops to adopt a code of conduct to deter illegal purchasing and trafficking of handguns; 2) Providing support and resources for faith communities to form multi-racial, ecumenical and interfaith partnerships working together, on both social and legislative levels, to prevent gun violence; 3) Serving as a “connection point” for congregations and partnerships to connect with, learn from and support the work of gun violence prevention organizations and efforts already in place, and ; 4) Advocating for faith communities to make commitments to raise voices and take action to prevent gun violence.

Started in 2008, the signature victory of Heeding God’s Call came in September 2009 when the sustained protests of faith leaders in Philadelphia pressured the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to shut down Colosimo’s Gun Center, a store that was the source of one out of every five crime guns recovered in the city. That same month, a Heeding God’s Call campaign took root in the Pennsylvania state capital, Harrisburg. Now, in 2010, new groups have sprung up in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, Maryland.

On October 20, faith leaders from Baltimore gathered at Clyde’s Sport Shop in Lansdowne, Maryland. They asked the store’s owner, Clyde Blamberg, to sign a 10-point Code of Conduct. This voluntary code asks gun dealers to implement marketing safeguards to prevent illegal “straw” sales; such as videotaping gun sales, deterring fake IDs, and conducting background checks on all store employees. A 2008 report from the Abell Foundation found that Clyde’s was the second largest source of crime guns seized in Baltimore during the period January 1, 2006 through March 31, 2007.

"We are not implying that you break the law," Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church told Blamberg. "I'm sure you faithfully follow the procedures. We just want to ask you to help us to help prevent the havoc that is going on in our communities.” “We need people voluntarily who will decide to do the right thing. We can’t just depend on the law to have good communities, we need people of good will,” added Rev. Dr. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. Standing with Miles and Sutton were Rev. Peter Nord, Presbyter Executive of the Presbytery of Baltimore; Rev. Jack Sharpe, President, Central Maryland Ecumenical Council; Rev. Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane, Synod Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Imam Earl El-Amin, Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore; Rev. John R. Schol, Baltimore-Washington Conference United Methodist Church; Dr. Arthur Abramson, Executive Director, Baltimore Jewish Council; Rev. Dr. John Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference United Church of Christ; and Rev. Denis Madden, Auxilliary Bishop, Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

We’re not interested” was Blamberg’s immediate response (Clyde’s supporters find no fault with his business practices, instead pointing a finger at the “culture” of “black males in the city”).

The Baltimore group is not giving up so easy, however. “With a primary goal to reduce the flow of illegal handguns on city streets,” Heeding God’s Call will return to Clyde’s Sports Shop on December 11 at 3:00 PM to again ask Blamberg to sign the Code of Conduct.

Blamberg is not the only gun dealer in Maryland who has been approached by the faith community. On November 13, the Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland (PRISCM) conducted a prayer vigil and protest at Realco Guns in Forestville. 60 people attended the event, including religious leaders, gun violence survivors, and elected officials. They were responding to a recent Washington Post investigation that revealed that more than 2,500 guns used in crimes have been traced back to Realco in the past 18 years. In addition, nearly one in every three guns confiscated by authorities in the District of Columbia and Prince George's County was purchased from the dealer.

We’re not here today to necessarily gang up on Mr. [Carlos] del Real, who is the owner of this shop, but we are here to bring attention to this shop,” said Youth Minister Raimon Jackson of Gethsemane United Methodist Church. “We are here to...let him know that our community will no longer stand for...the traces of guns that are found in connection with this shop.”

Minister Rosita Barnes of St. Paul's Baptist Church contributed a prayer: “Lord we ask that you would touch the buyers, the would-be buyers and the sellers...We pray that each would-be buyer in this shop—or anywhere else—looks deep within themselves where we believe [they] will find God and ask the question, ‘Lord, what shall I do?’

The faith leaders in Prince George’s County presented del Real with a copy of the Code of Conduct. He accepted it, but like Blamberg, refused to sign. Like their counterparts in Baltimore, however, these faith leaders were not deterred. They announced they, too, would be coming back, and soon.

November 15, 2010

One Who Can't Walk Away

On the morning of April 16, 2007, students and teachers alike went to their classrooms at Virginia Tech as if it were any other school day. Before the morning was over, 32 of them were murdered, and an additional 17 wounded, in the deadliest shooting rampage in the nation's history. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had previously been evaluated in a psychiatric facility. A judge determined that Cho “present[ed] an eminent danger to [him]self or others as a result of mental illness, or [was] so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for [him]self.” According to federal law, Cho should have been prohibited from buying firearms, but because of a loophole in Virginia law he was able to pass background checks and purchase two handguns.

Colin Goddard was one of the students wounded on that snowy day in April. He was shot four times by Cho—in his left knee, left hip, right shoulder and right hip. A new, critically acclaimed short documentary, “Living for 32,” tells the story of the Virginia Tech tragedy through his eyes (a trailer for the film is available here).

In the film, Kristina Anderson, another survivor who was shot that day, says, “There’s three ways that I’ve seen that people react to things like this. The first is they completely deny it. The second way is probably that they admit it, but also don’t want it to have any effect on their future life and they go on. [The] third person can internalize it, turn it around and put it towards their future to kind of make something come out of that; and that’s a survivor’s mission. It’s usually something that was so traumatic, and so powerful, and so life changing to you that you have to do something about it ... You can’t walk away from it.”

Colin Goddard is the latter type of person. He doesn’t believe that he was “saved” as part of some divine plan. “I was one of seven students to survive out of a class of 17,” he says. “I don’t know why. I know that there were people who were killed all around me who did nothing different than I did. I just got lucky.” Not wanting future Americans to have to rely on similar good fortune, Goddard has chosen to use his story to promote and create a safer America.

Soon after graduating from Virginia Tech, Goddard began interning for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where he offered to go undercover to expose one of the most dangerous aspects of our nation’s weak gun laws: the Gun Show Loophole. Goddard traveled to gun shows across the country and legally bought everything from an AK-47 to the exact model of handgun that he was shot with with nothing but cash. He never underwent a background check as part of these “private sales,” and in some cases didn’t even have to show identification. Goddard’s father, Andy, explains that his son secretly filmed these purchases to, “make it easy for people; put it right there in front of their faces; hang it in front of them on the TV screen and say, ‘Look, this is legal, all of this is legal; everything that was done is legal. Do you want it to be legal? Do you think that that makes you safe, that this kind of thing’s legal?’”

In “Living for 32,” however, Colin Goddard learns that changing things is tough even when the overwhelming majority of people are on your side. On July 14, 2010, Rep. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA)—the Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security—co-hosted a Congressional Forum with Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL). The forum was designed to explore the merits of H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009.” Goddard provided moving testimony at the forum—Rep. Castle described Goddard’s words as the “most compelling” he had ever heard during his time in Congress.

Nonetheless, H.R. 2324 has not received a full hearing or a vote on the House floor despite having 112 co-sponsors. “I didn’t think that changing some laws in Washington was going to happen by me telling my story,” Goddard states. “As I learn more I’ll change my strategy, I’ll change it up to do whatever I have to do to get what I want changed ... It’s not changing the whole world, it’s not getting guns from every man. [I’m] talking about two or three small little things that I think would make America a better place.”

“Living for 32” documents Goddard’s courageous journey from tragedy to triumph—which is still in its infancy. The film has received a strong reception after multiple public screenings across the country. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that “Living for 32” is among the eight finalists for this year’s Best Documentary Short award.

The film’s next big screening will take place at New York University’s Skirball Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, November 17, from 6:00-8:00 PM. Members of the public are invited to attend and can RSVP here.

It will be just one more night of work for Colin Goddard. “There is no meaning in our tragedy,” Kristina Anderson reflects in the film. “We didn’t ask for this, but unfortunately there are people that don’t have a voice anymore, and so it’s kind of like we should speak for them ... I think that’s what Colin has done.”

November 8, 2010

A Winning Issue

It has already been well chronicled that gun control supporters fared well in the November 2 elections. As the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pointed out, candidates who endorse common-sense gun laws won Senate races from both sides of the aisle. Victorious on Tuesday were the following Democrats: Barbara Boxer in California; Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, Ron Wyden in Oregon; Barbara Mikulski in Maryland; Daniel Inouye in Hawaii; Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, Michael Bennet in Colorado; and Chris Coons in Delaware. Then there is the incoming Republican Senator from Illinois, Mark Kirk, who currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Task Force on Illegal Guns in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Much was made of the fact that the National Rifle Association (NRA) endorsed many Blue Dog Democrats running for re-election in the House, but the support of the gun lobby did little to improve their fortunes. Of the 49 Democratic incumbents who lost in the November 2 elections, 29 (59%) had an A rating from the NRA, 27 were endorsed by the NRA (55%), and 25 (51%) received financial support from the NRA. On the flip side, only three of the 101 Democratic House incumbents who co-sponsored legislation to close the Gun Show Loophole (H.R. 2324) lost on Tuesday. The loophole allows private individuals to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers or maintaining records of sale.

One particularly interesting House race took place in Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, where first-term Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly faced off against Keith Fimian, a local businessman. The 11th is as “an odd-shaped Congressional District stretching from the rural Virginia horse country near Warrenton, then meandering east through the battlefields at Bull Run, and finally racing north headlong towards the uber-metropolian suburbs of Fairfax and Arlington. Nestled near the armpit of the District lies the impressive headquarters of the National Rifle Association.” In 2009, the 11th supported the Republican slate, voting for Bob McDonnell as Governor, Bill Bolling as Lieutenant Governor, and Ken Cuccinelli as Attorney General.

The NRA’s endorsement in its home district went to Fimian. The gun issue did not figure large in the race, however, until Fimian made the following controversial comments:

I think that at Virginia Tech, if one of those kids in one of those classrooms was packing heat, I think that would not have happened … The perpetrator of that crime would have thought twice before walking into a classroom if he thought there was any chance of someone being armed and preventing him from doing that.

Gerry Connolly immediately bucked the “conventional wisdom” among Democrats in rural and conservative districts that the gun control issue is “untouchable” and “a loser.” James Walkinshaw, Connolly's campaign manager, told the press that “Keith Fimian's extreme position on guns and outrageous comments about the Virginia Tech tragedy serve to show yet again that he is too extreme for Northern Virginia. Fimian's opposition to closing the Gun Show Loophole, his callous lack of regard for the victims of the tragedy, and belief that guns should be allowed on our schools and college campuses are way out of the mainstream.”

Survivors of the shooting at Virginia Tech also took great offense to Fimian’s remarks. Omar Samaha, who lost his sister Reema during the tragedy, appeared in a television ad sponsored by Americans United for Safe Streets (AUSS). "Ask Keith Fimian why he's protecting criminals, instead of protecting us,” he implored his fellow Virginians. Retired Lt. Col. Peter Read, whose daughter Mary was also killed, accepted an apology from Fimian for his remarks, but noted, “He has yet to decide his answer on the simple question of whether he'll support background checks for every gun sold at a gun show. I need my representative in Congress to know the answer to that question.”

The pressure to clarify his stance on these issues became so intense that Fimian’s campaign literally began to run from questions.

Overcoming a massive wave that saw the Republicans gain 60+ seats in the House, Connolly prevailed in the 11th on Election Day. He currently holds a 935-vote lead over Fimian, with only 300 ballots left to be counted. As one voter told The Connection Newspapers, “I heard some comments that one of the candidates made about Virginia Tech, and I decided to come out and vote for the other guy.”

Even the blog Red NoVA had strong words on the matter: “Keith’s comments saying that if a student was ‘packing heat’ there would have been fewer deaths were incredibly insensitive and damaging to his cause … To make matters worse, this entire drama unfolded on every network news station in the DC region.”

Time will tell if other Democrats in the Commonwealth and across the country catch on, but public safety was clearly a boon to the party in an otherwise disastrous 2010 election. Resources also make a difference—AUSS spent $450,000 on ads and mailers in the VA-11 race and it paid off. Far from a liability, strong support for policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals is a career booster.