Religious leaders call for assault weapons ban, background checks on gun buyers

March 16, 2013

Religious leaders from across the country gathered Saturday at Washington National Cathedral to call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as more attention to poverty-related problems underlying gun violence in inner cities.

The meeting, part of a four-day “gun violence prevention sabbath,” was broadcast via a live Web stream to about 400 congregations around the United States, including some that held similar events locally, organizers said.

Several leaders said they had a unique perspective on the gun issue from years of burying shooting victims and comforting their families. Others said their political strength stemmed from their diverse backgrounds — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus — that straddled party lines. Several compared religious leaders’ role in the gun debate to that in the civil rights movement.

“We bring a history of empathy to victims of suffering,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, before a morning worship service. “All religious traditions try to answer the question of suffering, especially innocent suffering . . . We bring a lot of people who aren’t always politically active into the conversation.”

About 100 people attended the Saturday gathering sponsored by the group Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence. The numbers were bolstered by tourists who wandered in and took seats as speakers’ voices echoed through the cathedral.

Hall said he had worried attendance might suffer because of the event’s timing. He said it was scheduled to coincide with the contemplative Christian season of Lent but ended up overshadowed by last week’s election of a new pope.

While the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., galvanized the group, leaders said they also wanted more attention paid to daily gun-related crimes. Several cited the drive-by shooting of 13 people last week outside an apartment building on North Capitol Street.

“Why should it take some mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., to get our attention?” said Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive evangelical group Sojourners, based in Columbia Heights. “We’re losing kids every day. For us it’s not just a political issue. It’s a pastoral issue. It’s a spiritual issue.”

Group leaders said they back federal legislation to require criminal background checks for gun buyers, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines outside the military, and make gun trafficking a federal crime.

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told the group its influence would be felt because it could approach the gun issue “from a higher plane” that would transcend party politics.

“You come at this as a human problem,” Van Hollen said. “. . . The idea is very straightforward. We are all God’s children. We all have a responsibility to work to protect the blessings we have.”

Several religious leaders said more attention must be paid to poverty-related problems that underlie gun crimes, such as high unemployment and a sense of hopelessness among young people.

“These kids aren’t expecting to graduate from high school or go to college or get married or pick out a house,” said the Rev. Carol Reese, a chaplain and violence prevention coordinator for the trauma department at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago. “They’re picking out their funeral clothes.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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