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The Insanity of Guns in America
An A. Powell Davies Memorial Sermon

River Road Unitarian Church
Mother's Day
Sunday, May 14, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander

Today -- as I'm sure all of you are by now aware -- is the day of the Million Mom March down in DC, when hundreds of thousands of concerned American citizens are gathering (for what, unless I am mistaken, is the first time in our nation's history) in mobilization for common sense gun controls. It is not in my heart this morning to be even the least bit coy, polite or tentative, as the rather blunt title I have chosen for my sermon reveals. There is (in my opinion) an absolute insanity afoot in America today...and that insanity is the irrational love affair our culture has with guns and gun violence, and the almost total lack in most parts of this nation of any sensible gun controls. This insane and unacceptable relationship we have with guns leads to the annual deaths of more than 30,000 of our citizens...30,000 men, women, and children gunned down every year (that's half of the Vietnam War's total casualties each year), with more than 4,000 of these annual deaths being children under 19 (that's a Columbine massacre every day, dear folks, a Columbine massacre every day). We are sadly the most gun-crazy people on earth. Private American citizens routinely kill more of one another with guns than any other nation on earth. I really have only one essential point this morning, so I might as well be out with it (clear and concise) right now. The insanity of guns and their resulting carnage in America is a preventable tragedy which we can and must change -- can and must change by concerted, persistent, and passionate citizen action to transform (at the same time and in equal measure) both public attitudes and public policies. As a nation, we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs with guns flooding and fouling American life. Look no further than the recent shooting of 7 kids at the National Zoo on Easter Monday - the prevalence of unregulated guns on the street brings suffering and fear to victims and public alike. We must have a RADICAL SHIFT...NOW...in both our national thinking and legislation (at local, state, and national levels) about guns. We must politically and morally overpower the gun lobby, by persuading the vast majority of the American people that the current state of affairs is unacceptable. As a people, we must establish and enforce strict and substantial gun control, and thereby end so much unnecessary suffering, sorrow, violence and death.

Now I realize that I probably have never more preached to the choir than I do today. While there is no doubt some disagreement amongst us on this issue, in general Unitarian Universalists have - as a faith group - long and passionately advocated firm gun control. We have passed three resolutions at our annual General Assembly (beginning way back in 1972) calling for strict gun legislation, and I know that many members of this congregation have long worked for such a change in U.S. social policy, including those (like member Hazel Bradford) who have been working to get River Roaders down to this afternoon's Million Mom March and rally. So I suspect I need not spend a whole lot of time outlining and arguing the basic facts about guns in America - but here is a summary of the sad truth.

In large part due to the fact that there are very few substantive gun controls (except in a couple of isolated and enlightened states like Massachusetts) here in the United States, we are a nation awash in personally held deadly weaponry. It is estimated that there are presently more than 200 million privately owned guns in the United States, many of them (to be sure) hunting weapons used wisely, safely, and responsibly by law-abiding citizens, especially rural citizens. But there are also more than 60 million handguns out there in public circulation (in our homes, on our streets and persons) which (of course) are not hunting weapons, in that they are designed for the express and singular purpose of killing persons. And there are also (again INSANELY) hundreds of thousands of military-style assault weapons out there in private hands for God's sake -- like the powerful AK-47 with its 30 round clips, or the concealable little Uzi machine guns -- that can be used (as they sadly and regularly are by street criminals and mentally deranged persons) to mow down multiple people. Even the National Rifle Association will admit that our culture is awash in weaponry, violence and death.

I was absolutely shocked (this past Christmas season while visiting my family back in Wisconsin) when (at a pleasant and noisy holiday party at one of my cousins' homes with the inevitable Green Bay Packer game on the television and dozens of kids and grandkids scurrying about) one of my second cousins (a perfectly nice and well behaved 15 year old boy to be sure) was all of a sudden parading around the house brandishing a large semi-automatic handgun (with multiple round clip) that his parents had just given him as a Christmas gift. My first reaction to the sudden presence of this instrument of death was discomfort and fear (I worried, with so many kids present, about the damn thing being unwittingly loaded or accidentally going off and killing or hurting someone) and my second cousin - swinging the thing around like a toy --clearly had not received proper training about how to handle a weapon -- even what we all assumed was an unloaded one -- in the presence of other persons). My second reaction was utter cultural sadness and personal incredulity. What could his parents have possibly been thinking? How could my bright and responsible cousin place such a weapon in his own child's possession? What possible constructive or acceptable purpose could this weapon have in the life of a 15 year old boy? Don't his parents understand the manifold dangers this vicious weapon carries with it? When I asked the boy what in heaven's name this gun was for, he said it was to hunt wild boar when he visits family in Tennessee. But I know enough about hunting wild animals to know this is not the real, logical purpose of a semi-automatic handgun...and I also know enough about human nature and folly to fear that this gun might someday be used by someone for a far more nefarious purpose. I am profoundly saddened that my own extended family (the Ewing clan of whom I am generally proud and fancy to be fairly enlightened and wise) are personally participating in the madness of gun proliferation in America. This incident caused me to realize that if my own family's attitudes and behaviors are any indication, we Americans are going to face a long, slow, hard road in our efforts to CHANGE, radically change, the excessive and irrational place guns have in American life.

Americans (most particularly, of course, American males) have a long and passionate love affair with the gun. When you think about it, having and carrying gun (from frontier days until now - and a quick sidebar here...and it is of interest to me that the New York Times recently reported that it is a myth that most Americas were armed back in the 18th and 19th centuries...fewer than one in twenty American homes had a gun back in "the good old days" of frontier expansion -- in any case, having and carrying a gun is the quintessential expression of the rugged individualism so many American males have long valued as a personality trait (if not a birthright). Having a gun (for non-military purposes) is a way of wordlessly saying, "I can take care of myself, I will take care of myself...I'm not going to trust the government or the police or anyone else to protect me and my family, my gun and me are the only security system I need." When you combine this attitude of, 1) macho self-reliance with, 2) the strain of anti-government paranoia (which has always been present in American culture, and is constantly given expression by the N.RA. and other pro-gun advocates these days who accuse sensible gun control proponents of trying to "take their guns away so that they would be unable to rebel against a despotic government") you can understand the passion (and the paranoid persistence) of the pro-gun, anti-gun-control lobby. Let there be no mistaking the cultural reality here...let there be no political or spiritual illusions...those of us in this society who want government (state, local and federal) to pass laws imposing strict gun controls are in for a long and bitter political and cultural fight. Today's Million Mom March (big and meaningful as it is) is just one more skirmish in what will be a very long, and hard fought battle for the public will. Yes, since the Columbine massacre (and all the other recent and senseless multiple shootings that are happening with increasing frequency in America) public opinion is noticeably shifting toward wanting real gun control...but on the other side is a lot of money from gun interests, not to mention that interconnected and persistent set of long held American male cultural attitudes I have already described.

As we begin making our case to end the insanity of allowing hundreds of millions of guns flooding and fouling America, let's begin by looking at the U.S. Constitution for guidance, shall we? You've all heard pro-gun advocates loudly and insistently proclaim their "Second Amendment constitutional right" to possess whatever guns they wish with minimal controls, but they are patently mistaken and misinformed about what our constitution says and protects. Let's begin by taking a look at the all important first few lines of our Constitution which spell out the broad purposes of national government and congressional laws. The Preamble reads,

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, to ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The document, of course, goes on to spell out specific purposes, rights and privileges -- but the purpose of agreeing to govern ourselves as a people is clear: government and laws exist to ensure the basic sanity, health, safety and civility of the social order. Given the chaos, lawlessness, suffering, upheaval and death which guns and the lack of gun control have wrought over the face of America, it is clear to me that gun control is an absolutely legitimate purview (if not unequivocal moral obligation) for government at all levels of society. And you all surely know what the second amendment says, despite the selective and self-serving reading the N.R.A. and other pro-gun zealots regularly attempt. It states (I think with unmistakable clarity):
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
As the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence points out:
When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, each of the states had its own 'militia' - a military force comprised of ordinary citizens serving as part-time soldiers. The militia was 'well regulated' in the sense that its members were subject to various requirements such as training, supplying their own firearms, and engaging in military exercises away from home. It was a form of compulsory military service...The 'militia' was not, as the gun lobby will often claim, simply another word for the populace at large...The U.S. Constitution established a permanent professional army, controlled by the federal government...state militias were viewed as a counterbalance to the federal army and the Second Amendment was written to prevent the federal government from disarming the state militias.
You may not know that the Supreme Court over the entire course of our national history has consistently ruled that the "obvious purpose" of the Second Amendment was (and now I quote the benchmark 1939 ruling) "to assure the continuation" of state militias...not to give individual citizens the right have and use private firearms. As conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger bluntly said in 1991,
I am a gun man...[but the Second Amendment is] the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud...on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime...[the N.R.A.] has misled the American people...the very language of the Second Amendment does not remotely guarantee every person the constitutional right to have a 'Saturday Night Special' or a machine gun without any regulation whatever. There is no support in the constitution for the argument that federal and state governments are powerless to regulate the purchase [and use] of such firearms.
In my view (and I understand in the view of an overwhelming majority of serious constitutional scholars) "We the people" of the United States have every right (indeed if not by the broad duties of government spelled out in the Preamble) the absolute responsibility to LIMIT and CONTROL individual citizen's access to weapons of personal destruction. This is, in any case, precisely what today's Million Mom March is all about. The goals of the organizers are, in my view, profoundly limited (all be them probably strategically wise from a national political standpoint...more on that point in a minute). In the face of 30,000 annual firearm deaths, all the Million Moms are asking is that the government move to assert the following gun controls: 1) require sensible cooling-off periods and background checks for gun purchasers, 2) license handgun owners and register all handguns, 3) require safety locks on all handguns, 4) limit purchases to one gun a month, 5) step up no-nonsense enforcement of existing gun laws, and 6) enlist help from corporate America in this great crusade for sensible gun control.

Now let me be unequivocally clear about this: I fully and passionately support the strategic efforts and limited agenda of the Million Mom March (so much so that soon after the second service this morning I intend to hop on my bike and race down to the Mall so that I can personally lend my presence to the tail end of this important event). It matters in this great cultural struggle for gun control that each of us is counted, and this event (and the limited proposals it advocates) will make a positive difference. But as a Unitarian Universalist religious leader committed to increasing the quality of life for all, I also must say that I believe the humanity-affirming principles of our faith also call us to work for MUCH MORE RADICAL AND DRASTIC GOVERNMENTAL CONTROLS (than these modest and - hopefully politically possible -- ones the Million Moms are calling for) if we are to curb the insanity of guns in America (and thus begin to return REAL AND RELIABLE tranquillity, safety, liberty and freedom to our homes, schools and streets -- which the Constitution of the United States promises). When it comes to gun control, this religious person is an unrepentant radical. I believe that we as a people should insist that (in addition to background checks, waiting periods, mandatory training, licensing, safety locks and other sensible controls) all assault and automatic weapons (and most if not all handguns) be IMMEDIATELY BANNED (with severe penalties for violators) from all private individuals. If it were up to me, Americans would be permitted to privately own hunting guns such as limited chamber rifles and shotguns (which are difficult to conceal, slow to reload and thereby not likely to be successfully used to repeat the kinds of terrifying street crimes and murderous public rampages we have become so tragically used to in America). We must have radical and profound gun control in America...and we must have it now...period.

As I have observed on several occasions from this pulpit, I believe it is impossible for serious religious people NOT to RATHER REGULARLY find themselves in a RADICALLY OPPOSITIONAL STANCE to their culture. Religious people (most certainly Unitarian Universalists) dream a big and sweeping dream for life and persons, and therefore we will find ourselves always pushing government and culture to a higher standard of decency and humanity -- often directly against firmly entrenched political, economic and cultural interests. Again, please just for a moment...just look at our 7 guiding principles which are printed as an affirmation on the inside of your order of service jacket this morning. The first principle doesn't read, "Well...most people are basically OK, but it's still alright for you to carry a gun in your car and shoot someone when they piss you off in a traffic tie-up," we say - categorically, unequivocally, passionately -- that every person deserves radical protection and validation because of their obvious and inviolate "inherent worth and dignity. " And that means that we must fight (in a gun drenched and crazy culture) for much more gun control. When it comes to guns in America, I don't see how any religious person (who -- along with their faith tradition -- affirms the worth, value and sanctity of persons) can be anything less than a sure and strident advocate for REAL AND RADICAL GUN CONTROL. The value of persons is so obvious and insistent (and the evil and insanity of handguns and assault weapons so pervasive and pernicious) we must demand and work for a radical cultural and governmental shift. I concede that the organizers of the Million Mom March may be right: although every poll shows that a strong majority of Americans want new substantial gun controls put in place by government, given the persistent ambivalence in the public will and the strength of the pro-gun lobby (which all but buys votes in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures with dirty money and even filthier threats), the modest controls they are calling for are probably all we can reasonably (and at best!) expect at this moment in American history. But that doesn't mean seriously religious people can rest there. That doesn't mean we Unitarian Universalists can live with the insanity of guns in America. It is our moral and ethical duty to speak boldly to culture - with passion, principle and persistence - call it back from the utter insanity of what is...call it back to its best and most humanly noble self.

As much as I am concerned this morning with the burning question of gun control in America, I am also concerned this morning with this broader philosophical question. How do I, a religious person who (as in this case) has a passionate and principled quarrel to pick with their culture or their government) stay engaged and responsible? Surely truly religious people never "take their marbles and go home." Surely truly religious people who care for the quality of life and persons hang principled and tough for the long haul of the great cultural and legislative battles that will determine the quality and decency of human life. I at least promise myself to hang long and tough with this issue, to be an unremitting warrior in this battle for the public's will...for it is just too important to everything I believe for me remove it from the center of my social justice plate.

Down on the Mall right now (on what for them must be a bitter/sweet Mother's Day), are thousands of Mothers, Grandmothers, Great-grandmothers and other Americans getting ready to march - men and women who have rallied because they have suffered the heartbreak of losing a loved one to gun violence. What greater tribute to their sorrow and tears could we make this day than to promise them now - promise them with all our hearts and souls - that we of this Unitarian Universalist congregation will work (as neighbors, workers, citizens and voters) for systematic, sweeping and sure gun control in America. We must persuade the American people (and governmental leaders at all levels) that gun extremists like Charlton Heston and the rest of the N.R.A. crowd are wrong...wrong, misguided and irresponsible. We must raise our voices against the insanity of guns in America, and work to convince our culture and our Congress that 200 million guns in the hands of private citizens lead not to security, freedom and safety but only violence, uncertainty and enslavement and pain. People are precious...Guns (on the other hand) are pernicious because they kill people. Let us ban guns, and bless people. It really is that simple. We must end the insanity of guns in America...NOW!