Proposals to reduce gun violence: Church representative attends Senate Subcommittee hearing




Bryan Hanger is an advocacy assistant in the Peace Witness Ministry of the Church of the Brethren
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Bryan Hanger is an advocacy assistant and Brethren Volunteer Service worker in the Church of the Brethren's Office of Public Witness

Last week, I represented the Church of the Brethren by attending a hearing held by the US Senate’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. The hearing was entitled “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting Our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment.” The event was presided over by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and it provided an array of incredibly informative testimony regarding the effectiveness of certain gun laws, the human cost of gun violence, and what lessons from the past we can apply to our present problems.

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The Church of the Brethren contributed to this discussion by submitting written testimony to the subcommittee to be part of the formal record (read it at  www.brethren.org/news/2013/church-of-the-brethren-testimony-on-gun-control.html ).

The hearing came to order in a unique manner as chairman Durbin asked for everyone in the audience who had been personally affected by gun violence to stand, and it was revealed that survivors of gun violence and relatives of victims had shown up in great number as over half of the room stood up. Many were parents and relatives of gun violence victims from the President’s hometown of Chicago. Others were survivors and relatives of victims of such infamous episodes of gun violence as Newtown, Virginia Tech, and Luby’s massacre.

The first testimony came from Timothy Heaphy, US Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. Using his unique perspective as a United States attorney, he talked at length about the complexity of understanding the gun violence issue. He stated that he and his employer, the Department of Justice, do support an assault weapons ban, but he repeatedly emphasized the need for an all encompassing “360 degree approach,” with specific emphasis on a universal and more comprehensive background check.

He stressed how one of the most deficient aspects of the current background check system is the lack of detailed mental health records available for review. He cited the Virginia Tech massacre as an example of how deficient mental health records can allow someone to pass the background check who should not be able to. Heaphy mentioned that the tragedy at Virginia Tech spurred bipartisan efforts to enact more comprehensive background checks, but lamented the reality that this legislation has not been adequate and the background check process still needs to be drastically improved ( http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=49#NICS ).

Building on this, Senator Al Franken emphasized how Americans must not stigmatize mental illness, but instead should support legislation such as his proposed Mental Health in Schools Act which would work to diagnose and address signs of mental illness at an early age (find it at www.franken.senate.gov/?p=hot_topic&id=2284 ). Expansion of access to mental health care was universally supported by all of the members of the subcommittee, but the gun control measures were not.

Senators, such as Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), expressed their concern that the measures being put forth would do nothing but infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, while doing nothing to stop violent criminals who would acquire illegal weapons anyway. Senator Cruz argued against the efficacy of gun restrictions by pointing out the low rates of violent crime of many cities in his native Texas, where gun restrictions are few, to the skyrocketing crime rates in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., where gun laws are extremely strict. Others, such as Senator Hirono (D-HI), offered rebuttals to these critiques by citing examples where gun restrictions led to a drop in violent crime, such as in her home state of Hawaii.

After Heaphy’s testimony and Senate questioning, other speakers offered their perspectives. The two panelists who spoke most powerfully were Suzanna Hupp and Sandra Wortham. Hupp recounted her heart-wrenching story of surviving Luby’s Massacre in 1991. During the telling of the story, she lamented how gun control laws had failed her that day. She spoke of how she had quit carrying a gun in her purse because of new laws prohibiting this, and as a result she was left defenseless against a killer who murdered her mother and father directly in front of her.

Wortham followed Hupp’s testimony by telling of the day her older brother, a Chicago police officer named Thomas E. Wortham IV, was murdered right in front of her parents’ house. Her account was just as devastating as Hupp’s, but illustrated a much different story. The tragedy of Wortham’s brother showed that even a professionally trained and armed man can fall victim to the horrors of gun violence.

The overarching feeling I left with is that the issue of gun violence is much more complicated than we may like to believe. But that must not discourage us from working to make the world a more peaceful place. Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard Law professor who also spoke at the hearing, expressed our call to action in this way: “If we do nothing until we can do everything, we will all have the blood of innocent human beings on our hands and will besmirch the Constitution in the process.”

Thus, the Church of the Brethren must remember our tradition and act!

“We believe that the Christian church should be a powerful witness against the use of violence to settle disputes. Faithful disciples of the non-violent ways of Jesus have acted as leaven in the society against the violent trends of every age. Out of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ we cry out against the violence of our times. We encourage our congregations and agencies to work with other Christians to find dramatic and effective ways to witness to the peace and reconciliation offered through Jesus Christ.”
-- 1994 Annual Conference Statement on Violence in North America

It was in this spirit of action that the Church of the Brethren submitted a formal testimony to the subcommittee calling for a comprehensive approach to address our nation’s culture of violence. The full statement can be read at www.brethren.org/news/2013/church-of-the-brethren-testimony-on-gun-control.html . Video of the Senate Subcommittee hearing can be seen at www.c-spanvideo.org/program/310946-1 .

-- Bryan Hanger is an advocacy assistant for the Peace Witness Ministry of the Church of the Brethren.

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