Thursday, January 29, 2009

New faith-based initiative on gun violence is launched.

Throughout the week of Heeding God’s Call, daily witnesses against gun violence were held at Colosimo’s Gun Center in Philadelphia. The witness included nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, and the arrests of 12 people over a series of afternoons.

The gathering closed on Jan. 17 with a day of events focused on gun violence, billed as the beginning of a new faith-based initiative against gun violence in America’s cities starting with Philadelphia. Events included an interfaith service followed by a march and rally at Colosimo’s Gun Center.

"We believe that God is calling us to send a dramatic signal on behalf of the young people that suffer most from this epidemic of violence," said Andy Peifer, chair of the Public Witness Planning Group. In an e-mail explaining the new initiative he wrote, "Many have lost hope in us, lost hope that we have the will or the vision to DO SOMETHING about this.... God is calling us to something larger than we thought!"

"We all know too many people are dying," said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, at the interfaith service.

According to a report by the Associated Press (dated mid-2008) in Philadelphia 343 people were killed by guns in 2006, and 330 were killed by guns in 2007. The numbers had begun to slow in 2008, the AP report said.

Miller explained that guns from Pennsylvania also are making their way into neighboring states, and that guns bought in Philadelphia are often the ones that are killing people in New Jersey.

Colosimo’s is "one of the worst gun shops in the US," Miller added. He outlined the new initiative’s emphasis on requesting gun shops like Colosimo’s to sign a voluntary 10-point code of conduct titled "Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership," that was developed by the group "Mayors Against Illegal Guns." The group includes Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter.

Walmart is the largest retailer of guns to sign the code. "If Walmart can do it, any gun shop in Pennsylvania and any state can do it," Miller said. "Colosimo’s is just a starting point." He encouraged people in attendance from other places around the country to go to their local gun shops to ask them to adopt the same code of conduct.

Preparation for the new initiative against gun violence took many months, according to Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, who was one of the 12 arrested for civil disobedience at the gun store. Preparation included personal conversations with the owner of Colosimo’s Gun Center and conversations with Philadelphia police, Jones said. Organizers also recruited 40 faith communities in Philadelphia to support the campaign, including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian congregations.

Organizers hope that a code of conduct for gun stores will reduce the flow of weapons to the streets by reducing "straw purchases" or wholesale legal purchase of guns by people who then resell them to traffickers of illegal guns. Organizers also hope the campaign will spread to other cities across the country.

During the week’s witnesses at Colosimo’s Gun Center, groups of people held signs and banners, engaged passersby in conversation, and encouraged motorists to honk in support. The arrests for civil disobedience took place on Jan. 14 and 16. Jones and Church of the Brethren member Mimi Copp were in the first group of five people arrested on Jan. 14 for not leaving the store after the owner refused again to sign the code of conduct. Two more groups were arrested on Jan. 16, a group of three men who sat in the front entrance of the store, and another group of four men who sat on the sidewalk in front of the police who were guarding the door.

"When the gun shop owner repeatedly refused to sign the Code of Conduct, our group chose to occupy the store until he agreed to sign," Jones said (see his reflection below). "We were subsequently arrested with varying charges. A court date has been set for March 4."

Prayer and scripture were part of each day’s witness. The 12 people who carried out civil disobedience prepared with prayer, and received extensive support including help with bail money and rides back to the Heeding God’s Call gathering from jail--some in the middle of the night. They each spent between 12 and 24 hours in police custody, Jones said.

An incident during the second round of civil disobedience brought into sharp focus the tragic personal effects of the gun violence in Philadelphia. A local resident who had stopped by to ask about the witness arrived just as the group of three men knelt in the doorway of the store. As she watched, a police captain arrived and gave the men a series of verbal warnings that they would be arrested if they did not move.

In what became a quiet chorus to the police warnings, the woman began to recite numbers: "Five people die a week," she said. As the police captain repeatedly warned about the severity of the laws on blocking a fire exit, she repeated: "Five people die a week.... Five people are shot a week.... Three hundred people are shot a year...."

While the police waited for a van to arrive so that they could make the arrests, the woman explained her personal tragedy: She knew someone who died after he was shot 11 times. He was a young man, a friend, she said.

(Go to for a report from the "Catholic Standard and Times," a newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, that includes more information about the initiative and communications between religious leaders and Colosimo’s Gun Center.)

-- Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.

Source: 1/28/2009 Newsline Special

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