Of God and Guns

As Christians we are called upon to pray for a just and peaceful ordering of our society.  I would like to share with you an invitation for you to consider how we might live out our Baptismal Vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

I would like to share an article written by a new friend and brother of mine in the House of Bishops.  The Rt. Rev. Ed Konieczny is a former police officer and has a powerful story to tell about his own relationship to guns.  I invite you to read his short testimony as a compelling example of how we can be civil and humble in our public discourse about matters that tend to polarize and divide us even as we strive to fulfill our baptismal covenant.

Bishop Rob Hirschfeld

The Rt. Rev. Edward J. Konieczny is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma. He was previously a police officer in Southern California.

By Edward J. Konieczny, Special to CNN’s Belief Blog

 

(CNN) — Both sides of the gun control debate think I’m on their side. I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, a believer in Jesus Christ and for more than 18 years before entering seminary, I was a police officer.

While I try to preach God’s love and mercy, I also have a concealed carry permit and sometimes take my gun on long drives through the isolated areas of my diocese.

I live with the knowledge that I share responsibility for the taking of a human life in the line of duty and that a good friend on the force was shot and killed after we’d swapped shifts. And I wouldn’t be writing this article if the rifle that was pointed at my head one night by a man in the grip of a mental illness hadn’t failed to fire.

Until very recently, I was adamantly opposed to any expansion of gun control. But as I have reflected on the current debate — and the emotionally charged and morally complex gun-related moments in my past — I find myself struggling and evolving in my understanding of guns in our society. I think it is time for an honest conversation about the assumptions on which both sides in the gun debate base their arguments. It’s time for both sides to acknowledge that neither offers a complete solution to the problems of violence in our society.

In 1979, one of my best friends, a fellow police officer named Don, swapped shifts with me so I could play in a police softball tournament. During that shift, Don was escorting a man from a bar when the man pulled a semiautomatic weapon from his coat and shot Don in the chest. Don died at the scene.

The man who shot Don was a convicted felon, recently released from prison. He should not have been able to buy a gun, but he had bought the one he used and several others from a licensed dealer.

In 1982, I was leading a team of officers trying to catch a serial rapist who had escaped from prison. Acting on a tip, we spotted the suspect in a car he'd stolen from his latest victim. As he tried to run over us, several of us shot at him — causing him to lose control and crash into a telephone pole. When he tried to retrieve what we thought was a gun in the car, officers fired again, killing him. Although I wasn't among those who fired the final shots — and it's unlikely I fired the fatal one — I still feel partially responsible for his death.

In 1991, a few days before I was to leave the police department to enter seminary, I was dispatched to check on a man with a history of depression who had not responded to his family’s numerous attempts to contact him. No one responded to our knocking, and when my partner and

I opened the door to his house, the man appeared directly in front of me with a rifle pointed at my head. He pulled the trigger, but the weapon did not fire.

Later we learned that the man had struggled with serious mental illness for years but was still able to purchase weapons.

My 18 years as a police officer taught me that the law has little influence on some people, that those people are dangerous and that individual citizens have a right to protect themselves. As a priest and bishop, I have walked with those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. And in the quiet of my own meditations, I often remember my friend Don, his wife and children.

By acknowledging the complex part that guns and gun violence have played in my own life, I have come to understand that it is possible, and reasonable even, to be both inured to and incapacitated by violence.

This happens to us as individuals, and it can happen to us as a society. We get used to living with something because we cannot bear the raw emotions we would have to confront to change it.

The horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and the murders in other communities scream out to us. The unthinkable grief of the parents and grandparents who were called upon to bury their children and grandchildren make it clear to all of us that we have to face the raw emotions of gun violence whether we want to or not.

Clearly God’s command to practice mercy and justice requires us to formulate a comprehensive response to gun violence.

We need a reasoned conversation about existing privacy laws that protect the mentally ill but too often fail to protect our law enforcement officers and our citizens. We need conversations about movies and video games that desensitize our children to the effects of violence. We need conversations about loopholes in the laws that allow the sale of weapons at gun shows and by private dealers without proper background checks.

And yes we as a society need to have a reasoned conversation about the need for military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in the civilian sector.

We need not vilify gun owners nor make it unduly difficult to purchase and register a weapon.

There is no one wise enough to imagine every circumstance in which an individual might need a gun for protection or when a gun in the right hands might save innocent lives. But I would like my grandchildren to live in a world less violent than the one I have navigated, and it would be a moral failing if I refused to play my part in creating this world because I was too proud to change my mind or too mistrustful to work with people whose experiences may be different but who grieve as I grieve and share my prayers for peace.

We must proceed with humility. But we must proceed.