A religious peace gathering in Philadelphia, USA, last month included daily acts of opposition to gun violence held at a gun store in the city. The actions included non-violent protest, prayer and civil disobedience. A dozen people were arrested over a series of afternoons.
The actions were billed as the beginning of a new faith-based initiative against gun violence in America’s cities. Events included an interfaith service followed by a march and rally at Colosimo’s Gun Center in Philadelphia.
“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. “Many have lost hope in us, lost hope that we have the will or the vision to do something about this.”
“We all know too many people are dying,” said Bryan Miller, executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, at the interfaith service.
Some 343 people were killed by guns in Philadelphia in 2006, according to mid-2008 statistics, and 330 people were killed by guns in 2007. The numbers had begun to slow in 2008, an AP report said. But the problem is still significant.
Miller explained that guns from Pennsylvania also are making their way into neighbouring states, and that guns bought in Philadelphia are often the ones killing people in New Jersey. He outlined the new initiative’s emphasis on requesting gun shops to sign a voluntary 10-point code of conduct entitled “Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership,” developed by the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
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 fr om 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 took many months, according to Phil Jones, director of the Church of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, who was one of the 12 arrested for civil disobedience.
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 t he country.
During the week’s witnesses at Colosimo’s Gun Center, groups of people held signs and banners, engaged passers by in conversation, and encouraged motor ists to honk in support. The arrests for civil disobedience took place on 14 and 16 January 2009.
Jones and Church of the Brethren member Mimi Copp were in the first group of five people arrested.
“When the gun shop owner repeatedly refused to sign the Code of Conduct, ou r group chose to occupy the store until he agreed to sign,” Jones said. “We were subsequently arrested with varying charges. A court date has been set for 4 March.”
Prayer and scripture were part of each day’s witness. The 12 people who car ried 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 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 re cite 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.
The Church of the Brethren is a Christian denomination “committed to continuing the work of Jesus peacefully and simply, and to living out its faith in community.” The denomination is based in the Anabaptist and Pietist faith traditions and is one of the three Historic Peace Churches. It celebrated it s 300th anniversary in 2008. It counts more than 125,000 members across the United States and Puerto Rico, and has missions and sister churches in Nigeria, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and India.
With thanks to Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren, who is the main writer of this report.