Quakers unite, and inspire, on gun violence

The Religious Society of Friends, known as Quakers, have an expression called “holding in the light,” by which is meant either the divine light of God that lives in each living thing, or the light of a community of people who are in both a spiritual and material relationship with each other.

Holding the children of Newtown, Connecticut in the Light, those who were slaughtered, and those who still live, compelled the Shepherdstown Meeting of Friends, of which I am a member, to seek consensus – a “sense of meeting” in Quakerese – on gun violence. One might think this was a no-brainer given the reputation of Quakers as war resisters and advocates of nonviolence, peacemaking, and conflict resolution strategies. But this was not the case.

It began with a “leading” – Quakerese for an inspiration – of Friend Neal Peterson, our former Clerk of Meeting who stayed awake most of a night following the Newtown horror, composing the core of what would later become our statement on gun violence. In the beginning, many felt making the effort was likely useless, and were pessimistic about the possibility of meaningful unity on such a controversial issue. While most were open to reasonable restraints on guns, few were comfortable with only a political statement or a list of legislative demands.

It was felt that there was something lacking in thinking that only legislative steps toward gun control would really meet the challenge: deeper unity about the causes of violence was only to be had at a moral and spiritual level.

A number of obstacles stood in the way of consensus. First, many believe that mental illness and a sense of growing sickness in society is at the root of the problem. Certainly, most if not all of the mass shootings, too many now to enumerate, have involved serious mental illness. And we can assume that the 17,000 suicides by guns also include a lot of victims of depression and other mental illness. No doubt a few of the robberies, murders, accidents that make up the remaining 14,000 gun deaths involved some less than sober and stable behavior, too.

The problem with the mental health analysis is that, while we all know it is important, it leads to vast unanswered questions, which then paralyzes action. What kind of mental health test could certify that a person will not murder, or commit suicide? How many psychiatrists would it take to certify the millions wishing to purchase weapons? How many of them got C’s in the course where you supposedly learn to identify killers?

For some, the major “mental illness” is a perceived breakdown of families and community networks. But here too the remedies involve some of the biggest and most complex sociological problems — about which there is as much division as consensus.

Yet one question arising from these challenges had an easy answer: Will mental illness (or broken family) victims without guns kill fewer children than those with guns?

Another obstacle was “sweating the small stuff”. Should legislation mandate a maximum 3-shot or 15-shot or 30-shot magazine? Should gun owners, or manufacturers, buy insurance against (be liable for) the consequences of gun misuse? Will background checks and registration really make a difference?

Rather than become bedeviled with such questions about which we had no expertise, we stuck with what we what we felt sure was true for us:

We … oppose permitting guns in public areas where there are children. We oppose access to weapons that are never appropriate for civilized use….Quaker testimony expresses … that the answer to violence is not more violence. Instead it is a path that turns away from fear, hate, vengeance; that turns instead towards love, hope, forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. We ask that every political and faith leader go on record, now, and lend their voice … Do not remain silent.”

On these moral, right vs wrong, commitments, there was not just a majority – but a sense of the group that was not just an opinion poll, but a testimony that all wished presented to the larger community, and all elected officials. It was now a basis for action. Few sensed beforehand that such unity would be possible. But when it came to pass, the sense of heightened empowerment was palpable.

The details of resolutions are less important than getting people in motion. Once people find a way to cooperate and focus their efforts where there is common ground, real solutions and progress are possible. When multitudes are aroused for the common good, they generate geniuses by the score!

Shepherdstown Quakers set forth to Harpers Ferry, where the town council responded with its own unanimous resolution endorsing background checks, firearm registration and assault weapon restraints. The county council of neighboring Berkeley County, the Martinsburg Town council and the Jefferson County commission all heard appeals and set hearings and public comment on gun violence.

Visits to Senator Rockefeller brought endorsements. The day after visiting Senator Joe Manchin’s office, the Senator did an historic turnaround on gun violence, working out the compromise with Republican Senator Toomey for background checks.

The Shepherdstown Ministerial Association has also taken up the question and adopted its own resolution urging “all members of the Shepherdstown Community strive to identify the ways and means of reducing gun violence, and making peace in our community, and providing the maximum feasible safety of our children…”

Once the responsible and conscious forces in a community get in motion, the “do nothing position” — the essential message of gun control opponents — becomes a moral embarrassment. Those who “let their Light shine” can speak to each other and their government as they would to the lost children, as if they are still close to us, listening. Mention must be made and acknowledgement given to Shepherdstown Clerks and the peace and social justice committee who weighed in at important moments in this process.

It seems impossible to overstate the importance of reducing gun violence for the future of our society. The deep conflicts driven by inequality and economic depression can nullify the ordinary functioning of public and democratic institutions. They can return us to savagery and barbarism if people start shooting, instead of talking. There lies a chaos that no one who has brought children into this world can bear to witness without forethought of grief.

Photo: Demonstrators march in Washington, D.C. for gun control. Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC)


John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.