1 Year After the Sandy Hook School Shooting, Dean Gary Hall Calls for Action on Gun Violence Prevention
Listen to the interview here (mp3)
The Very Rev. Gary Hall is dean of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He came to the cathedral a year ago from Evanston, Illinois, where he was president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Dean Hall has served in All Saints Church in Pasadena, California; Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; and Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and holds a Ph.D from UCLA. Since coming to the National Cathedral, Dean Hall has been a strong and prophetic voice for gun violence prevention, LGBT equality, and other important justice issues. He is the chair of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a coalition of 50 denominations and faith organizations committed to confronting “America’s gun violence epidemic.” On December 9, they called once again for universal background checks in a letter to Congress signed by 54 national faith leaders
In partnership with the Newtown Foundation, the National Cathedral is holding a national vigil on December 12 to honor the lives lost at Newtown and the more than 30,000 Americans who have died from gun violence this year.
Sally Steenland: I’d like to talk about a day that is coming up: December 14. That is the one-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Two days after the shooting, you preached a sermon in the National Cathedral.
In that sermon you said, “As people of faith, we can no longer tolerate the epidemic of gun violence in America. We must become the focal point of faithful advocacy of gun control, calling our leaders to courageous action and supporting them as they take it.” Why did you preach that sermon?
Gary Hall: Oh my goodness, a number of reasons. First, I was actually home sick the day of the Newtown shooting and was watching it on television. I had this visceral reaction that was almost overwhelming—it was just one too many major events in that year. If you remember, in 2012, we had the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Newtown was the third major mass shooting that year, not to mention all the other gun violence. And I had been in Chicago, where there is an epidemic of gun violence among teenagers on the South Side.
I had this reaction that we had to do something. I did preach that sermon, and I was really surprised that there was such a strong response, both within the cathedral community and also within the national progressive community and national faith community and around the world. The Washington National Cathedral is a kind of symbol of faith in America. And to have that cathedral stand up unambiguously in opposition to gun violence was a strong signal. So, it kind of caught fire. But it was, essentially, my visceral reaction to this Newtown shooting being the absolute last possible straw that people could take. I felt like I woke up in that moment, like I had been sleepwalking through this endless numbing succession of gun events and that was the one that tipped me over into action.
SS: Since that sermon, you’ve been working with many advocates on gun violence prevention, including Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence.
GH: We did a gun violence prevention Sabbath in the spring, around St. Patrick’s Day, and we’re going to do another one next spring, which is going to be a three-day event here at the cathedral. We had about 100 churches involved online last year; we are trying to triple that if we can for this next year.
Bishop Mariann Budde, the bishop of Washington—my boss and colleague here—she and I have made the rounds up on Capitol Hill and met with some legislators. Because of my sermon and California connections, I was invited by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to give the invocation and opening statement at a press conference where she announced the assault weapons ban legislation.
We have been working with her and Chris Van Hollen (D), the congressman from Maryland, about some legislative things. Those have kind of stalled right now, as far as we understand. And we have been working a little bit with the vice president’s initiative, and I think we are trying to figure out what the next legislative steps are.
But what we’ve been doing primarily is to keep the issue visible. We did sign on early to a consensual legislative agenda, which included the assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and strict penalties on gun trafficking. That seemed to be an agenda around which there was a fair amount of consensus on both sides of the aisle—until the NRA weighed in and politicized it in a way it hadn’t been.
SS: What aspects of your efforts stand out as being important? Grassroots organizing sounds important. Educating the public sounds important. And moral persuasion—you have been lobbying on the Hill, so that’s important.
GH: I think, from my experience this year, that we have got to do a lot of work lighting a fire under gun safety people. The passion is all on the other side. When I appeared at the Feinstein press conference on C-SPAN, there was an organized letter-writing campaign, and we still get letters and emails daily, criticizing me for being anti-Second Amendment.
When the Newtown shooting occurred, when the Navy Yard shootings occurred, there’s a lot of emotion and outrage and desire to do something, but that doesn’t translate into energy, I don’t think, on our side. The other side is passionate, and they really are tireless. I think one of the things the faith community needs to do is keep this issue visible and keep talking about it and try to ignite some passion under the people that favor gun violence prevention legislation. I mean, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the American public supports the things we are advocating, but they don’t show up to rallies, and they don’t show up to put pressure on their legislators.
This is not a morally neutral issue. This is not ambiguous for Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Sikhs and Hindus. I mean, there is no argument for violence or for terrorizing people. Across the whole spectrum of religious faiths, it seems to me, this is a very clear issue, and we have got to make it a big issue. I do think there is a lot of work to do, and this is what some of our visits to the Hill have been about—working with the Democratic leadership because the Republican leadership won’t talk to us—about identifying people who are moveable and how to get churches in their districts to send them the message that they are going to support them.
That is the two-fold message I have been trying to send: Not only are there people that care about this, but we will be there for you if you have courage. I think sometimes we can be better about trying to put pressure on politicians than we can be about letting people know that we will support them.
I think the second thing is trying to do organizing around these districts where there are movable members of Congress. And I think the third thing is the grassroots organizing—trying to use churches and synagogues and temples as places to organize people at the grassroots.
SS: I want to follow up on that. A relatively small, concerted effort of people can get something done if it is what gets them up in the morning, versus a majority of people for whom it is not the top thing on their list. For that fervent minority, what’s it about? Is it about guns? Or is there something either unconscious or unspoken that, unless we address it in a different way, we’re not going to get to the root of this?
GH: That is a really interesting question. The bishop and I have gone to two meetings here in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington with Episcopalian gun owners. Our diocese extends down to rural Maryland, so there are a lot of Episcopalian gun owners both in the city and also in the rural areas. It is interesting that when I talk to proponents of gun safety, the conversation is about empathy for the victims. When I talk to gun owners—and I am trying to not be judgmental here—the conversation is about, “You’re trying to take something away from me that I deserve.”
I first got involved in gun control in the ‘90s, when I was working at All Saints Church in Pasadena and three young boys were shot to death on Halloween night. They were trick-or-treating, and it was a drive-by shooting. Our congregation got together and put pressure on the city and the state to do gun control legislation. So I have been involved in this work for 20 years. I got into it because my heart bleeds for the people and the kids—both in mass shootings and also those who are being gunned down in daily urban shootings. And that is my experience with church people. Their empathy is called out.
My experience of Second Amendment fundamentalists—because no one is really arguing about the Second Amendment here—is that they’re arguing about whether their rights can be regulated. The Supreme Court in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision said that gun ownership was a right—but one that could be regulated, like free speech. But the psychology among Second Amendment fundamentalists is, “You’re trying to take something away from me that I deserve, and I will be vulnerable if you take it away.”
I never hear a lot of concern about the people who are being shot. I hear a lot of language about “my own vulnerability.” I think the good news in this, if you look at the statistics—I say this as a 64-year-old white man–we aging, white males seem to be part of the problem. And in some ways, if you look at the statistics of the National Rifle Association, or NRA, their membership numbers are going down. The number of people who own guns is going down. The number of guns sold is going up, but it is the same people buying multiple guns.
So in some ways, the NRA faces the same demographic challenges, say, as the Republican Party and, frankly, something like the mainline churches face. There is a demographic and generational shift going on. I think there is some panic among NRA leaders because they know, in some sense, that time is against them. Younger people are not buying guns in the same way that the Baby Boomers or the World War II generation are. There’s some good news in that for us, but I think there is a lot of fear in that group, and I don’t know where that fear comes from.
SS: It is kind of sad that it is the end result of, “I am on my own. You’re not going to look out for me, so I have to look out for myself.” You’re on the frontier, you need your gun.
GH: There is also—and here, I am going out on a limb as a social theorist—I lived in Michigan for a long time, and it was always interesting that 30 miles from where I lived, you could cross the Canadian border, and their attitude toward guns was entirely different than ours.
I used to teach American literature and American intellectual history. I think that it is hard to decouple guns from slavery. I think that a part of the reason we hold onto guns is that so much of our early history had to do with trying to control a population that did not really want to be here. I had some conversations with military historians over the summer who were telling me that in the Confederate Army, one of the reasons the South believes it lost the Civil War is that they had to keep two out of every five soldiers back home to control the slave population. And so they were fighting with only three-fifths of their armed forces at the front.
I think Canada and America are the same culture, basically, but Canada did not have a slave culture. I think our own ambivalence about slavery, our own inability to examine race and slavery questions, and our own implications in that, especially as white people, are tied into this somehow. And it makes it vexed in some way that feels that we have not really been able to lift the lid on it.
SS: I would just add to that popular culture from the ‘50s with the “Cowboys and Indians,” the glorification of riding your horse and shooting your gun versus somebody with a bow and arrow. Guns helped take over the frontier.
GH: I think that is probably right. It has a place in our corporate imagination and psyche. And there are movies, such as “Winchester ‘73” with James Stewart—that’s just about a rifle! It is a great western from the ‘50s, and it’s all about the role that the Winchester ‘73 played in the Old West.
Then there’s Richard Slotkin, who wrote Regeneration Through Violence in the ‘60s, which is the history of how, in American culture, people basically regenerate themselves through violence. Beginning with the Puritans and the wars on the Indians, all the way through the Civil War and the war on the frontier and the Cavalry and through the Vietnam War—there is this underlying myth in our culture that we regenerate ourselves through violence. And so I think that there’s a way in which violence is very close to our psyche. It’s hard for us to disentangle ourselves from that.
SS: Several months ago, in a state where there are open-carry laws, a bunch of guys took their assault weapons and went to a farmer’s market wearing their guns. They scared the pants off everybody. Just imagine: You’re with your kids, you’ve got your dog, you’re looking at lettuce and tomatoes, and there are these guys with these strapped assault weapons. Nobody feels safer or relaxes with that. The shoppers tried to get the police to remove the gun guys, but what they were doing was legal.
GH: In Texas, a group of women who were pro-gun control had a meeting at a coffee place and, because of open-carry laws, a bunch of gun owners showed up with their guns to essentially intimidate them. The court ruled that it was a First Amendment right to display their guns.
I’ve never been in a place where someone’s been shot, so I have never experienced or seen a shooting. But I know a number of people who’ve worked in emergency rooms, and they say that with the bullets we have now, most gunshot victims do not survive the way people did years ago. Most people that are shot arrive at the emergency room dead.
The people I know who worked in those places say that when you see a gunshot victim, you become a gun control advocate because of the carnage. I think this is an abstract conversation for a lot of people. People I know who have been in the military and have seen warfare are pro-gun control. The preponderance of military people, police, anybody that’s had experience with weapons—they are in favor of gun safety and gun regulation because they have seen the effects of gun violence.
SS: To your point, I think one of the reasons faith leaders are such a powerful voice is the moral argument, but also, so many faith leaders are on the front lines. They are burying members of their congregations and speak with authenticity.
In your sermon, you said, “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.” I want you to talk about that, especially in light of the fact that it is easy to be discouraged. It has been a year of a lot of losses, despite overwhelming public support for common-sense gun legislation and effective coalition work.
GH: Well, that phrase was intentional in the sense that as a Christian person, one of the reasons I take this whole issue so seriously is that the person I follow, Jesus, died at the hands of state violence. The cross is our symbol as Christians, but it’s a symbol that calls us into compassion and empathy with victims of violence.
It’s not only true of Christians. Certainly, Jews have experienced great suffering, and Jewish scriptures such as the Book of Job are full of inquiries and investigations into suffering, as are Islam and the other great religions. I think especially for Christians, the issue of the suffering of the innocent—which is, in many ways, the definition of evil—the call to stand with and for victims of suffering and evil is central to what our faith is about.
Calling us the cross lobby was in some sense intentional because I wanted to put us at the center of the conversation. I mean, I am a progressive person and I have all kinds of progressive issues I care about, but this is a theological issue for me, this is a religious issue for me. It goes to the core of what Christianity is about and, I would argue, what all the great religions are about. I think we should not be discouraged because you know the old Martin Luther King Jr. phrase about the “arc of the universe bending towards justice.” Just think about the long march that oppressed people have been on and the real strides we have made in the 20th and 21st centuries about justice for women and LGBT people and people of color. Certainly, we have a lot of issues—human trafficking and slavery are a gigantic concern, as are violence issues and economic injustice—so it’s not like we’ve accomplished everything by any means, but I do think that, because this issue is so central to our identification as people of faith, our experience over the last century has been that when we mobilize and organize we really do have the power to change things.
I am ultimately hopeful. In the short term, I know it is going to be a real slog. The NRA is both organized and funded, but also they are in sort of reptilian death throes, and so they are frantic and up against the ropes. I’ve seen in my own lifetime how we have made progress. When we are standing for something that is central to our faith and are up against opposition, it seems to me that history is on our side. So I am hopeful. No less committed to organizing but hopeful.
SS: We started the interview with December 14 marking the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting. Tell us how you at the cathedral will be marking that anniversary.
GH: We are partnered with the Newtown Action Alliance to have a vigil on December 12 at 3:45 in the afternoon to mark the anniversary. And we’re doing that in a more reflective and contemplative way than in a call-to-action way. This is a day with the Newtown families, essentially to mark the one-year anniversary and to hold up the victims of that shooting in a liturgical way in the cathedral space. So that will be going on.
We are going to have, again, our gun violence prevention Sabbath next March here at the cathedral as part of our partnership with Faiths United Against Gun Violence. That will be a nationwide event, and we hope to get hundreds of congregations across the county to be with us. We are also going to try to use the cathedral’s building as a visual symbol during that period, to light it in such a way that will hold up our concern for gun violence and hold up the numbers of people that have died since Newtown—a visual marker in the cathedral’s fabric. And then the ongoing organizing work with Faiths United, which I am working more closely with, will be our grassroots work for the next year.
SS: Blessings and good energy to you. And thank you for talking with us.
GH: It is a pleasure, Sally, and thank you for all the work you do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.
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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative