Religious Organizations Are Integral to the Fight Against Gun Violence
In this article
Introduction and summary
Religious communities play a significant role in efforts to reduce gun violence, including by advocating for commonsense gun reform using a variety of tools. Their work is driven by both a sense of ethical obligation and concern for the safety of their communities.
Gun violence in the United States is an epidemic that affects all communities. While people may most often hear about gun violence through news reports on mass shootings, gun violence manifests itself in many ways. Other forms of gun violence include suicide, violent crime, abuse, and accidental death—all of which concern faith communities and religious leaders in the United States. After incidents of gun violence, faith communities are often sites for funeral rituals, collective grieving, and long-term support networks for survivors. Moreover, faith communities are often targets of white supremacist attacks and other forms of violence. They play a significant role in efforts to reduce gun violence as well, both within their communities and the nation, by advocating for commonsense gun reform using a variety of effective tools.
Most religious Americans believe that gun reform is needed to save lives.1 In turn, religious organizations, acting out of a sense of sacred obligation and moral conviction, are working to end gun violence through violence interruption programs, education, counseling, advocacy, and more. They are also working to push back against the harmful ideology of Christian nationalism, which research shows is connected to opposition to gun reform.2
This report details the breadth of this crucial work and highlights why policymakers must partner with religious Americans to reduce gun violence within communities and enact commonsense reforms.
Religious Americans support gun violence prevention policies
Religious Americans overwhelmingly support commonsense policies aimed at gun violence prevention. One study found that the vast majority of Americans affiliated with a religious community—at least 84 percent of Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim Americans—support background checks for all gun sales.3 Another poll confirmed that a majority of religious Americans support background checks for all gun purchases.4
Other studies have found that a majority of religious Americans somewhat or strongly support:
- “Requiring a person to be 21 in order to purchase a gun”5
- “Banning firearms from schools and college campuses nationally”6
- “Requiring that all gun owners store their guns in a safe storage unit”7
- “Banning high-capacity ammunition magazines”8
- “Banning assault-style weapons”9
- “Creating a national database with information about each gun sale”10
More broadly, a majority of religious Americans support “stricter gun control laws in the United States.”11 Within the white evangelical community, there is somewhat less support for some policy changes, as explored later in this report.12 Still, 62 percent of white evangelical Christians believe Congress should “pass legislation to require individuals to obtain a license before being able to purchase a gun.”13 Indeed, a clear majority of religious Americans, and Americans overall, support commonsense gun violence prevention policies that will save lives.
Gun violence harms religious communities
Gun violence uniquely affects religious communities. Religious rituals are often central to a community’s response to injury and loss of life. They serve as sites of mourning, counseling, and meaning-making following tragic events. More than a third of U.S. adults attend religious services once or more a week,14 and many of them are likely to gather in the wake of a tragic event. Even people who rarely attend religious services often congregate at religious events or in religious spaces to commemorate a family member or friend lost to gun violence. Yet despite this healing role, many houses of worship and religious groups are themselves targets of gun violence—most often by white supremacists.15
The Rev. Thomas Higgins, rector of Holy Innocents Catholic Church in Philadelphia’s Juniata Park, spoke to Religion News Service about the loss of church members to community-based gun violence. Without policy changes, he said, “I’m afraid we’re just going to continue to bury those children and family members.”16 Faith leaders themselves have also been injured and killed by gun violence, often while trying to protect or care for their communities.17
On August 5, 2012, as worshippers gathered in a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a white supremacist entered with a gun and fired at them,18 killing seven people and wounding three others.19 The intent appeared clear: to murder a group of people because of their religion and, specifically, to target them in their place of belonging, refuge, and sanctity.
Violence against religious communities, including Native Americans20 and enslaved African people, has a long history in the United States. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were attacks against Mormons and Jews as well as continued assaults on Black Americans in their houses of worship.21 In more recent history, following 9/11, the United States’ Sikh and Muslim communities experienced an increase in attacks.22
This pattern of violence against minority religious groups and Black religious spaces continues to the present day. According to an investigative report by The Washington Post, from 2015 to 2021, dozens of religious institutions were targeted for violence, including shootings.23 These attacks were driven chiefly by white supremacist, anti-Muslim, and anti-government extremists. Perpetrators “who showed support for white supremacy or claimed to belong to groups espousing that ideology” caused nearly half of deaths in these incidents.24 In addition, more than a dozen of these attacks or plots involved predominantly Black churches, including the horrific white supremacist attack on Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, that claimed the lives of nine worshippers.25 Two synagogues—one in Pittsburgh and one in Poway, California—were also the targets of mass shootings within the past four years.26
Yet attacks on faith communities are not limited to institutions. In early 2021, the Sikh community mourned after four of its members were murdered in a mass shooting at a FedEx building.27 Many in the Sikh community believe it is likely that the building was targeted because of its high number of Sikh employees, despite the FBI’s decision not to consider this shooting a hate crime.28
Given that gun violence deeply impacts religious communities, policymakers should work with people of faith to reduce the violence that affects their communities and to address security threats from extremists.
Gun Violence Prevention Priorities for a New Congress and a New Administration
Religious communities are working to prevent gun violence
Faith activism in response to gun violence is grounded in deeply held religious values. For many religious Americans, advocacy is not just a matter of protecting their communities; it is an act of worship or an expression of their religious beliefs.
The 67th Precinct Clergy Council, also known as “The GodSquad,” is a clergy group devoted to reducing gun violence. In May 2021, the council partnered with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to lessen neighborhood tensions and act as a liaison between its communities and law enforcement.29 This work is crucial and difficult, particularly in Black communities that both face gun violence and have a well-founded distrust of police intervention.
The council’s leader, Pastor Gil Monrose, described the work as “street engagement with young people, on the ground through all the evening,” adding, “We’re going to provide victim services for any individual … who is shot, whose family would want us to provide for them.”30 Pastor Louis Straker Jr., another of the many clergy and activists involved in this work in Brooklyn, explained, “We try to pattern ourselves after Jesus and make sure that we don’t get stuck in the church’s four walls and that we are able to touch the lives [of people].”31
Faith leaders of all kinds understand their communities well and have been instrumental in efforts to prevent gun violence. Some of the most successful examples of this are violence intervention programs—often partnerships between faith communities and law enforcement, such as the one mentioned above. Other faith communities are working with health care systems, social workers, experts in suicide prevention, and others to address gun violence as an epidemic requiring urgent public health intervention.
Many of these efforts are connected to calls for policy change, as faith groups play a leadership role in grassroots organizing, lobbying on Capitol Hill, and more to advocate for commonsense gun policies at the national, state, and local level. Some faith-based organizers are even running, or supporting candidates, for office on a platform of gun violence prevention. Faith leaders are also holding those who profit from guns accountable for gun violence by divesting from or lobbying the shareholders of gun manufacturers and distributors.
One of the most important roles that faith leaders and communities play is to raise awareness about gun violence and collectively mourn those whose lives have been lost. They are challenging ideological motivators of gun violence within factions of their communities and uplifting the diverse but overlapping threats of gun violence their communities face—from suicide to gang-related violence to domestic and white supremacist violence and more. Moreover, faith leaders and communities are fostering the necessary cultural change to build broader urgency around the need for commonsense gun policies at the federal, state, and local levels.
Imam W. Deen Shareef of Irvington, New Jersey, recently spoke about his advocacy to reduce gun violence: “The fact that I wear the title of being Muslim means that I am obligated to promote, preserve and protect the peace.”32 And as the Ven. Thubten Chodron, founder of the Buddhist monastery Sravasti Abbey, said: “Harming others physically is neither an appropriate nor a satisfactory way of dealing with conflict or threat. Clearly guns are made to do this, so their proliferation makes it easier to transgress this precept when someone’s mind is overwhelmed by fear, anger, or misery (in the case of suicide).”33 The Dominican Sisters of the Peace, meanwhile, argued that “security does not come with weapons, but with trust in God and by building safe communities not governed by fear.”34
Many groups combine multiple approaches to fully leverage the strengths of their religious communities. The following sections provide an overview of many of the religious activists and organizations engaged in this work. While this report does not aim to comprehensively document every organization or faith leader working on this issue, it does highlight a strong and diverse ecosystem of groups responding to gun violence.
Engaging in community violence intervention
Gun violence prevention and intervention efforts are a key way in which faith-based and other community groups can effectively reduce gun violence. The aforementioned 67th Precinct Clergy Council expanded its effective violence intervention program into Clergy for Safe Cities (CSC), a national coalition that supports clergy-based gun violence prevention initiatives. To date, CSC has trained more than 500 faith leaders on successful clergy-based models and best practices to reduce gun violence in their communities.35
To date, CSC has trained more than 500 faith leaders on successful clergy-based models and best practices to reduce gun violence in their communities.
Earlier, in 1996, Operation Ceasefire was founded in Boston as a collaboration of clergy and law enforcement.36 Law enforcement launched a series of targeted initiatives to reduce gun violence, such as reducing illicit firearms trafficking. Faith leaders in the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a clergy collaborative, provided moral and organizational resources for this effort.37 The relationship between clergy and policy constituted a new mechanism to hold the police accountable and, as a result, increase trust between law enforcement and the community. This model was so successful that other cities sought to replicate it, and it became one of the four violence intervention strategies adopted by the LIVE FREE Campaign.
The LIVE FREE Campaign was founded in 2012 by Faith in Action to organize faith leaders and affected individuals in order to secure funding from cities, states, and the federal government for effective violence interruption strategies.38 LIVE FREE works with clergy, community leaders, law enforcement, public officials, and those directly affected by gun violence to implement violence reduction campaigns across the country. These strategies have been associated with a 30 to 60 percent decrease in shootings and homicides in some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.39 With the help of the LIVE FREE Campaign, in 2018, Sacramento saw no youth homicides for the first time in 35 years.40
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) fosters health, wellness, and healing in the inner city by organizing for social change, cultivating the arts, and operating a holistic health center.41 Founded in 1997, IMAN is currently advocating for the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance, which would create civilian bodies to oversee the Chicago Police Department.42 The network uses intentional outreach efforts to reduce neighborhood violence, providing housing, education, and vocational training to returning citizens.43 During weekends when community-based violence is expected to be prevalent in the city, IMAN hosts intensive educational programs that also temporarily remove participants from dangerous environments.44
Addressing the gun violence epidemic as a public health crisis
Gun violence is an epidemic, and public health groups have responded to it as such. For instance, the health care ministry CommonSpirit Health, located in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, was created by the alignment of Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health in 2019.45 It set up a design grant for violence prevention that led to the formation of the Chester Community Coalition—a program that addresses gun violence through the lens of public health, using trauma-informed care as a first step toward reducing gun violence.46 In a city with a homicide rate that is 25 times that of the rest of the county, the program serves clients experiencing “traumatic grief (51 percent) and surviving intentional violence (27 percent), with others receiving support for witnessing violence or more general community violence.”47 Over the past year, the program has reached more than 2,000 people and enrolled more than 160 people.48 CommonSpirit Health has also developed a community-based violence prevention model, participates in shareholder advocacy, and advocates on national gun violence prevention legislation.49
The Chester Community Coalition addresses gun violence through the lens of public health, using trauma-informed care as a first step toward reducing gun violence.
In 2019, 60 percent of deaths by gun violence in America were suicides, a total of approximately 24,000 people.50 Therefore, a reduction in gun violence also necessitates a focus on mental health; and some faith groups are working with local faith communities to help address this issue. For instance, Bishops United Against Gun Violence provides resources to help clergy navigate mental health issues in their congregations and increase access to mental health services throughout its network of churches.51 The group has found that this is an area where gun rights activists are willing to partner with them and explore interventions to reduce suicide risk.52 One diocese in the Bishops United network, the Episcopal Church in Colorado, has even created a curriculum to help leaders prevent suicide, explaining the risk factors of suicide and providing ways for individuals and congregations to make a difference.53 During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, Bishop Ian Douglas advised bishops to “speak with their clergy to keep a watchful eye out in situations where there might be an increased risk for suicide or domestic violence.”54
The LIVE FREE Campaign also has a history of working with health care systems to address gun violence prevention efforts. One of its violence intervention strategies is to offer “case management and resources for those hospitalized for gun violence in order to reduce likelihood of being involved in future violence.”55
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the campaign’s public health orientation enabled LIVE FREE to contribute to stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic as well. It adapted to distribute masks and hand sanitizer,56 prioritizing getting these materials to those who needed them most, particularly communities of color. By the end of 2020, the campaign reported having raised more than $3 million from more than 2,200 donors.57
Crucially, this campaign leveraged the relationships that violence interrupters have developed within communities. These interrupters became public health advocates, helping empower people to make the best health choices they could. Pastor Michael McBride—the director of the LIVE FREE Campaign, one of CAP’s 2013 Faith Leaders to Watch, and a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s Interfaith Advisory Council58—said of the effort: “What we are going to do is leverage the existing infrastructure of black religious communities and existing anti-gun violence networks to help the places and people who need it most. If we don’t, who will?”59
Faith groups engaged in grassroots organizing for policy change
Many faith-based groups working on gun violence prevention believe that the government has an important role to play in passing legislation to reduce gun violence. Earlier this year, a major milestone was achieved: The LIVE FREE Campaign has consistently pushed for federal funding for violence interruption work and counts the Biden administration’s inclusion of $200 million for community violence intervention in the fiscal year 2022 budget as a victory.60 The campaign also celebrated the president’s directive that 26 existing federal grants can be used for this work. Similarly, LIVE FREE’s efforts helped ensure that the Build Back Better Act currently being considered by Congress includes $5 billion over eight years in support of evidence-based community violence prevention programs.61 These funds will help reduce gun violence in cities across the United States.
The LIVE FREE Campaign has consistently pushed for federal funding for violence interruption work and counts the Biden administration’s inclusion of $200 million for community violence intervention in the FY 2022 budget as a victory.
Several other national faith-based organizations have led efforts in the uphill battle to pass federal legislation. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the advocacy arm of the largest and most diverse Jewish denomination in North America, began advocating for gun reform in 1972. One of the primary ways it has done this is by training and mobilizing youth leaders alongside clergy and other congregational leaders.
Meanwhile, in California, this group successfully advocated for an increase in funding for the California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) program from $9 million to $30 million in 2019.62 The campaign mobilized nearly 900 Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants to call the California governor and urge him to increase funding for this program; the high volume of calls swamped the governor’s switchboard, shutting it down at times.63 This victory empowered groups across California to reduce gun violence within their communities through tested models.
The RAC works specifically with the Reform Jewish youth movement, NFTY, which has trained more than 500 teens in all 50 states in advocacy, including gun violence prevention.64 More than 450 teens in the movement have since directly lobbied their members of Congress in support of H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, and other gun violence prevention legislation.65 These youth, in turn, work with clergy and RAC staff to educate their congregations on gun violence and advocate for sensible reforms. In 2018, NFTY was among the groups that helped pass sweeping gun violence prevention measures in Washington state. In fact, one teen leader single-handedly collected more than 1,800 signatures to put the gun violence prevention initiative on the ballot, and over the course of the campaign, teens ran educational events for their congregations and communities as part of broader get-out-the-vote efforts.66 In the end, the effort succeeded, with the ballot initiative passing with 60 percent of the vote.67
The RAC is one of more than 50 member organizations in Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a national faith-based coalition focused on changing public policy.68 While the coalition’s members have different theologies and traditions, they are all religiously motivated to drive support for gun violence prevention policies and to disrupt harmful narratives that tie guns to religiosity. Key leaders in the coalition have included the Washington, D.C., office of the mainline Protestant denomination United Church of Christ; the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker advocacy organization;69 and Jewish Women International (JWI).
In particular, JWI is among other faith-based organizations that approach gun violence prevention policies from the perspective of ending gender-based violence. This is also true of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), “a Native-led nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence against Native women and children.”70 NIWRC advocates against gun violence through the lenses of ending domestic violence, gender-based violence, and violence against youth.71
The RAC successfully mobilized nearly 900 Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants to call the California governor to more than triple funding for violence intervention and prevention.
Other faith groups, particularly those representing religious minorities or communities of color, have often approached gun violence prevention through their work to combat hate-motivated violence. The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), for example, advocates for legislation that would deny anyone convicted of a hate crime the right to purchase a firearm.72
The Biden administration should work with faith groups to address white supremacy and Christian nationalism, both of which contribute to the proliferation of gun violence. In 2021, the Center for American Progress outlined a policy blueprint to end white supremacist violence.73
The blueprint included the following recommendations:
- “Invest in public health approaches to violence prevention and disengagement.”
- “Fund community-led programs that build resilience against white supremacist violence”
- Update the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides funding for physical security enhancements to nonprofit organizations, including faith-based organizations, at risk for acts of violence.
- “Enact legislation prohibiting individuals who have been convicted of misdemeanor-level hate crimes from gun purchase, possession, or transfer.”
- “Enact legislation creating an extreme risk protection order remedy at the federal level and incentivize states to enact these laws.”
Faith-based groups have also played a key leadership role in passing gun violence prevention legislation at the state level. For instance, the Ecumenical Leaders Group of Maryland achieved notable success in 2013 with a coalition to successfully pass expansive gun violence prevention legislation.74 Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a network of Christian churches and faith-based organizations that connects 21 Christian traditions and more than 1 million church members, advocated with the Wisconsin Gun Safety Coalition and the 80% Coalition to allow extreme risk protection orders and to close background check loopholes.75
State councils of churches, clergy groups, multifaith organizations, and others are active in gun violence prevention in every state.
Holding those who profit from guns accountable
For some faith groups, one way to reduce gun violence is to hold accountable those who profit from the proliferation of firearms. For instance, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) “builds a more just and sustainable world by integrating social values into corporate and investor actions [through an interfaith lens].”76 Its members began addressing gun violence in 1994, filing shareholder resolutions with Walmart and Kmart to ask the retailers to review their firearms sales policies and procedures.77 Sister Judy Byron, who leads this work for the ICCR, views gun violence prevention through the lens of her Catholicism: “Every incident of gun violence has impacts on a person’s health—their physical health, their mental health, and the community that they are a part of. My faith calls me to what I’m doing.”78
The ICCR has used shareholder advocacy to pressure corporations that manufacture, sell, or transport guns. In 2017, Mercy Investment Services, an ICCR member, filed a shareholder resolution at Dick’s Sporting Goods79 that prompted a dialogue with company management and helped lead to the company’s decision to stop selling assault-style weapons at its Field & Stream stores.80 It also raised the minimum age of gun purchasers to 21.81
Mercy Investment Services filed a shareholder resolution with Dick’s Sporting Goods that led to its decision to stop selling assault-style weapons.
The ICCR has also published an investor statement on gun violence, outlining 13 actions that companies can take to reduce the risk of gun violence.82 To date, 142 investors, representing $634 billion in managed assets, have endorsed the statement.83 Among other things, the statement calls for gun manufacturers to stop selling military-style semi-automatic assault weapons and for gun distributors to implement comprehensive gun safety education at the point of sale.84
Currently, the ICCR is working to request a human rights policy from Smith & Wesson.85 Ideally, this policy would ensure that the company attempts to limit the uses of its products to harm the human rights of others, such as the right to life and security. The ICCR asked Sturm, Ruger and Co., another firearms manufacturer, to agree to similar commitments; the company has since adopted a policy similar to the requested human rights declaration, and the ICCR is monitoring how it implements this policy to decide on appropriate next steps.86 Finally, the ICCR is attempting to address the challenge of “ghost guns”—guns that are shipped disassembled and therefore not registered—by engaging with FedEx, UPS, Mastercard, and Visa.87
Do Not Stand Idly By is another faith-based campaign, led by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, that mobilizes citizens, law enforcement leaders, public officials, and investors to work with gun manufacturers to reduce gun violence.88 The campaign asks manufacturers to create a first-rate network of dealers that meet high standards of security, record keeping, and cooperation with law enforcement, as well as bring to market guns that are child-proof, theft-proof, and have other safety features.89
Heeding God’s Call—founded as a partnership between the Religious Society of Friends, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonite community—had its first success in 2009 when it organized protests against a gun shop in Pennsylvania that appeared to engage in illegal straw purchasing and whose guns often ended up in the hands of local criminals.90 The protests contributed to a federal investigation, which led to the retailer losing its license and the store being closed.91
Running for office on a platform of gun violence prevention
Some faith leaders have sought to address the uphill challenge of passing gun violence prevention legislation by running for public office. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA), for example, became a nationally known advocate for gun violence prevention when her son Jordan was killed by a gunman in 2012. She consistently speaks about her activism and later candidacy for Congress in terms of her Christian faith:92 “I have 100 percent security in the fact that God will lead me where I need to be.”93 Likewise, Dr. Ameena Matthews, a former congressional candidate in Illinois, ran for office after having worked for decades as a violence interrupter in her Chicago community.94 She cites her Muslim faith as part of her inspiration for working toward peace, justice, and community.95
Pastor McBride of the LIVE FREE Campaign also helped found the Black Church PAC and Black Church Action Fund, a multimillion-dollar strategic initiative.96 These groups work to elect leaders committed to curbing gun violence, ending mass incarceration, defending the right to vote, and representing the equitable treatment of communities of color.97 Black Church PAC has partnered with a variety of Black church denominations, including the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW), the Churches of Our Lord Jesus Christ (COOLJC), the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.
Raising awareness about gun violence and mourning those lost
One of the most critical roles faith groups play in gun violence prevention efforts is to help communities mourn those who lost their lives to gun violence, provide healing and support to survivors, and raise awareness about these tragedies to prevent them from happening again. Many of these efforts occur on a local level.
While there are too many examples to name, some are listed below.
- As the pandemic began, Nebraskans Against Gun Violence partnered with faith groups for a “courage” campaign. Participants put up window clings around the state to encourage joy and peace at a time when gun purchases were skyrocketing as people feared for the future. The message of the campaign was to reduce gun ownership and encourage gun owners to practice safe storage.98
- The Wisconsin Council of Churches created a study-action guide around faith and gun violence that includes theological grounding, worship resources, discussion guides, and challenges to action.99
- Heeding God’s Call organizes “Memorials to the Lost”—displays of T-shirts with the names of those killed by gun violence and the dates of the shootings. These shirts are placed in front of a congregation’s building or in a public space. There are currently memorials in eight locations in the mid-Atlantic region. Heeding God’s Call uses these memorials as a central focal point for gun violence awareness days, which culminate in writing letters to legislators.100
- The LIVE FREE Campaign mobilizes clergy through #IAMAPEACEMAKER Sabbaths, in which clergy commit to teaching, preaching, praying, and acting to stop gun violence. Forty congregations in 20 cities have held Sabbaths.101
- The Soul Box Project creates “soul boxes,” origami memorials to honor each life lost to gun violence. In October 2021, it brought 200,000 soul boxes to Washington, D.C., for an exhibit on the National Mall representing the number of people in the United States harmed by gun violence in less than three years.102 Faith communities across the country, such as North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Georgia, also engaged in making soul boxes for their local communities.103
- Bishops United Against Gun Violence provides crucial space for communities and families to process their grief following a traumatic event. This space is important, says the organization’s founding convenor Bishop Mark Beckwith, because “there is trauma in the moment [of gun violence], but that trauma continues in the community for months and years after the fact.”104 Bishops United provides a public space through its services to commemorate victims, allowing people to publicly express their grief and turn it into action. For instance, the group has hosted advocacy days on Capitol Hill, connecting members of Congress with constituents advocating for gun violence prevention measures. It also developed a prayer in 2018 to remember the victims of mass shootings.105
- Sojourners is a Christian social justice organization founded by evangelical pastor Jim Wallis, who called for a “church boycott of the NRA” in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida.106 Wallis suggested that churches make membership in the NRA an issue, designate themselves gun-free zones, and make gun violence a faith issue. Sojourners itself has provided a space for Christian activists to voice opposition to gun violence. Its magazine has featured articles critiquing theological arguments against gun violence prevention measures, raising awareness of gun violence prevention efforts, and sharing personal experiences with gun violence.107
- Other notable efforts of faith leaders and communities raising awareness about gun violence include those from Faithful America, which organizes rapid-response digital campaigns for Christians,108 including petitions to address gun violence and Christian nationalism;109 Rabbis Against Gun Violence, a national grassroots coalition whose founder, Rabbi Menachem Creditor,110 has published four books, as well as many articles, prayers, and poems, on gun violence from a Jewish perspective;111 and the Washington National Cathedral, which lit its nationally significant building with orange lights in honor of National Gun Violence Awareness Day on June 4, 2021.112
In addition to these explicitly religious groups, many secular gun violence prevention organizations have faith-based outreach programs and are led by people of faith whose faith values and traditions inspire their work. In 2020, for example, Everytown for Gun Safety launched an Interfaith Advisory Council with 18 religious leaders.113 Angela Ferrell-Zabala, who led this effort, was one of CAP’s 2021 Faith Leaders to Watch.114 All these activists come to the work of gun violence prevention with different, although overlapping, lenses.
Council member Rev. Sharon Risher has spoken out forcefully against gun violence in the aftermath of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in 2015, in which she lost her mother Ethel Lee Lance, two cousins, and a childhood friend.115 In a recent interview with the 67th Precinct Clergy Council, Risher emphasized the potential for clergy to provide pastoral care as a means of reducing gun violence: “Not only do we need to have resources and work on the ground for gun violence prevention and commonsense gun laws, but we actually need to pay attention to the pastoral and spiritual care of the people that have been impacted by gun violence.”116
Not only do we need to have resources and work on the ground for gun violence prevention and commonsense gun laws, but we actually need to pay attention to the pastoral and spiritual care of the people that have been impacted by gun violence.Rev. Sharon Risher
Council member Dorian Karp, senior advocacy and policy manager at Jewish Women International, also serves as co-chair of Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. JWI empowers women and girls by ensuring and protecting their safety, health, rights, and economic security; and it frames much of its work on gun violence through the lens of domestic violence prevention.117 JWI also founded the Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.118 Karp talked about the importance of educating communities and policymakers on the pervasive and “important intersection between gender-based violence and firearms,” stating, “We’ve seen, in mass shootings, this inextricable link, and we have seen it in communities and in our families all across the country.”119
Another council member, Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project as well as one of CAP’s 2018 Faith Leaders to Watch. He is also a senior fellow at the Sikh Coalition, which was founded following the hate crime against Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American—the first deadly hate crime after 9/11.120 Dr. Singh characterized gun violence as “an issue of justice,” adding: “Our children are scared to go to school, our neighbors are being shot in the streets, and our siblings in their places of worship — but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are simple measures we can take to ensure our freedoms and ensure safety for ourselves and our loved ones.”121
Our children are scared to go to school, our neighbors are being shot in the streets, and our siblings in their places of worship — but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are simple measures we can take to ensure our freedoms and ensure safety for ourselves and our loved ones.Dr. Simran Jeet Singh
Another council member, Pastor Robert Schenck, founded the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C, which looks at gun violence from a Christian ethical perspective.122 Schenck wrote: “God rest the souls of the dead, heal the bodies and minds of the wounded and traumatized, comfort the broken hearts of the survivors—and take away sleep from cowardly and irresponsible legislators until they do their duty to protect the vulnerable.”123
Council member Shane Claiborne similarly sees his evangelical faith as calling him to support gun violence prevention measures. Referring to himself as a “holy troublemaker,” Claiborne has written books about his social justice work and founded RAWtools in 2012.124 RAWtools takes a passage of Isaiah as its inspiration—“they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”125—to literally turn guns into farming equipment.126 RAWtools also offers workshops in nonviolence, including restorative justice and de-escalation techniques.127 Claiborne is also a co-founder of Red Letter Christians, which regularly publishes articles calling on readers to make support for gun reform legislation the only issue they vote on and critiquing the theology of those who oppose gun reform.128
In addition to the Everytown council members and other influential individual faith leaders, many people of faith are leading the way in secular gun violence prevention organizations at every level. For example, youth activist Kathryn Fleisher—no relation to the author—went on to found the secular organization Not My Generation (NMG) to work on gun violence prevention.129 She describes the connection between her work at NMG and her time with NFTY as follows:
I’m proud of this work, and I’m grateful for the support that this community has provided, from the leadership development training I received at NFTY to the opportunities I’ve had through the Religious Action Center’s gun violence prevention campaign to lead that as a member of the Commission on Social Action … When I’m organizing, when I’m marching, when I’m lobbying for gun violence prevention, that is me practicing Judaism.130
The connection between Christian nationalism and gun violence
Some opponents of gun violence prevention efforts use religious language to justify their opposition. Specifically, Christian nationalism correlates strongly with opposition to gun reform.131 Christian nationalism is an ideology that advocates for and idealizes a fusion of Christianity and American civic life.132 It also often overlaps with white supremacist ideas. For instance, Christian nationalists tend to hold anti-immigrant views as well as the erroneous belief that racial inequality is due to personal shortcomings of minority groups.
A disproportionate number of white evangelical Christians own guns and oppose gun violence prevention measures. Even within this community, however, a majority support gun reform and leaders are working to reduce gun violence. A deeper look at these dynamics reveals that gun ownership is more deeply connected to Christian nationalism than a specific Christian theology.
While there is significant overlap between evangelical Protestantism and Christian nationalism, for example, the biggest predictor of a religious individual’s opposition to efforts to prevent gun violence is not their Protestantism, but rather their propensity toward Christian nationalist ideas. One study found that “when accounting for Christian nationalism, we find that evangelicals are no more likely to oppose gun control than mainline Protestants or even the religiously unaffiliated.”133 Indeed, the more one agrees with Christian nationalist positions in any group—mainline, evangelical, or other—the less likely they are to support gun violence prevention measures.134
Christians Against Christian Nationalism, a campaign organized by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, is one group that is pushing back against this ideology. Through this campaign, faith leaders—including the Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley, Sister Simone Campbell (one of CAP’s 2013 Faith Leaders to Watch), and the Most Rev. Michael Curry—have condemned Christian nationalism as “a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.”135 Everytown council member Pastor Schenck even denounced Christian nationalism as a “dangerous heresy.”136
Pushing back against Christian nationalism is key to ending gun violence. As policymakers respond to white supremacy, they must bear in mind the Christian nationalist ideas that often undergird it and work with religious leaders to discredit this harmful ideology.
Policymakers must partner with faith groups to end gun violence
It is no longer enough for policymakers to offer thoughts and prayers following a mass shooting or other act of gun violence. Indeed, religious leaders and organizations are not limiting their ministries to thoughts and prayers alone; while they are doing the necessary work of helping people process grief and providing counseling to those in need, they are also disrupting violence in the streets and preaching against Christian nationalism in the pews. They are electing politicians to end gun violence, shutting down irresponsible gun stores, educating others to improve gun safety, advocating for better policies, and beating guns into plowshares.
Faith-based gun violence prevention groups come from different religious perspectives and use a wide variety of strategies. Given faith communities’ deep involvement in gun violence prevention work, policymakers should partner with them on the issue. This outreach, at the local, state, and federal level, should support and leverage the work of these religious groups where appropriate. Faith groups can effectively educate the public about the risks of gun ownership, particularly suicide; push back against Christian nationalism; and engage in violence interruption efforts.
Religious communities provide a unique lever through which to engage with internally diverse communities to address the many manifestations of gun violence. Policymakers should work with these communities as part of a series of interventions to reduce gun violence—including by engaging in violence interruption efforts, countering Christian nationalism and white supremacy, and enacting gun reforms. In addition, researchers should study the impacts of gun violence on religious communities and document best-practice responses to these challenges. Supporting religious responses to gun violence will enable these communities to continue reducing gun violence in their communities and across the United States.
The authors would like to thank Alex Barrio, Chelsea Parsons, Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, and Nicole Lee Ndumele for their feedback on this report.
Appendix by state
As this report documents, a considerable number of religious groups are engaged, at all levels, in activism across the country to prevent and reduce gun violence. Much of this work is at a very local or congregational level—or is part of the mission of national faith-based organizations and denominations.
The appendix below is a nonexhaustive guide for policymakers that lists some of the noteworthy, statewide, and regional faith-based efforts to reduce gun violence
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- Andrew L. Whitehead, Landon Schnabel, and Samuel L. Perry, “Gun Control in the Crosshairs: Christian Nationalism and Opposition to Stricter Gun Laws,” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World (4) (2018), available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2378023118790189.
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- Morning Consult and Politico, “National Tracking Poll #210332” (2021), p. 137, available at https://assets.morningconsult.com/wp-uploads/2021/03/10070433/210332_crosstabs_POLITICO_RVs_v1.pdf.
- Morning Consult and Politico, “National Tracking Poll #210449,” p. 296.
- Ibid., p. 284.
- Ibid., p. 276.
- Ibid., p. 252.
- Ibid., p. 248.
- Ibid., p. 244.
- Ibid., p. 228.
- Riess, “Which religions support gun control in the US?”.
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