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Guns: the Erosion of Civility
A sermon by Rev. Eugene Dyszlewski, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 13, 2016

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As one of your Community Ministers, I am pleased to be back in the pulpit on Sunday morning. Of course, I am here to ask you to roll up your sleeves and take action on a vital social justice concern. As the Geico commercial would say, “If you’re a community minister, that’s what you do. You encourage people to take action.” While I want to say this year’s campaign is nonviolence and gun regulation, effective campaigns take years and are measured in decades. So for this decade, the campaign is about promoting nonviolence through sensible gun regulation.

My specific focus is on legislation to take guns away from domestic abusers. “Of all the gun related issues that need attention, why that one?” Well, first of all, the NRA has thrown down the gantlet and continues to demand that no form of regulation is acceptable. So this is a place to start. And, start we will.

Please understand that for religious leaders this is personal. We do the funerals. We don’t want to look into the face of one more heartbroken child and see the inconsolable pain in their eyes. Even worse, we don’t want to bury one more child …a child whose life has been tragically lost through domestic gun violence. This suffering must stop. We have had enough.

Let me first look on the positive side of our issue. We believe in dignity, compassion, respect, civility, honesty. This is huge. We really do. I’m not just saying that to sound like a nice guy. These genuinely are our values, are they not? We see a value in gathering in community. We are individuals, but we’re not hermits. We believe that our lives are richer and healthier in community. We value community, we value relationship, in order to be in a relationship with someone, I need to present myself as safe not as a threat.

I would like to suggest to you my belief that vulnerability is a critical religious, spiritual, moral virtue necessary in every relationship. Nonviolence and vulnerability are core beliefs in every religious tradition. Yes, there are noteworthy aberrations but the ideal core religious value is vulnerability. In the Jewish biblical tradition it was seen as sacrilegious to bring your weapon to the temple. In Christian tradition, Jesus was opposed to violence. He sent his disciples out to preach and teach presenting themselves as totally vulnerable and undefended. He told them to go out without a staff, without a wallet, without a lunch bag and to rely on the goodness and hospitality of whoever you visit. In some Buddhist traditions, monks go out daily to beg for food from the locals, making them totally vulnerable, dependent and reliant on the good-will of others.

In America have so many guns and there is so much talk of guns in our culture that we tend to get numb to it. Anything that is familiar to us tends to be normalized. We often overlook the symbolic impact of a lethal weapon. A weapon changes the tone of the discourse and the relationship. If I am packing heat, if I am carrying an assault rifle, how vulnerable, safe and welcoming am I.

During the Marriage Equality Campaign, some people on the other side were quite angry and told me so. I had the most incredibly vile email and voicemail messages you could imagine. And yes, I got death threats. But these people weren’t armed. Trust me, it feels different to interact with people at the State House who are on the other side of the gun issue. They tell me all about their guns. When they start going ballistic about losing their freedom or whatever, it feels strange. They may be unarmed in the Capitol building but I have to go walk to the car to go home. It feels creepy.

There is no question in my mind that the presence of a weapon increases interpersonal stress and decreases civility. This begs the question, “Should there be any guns at all.” That may be the campaign for the next decade but for now I would say guns should not be everywhere. We need sensible restrictions. We need as much civility as possible. In interpersonal discourse a weapon is a wall; what we need is more bridges.

The circumstance in which we are seeking gun restriction is in a domestic violence setting. The bill in question will remove the gun from the hand of a domestic abuser. If you have already hit your wife, you should not have a gun. If you already have threatened your family, you should not have a gun. When the abuser is removed from the home, gun possession extends the threat and reduces the safety of the family.

The negative impact on children is astounding. There is ample evidence that children cannot heal, unless they believe that they are safe. Some of the evidence that we have is based on treatment and brain research conducted locally. Children experiencing domestic violence trauma cannot heal, unless safety is achieved. Neurobiological studies have demonstrated that even brain development stops and may deteriorate unless safety is achieved for the child. Please understand we are talking about Rhode Island children who were in these studies. Children are acutely aware of the symbolic presence of a gun. We adults need to understand that. We need to protect them. We need this domestic violence gun bill passed.

In the past, when I was naive and idealistic, I opined that the best approach to advocacy is to try to understand the moral position of the opposition and go easy on your own position, no matter how passionate. Well, today I am taking it all back. It’s awkward when you’re the most cynical person in the room and you’re the minister. On the issue of guns in a domestic violence setting, there is no moral other side. There is no moral other side …especially, not in Rhode Island.

Please let me explain this. There is a narrative that is being sold by the NRA that you may have heard on television. The narrative comes from the imagination of corporate self-interest and counterfactual representations. In plain non-PC English, unbridled corporate greed and blatant lies. Fortunately, the NRA narrative resonates with almost no one in Rhode Island.

Well, I need to address the deceptive fabrications spun by the NRA. The NRA has taken a constitutional amendment of little interest that has always been about the right of a state to have its own well-regulated militia and convert it into a belief that it gives individuals the right to own any gun of their choosing.

The Amendment is not mentioned in the Federalist Papers because there was no interest in it outside of the South. Southern states wanted to have a militia to put down slave rebellions. The 2nd Amendment has been, is and probably will continue to be fueled by racism.

The first mention in legal literature that associated the 2nd Amendment with an individual rather than a state militia was a poorly written article in 1960 in an obscure law journal that took half of its references from Bartlett Quotations. In the mid-1970s the NRA developed a marketing campaign in which they hired lawyers and historians to write and publish articles to support the never-before-recognized position of individual right to gun ownership.

The NRA focused on state houses to enact bills allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons with little restriction. After purchasing several state legislators, they went on to purchase Congress, who granted immunity to gun manufacturers from tort liability for illegal use of their guns. The Supreme Court was the last to fall. The decision in the Heller case written by Justice Scalia in 2008 totally reimagined the 2nd Amendment to apply to individuals not to state militias. This was a complete reversal of 200 years of the court interpretation rejecting this argument as fraudulent.

One historical anecdote, the NRA narrative suggests that weapons have always been owned and carried by Americans going back to colonial days. Not true. I find this annoying because they are talking about us, Rhode Islanders. That’s not our legacy. There is a well-known picture of the pilgrims bringing their blunderbuss to church as protection. The NRA would like us to believe that at the time of the American Revolution that was still the case. Not in this town and not in this church.

Their fantasy suggests that the only thing that had changed over the 150 years from 1621 to 1776 was the style of clothing. Most Rhode Islanders and Bay Staters did not own guns in 1776. There was no reason for gun ownership. Guns were banned in Boston, Providence and Philadelphia. The reason the British went to Lexington is because it was an armory. That’s where the guns were. Only a few New Englanders had them. A few still do …but very few.

If you think about it, 150 years is a long time. 151 years ago today, Lincoln was president and the Civil War was still raging. Those bike paths we walk on had trains on them. There was no internet, no television, no telephone and no electricity.

Let me tell you why I am proud to be a Rhode Islander. This bogus NRA narrative is widely rejected. First let’s look at gun ownership. I have chosen to use a visual to demonstrate how extreme the pro-gun issue is in Rhode Island. This chain link represents gun ownership in Rhode Island, about 3+ per 100,000 people. This chain represents gun ownership in Texas (60 per 100,000). Yes, Texas is a big state but this is proportionate not raw numbers. This chain represents gun ownership in Wyoming (197 per).

These two disks represent population of the two states. No I don’t have it wrong, Rhode Island has twice the population of Wyoming. A poll was conducted last year on the Domestic Violence bill and 87% of Rhode Islanders were in favor. 80 plus% of gun owners were in favor. Just as an aside, this disk represents the number of Rhode Island Gun owners opposed or indifferent to the Domestic Violence bill. This slightly larger disk represents the people who believe that the government has placed electronic devices in our televisions to control our minds. (The tinfoil hat people.) This is why I believe that our best chance at defeating the NRA’s grip on America is here. You can be sure Massachusetts and Connecticut are doing their part.

I read recently that when presenting two sides of an issue, people tend to see them as equivalent, even when there is no moral or even demographic equivalence. Well, I hope that these visuals demonstrate that the NRA’s 2nd Amendment narrative has not taken hold in Rhode Island.

With 80+ % of Rhode Islanders in favor of the bill, what’s the hold up? The better way to frame the question is “who” and the answer is the “Speaker of the House.” Money and power is what prevents the bill from even coming out of committee. The Speaker’s political mentor is a former Speaker, who is the lobbyist for NRA interests. I am not accusing them of criminal activity. These guys are lawmakers and lawmakers make laws. Not all morally corrupt behavior is illegal. Also, I am not suggesting that there is nothing we can do.

We the people may have a smaller voice, but we have a voice. Let’s tell the Speaker that we want safety for children and families in Rhode Island. Many of the great social justice movements began in Rhode Island. Going back to our colonial roots, religious freedom started here, in Rhode Island, the first secular state. The abolition movement, women’s suffrage, marriage equality started here and spread throughout the nation.

When I say here I don’t just mean New England or Rhode Island. I mean this very room. Abolitionists worshipped here on Sunday morning and held their meetings Sunday afternoon. Suffragettes met here and worshiped in this very room. Following Massachusetts lead, GLBT civil rights and marriage equality happened here first, before going to our State House. As with the other issues, it spread across the nation. It is up to us, the Unitarians of this generation who gather in this room to continue our social justice legacy. This time its nonviolence. Are you with me?