Several weeks ago over thirty of us traveled to Newtown, CT to participate in the Newtown Action Alliance rally in front of the National Sport Shooting Foundation against gun violence. This event is held every year on eve of SHOT; the largest gun convention in Las Vegas. We arrived to find the roadside in front of the foundation occupied by about forty pro-gun rights activists with American Flags and signs supporting the foundation and their right to bear arms. At first our people stood on the other side of the road facing the opposition. This seemed rather pointless, if not symbolic, two sides of a contentious issue separated by a road of moving traffic.
Finally, one of the rally leaders encouraged us to cross over to the other side and mix and mingle with the pro-gun activists. It was bitterly cold that day and the sun was setting. As the hour progressed our people, the largest single organization present, began to sing peace songs. I glanced around at the pro-gun folks and noticed a few grimaces, but then a few smiles. Some of our people were engaging the pro-gun supporters in dialog, and learning that, ultimately, we desire the same thing: The Freedom to live as we choose and gun safety. There were those on both sides who were a bit more strident. My favorite pro-gun sign was “Liberals Lie” which led to some very interesting interchanges between liberals and the sign bearer, and my least favorite anti-gun sign – a large red banner – that demanded a lewd act been done to all guns, which I think we all agreed was not helpful.
Towards the end of the hour, a press conference was convened at the far end of property at which representatives of the Newtown Alliance spoke about the need for common sense gun safety regulations and background checks. A man spoke about the loss of his daughter at Sandy Hook. I offered some thought s on how we are all really here because we must stop the violence guns cause. Only at one point did the interchange become heated. Several pro-gun activists tried to push their signs out in front of the cameras, to which many objected and they finally withdrew.
As the sun set we headed for our cars, cold but alive with purpose. As I reflected on this event I realized that this was more than one side against another, more than a group of us standing witness for our faith, this was a hopeful civic engagement. Gun ownership and safety are deeply divisive issues for us. It would have been easy for either side to have shouted at each other from across the road. By mingling together we engaged one another as human beings who had different takes on a complex issue; an issue that has to do with fear and powerlessness. While passions ran high, neither side was calling the other names (the “Liberals Lie” sign came down, I believe, because too many liberals challenged it). I came away understanding that just as I think guns are dangerous to living beings, others see them as necessary to preserve life.
To paraphrase Dr. King, in order to find common ground we have to go to higher ground. By showing a generosity of inquisitive spirit, two opposing sides were able to stand side by side in agnostic respect. With a desire to be heard and express our hopes and fears, we were able to affirm our identity as citizens and as human beings. While we have much more work to do, I feel strangely hopeful.
With Grace and Grit, Rev. John