Written by Anthony Moujaes
The 2013 calendar year escalated a contentious debate on gun reform in the United States, spurred by the death of 26 schoolchildren and administrators in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, and the 'not guilty' verdict in July against George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black Florida teenager.
What the 2013 calendar year didn't note was a change to any federal gun legislation. It was discouraging to some United Church of Christ advocates of gun reform, but they believe that their efforts weren't in vain and plan to continue pushing the issue in the upcoming year.
"We are in this to transform a culture of violence," said the Rev. Matt Crebbin, pastor of Newtown Congregational Church, in Newtown, Conn. "And that's a much longer and deeper process, and we have to see that long term and not lose heart and run the race with perseverance."
"I really thought, and a lot of us thought, that we had reached a critical point and the tide had turned with being able to pass meaningful legislation, but we haven't been able to despite a high profile of mass shootings and the growing epidemic of gun violence in the country," said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC office in Washington, D.C. "There's still a lot of commitment and resolve to work on this issue."
Crebbin witnessed the grief following the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown first-hand, and has become an outspoken advocate for the need for reform. Dec. 14 marks the one-year anniversary of the mass murder and Crebbin has focused his efforts recently on pastoring to his community as memories of the tragedy resurface in the still-stricken town. Sorensen has been part of the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries efforts in rallying people of faith and lobbying for legislation – big or small – on the matter of gun reform.
There was a potential bipartisan law on Capitol Hill in April calling for universal background checks, but it failed by four votes in the Senate. That ultimately meant that in 2013, Congress has been unable to pass any legislation that would have tightened gun control for the first time since 1994.
"I think it was challenging to see less response," Crebbin said. "We have to be prepared that this is a long haul. I wasn't convinced we would have sweeping legislation. I always have hope as a person of faith, but given the context of politics I'm not too surprised [with the way it went]."
Even though there were no changes to gun laws, Crebbin and Sorensen felt that in 2013 there has been an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a broader movement leading to a long-term reform effort. While that's well and good, what happens if there's another mass shooting and gun reform advocates once again have to pound the pavement for change?
"I don't want tragedies to have to drive this, but that's what we create if we don't respond appropriately," Crebbin said. "With a broader, deeper coalition, more and more people are becoming aware of the issue of the safety of our children and peace and justice."
"I feel hopeful we aren't giving up. We should continue to encourage the conversation about how we prevent gun violence in our communities," Sorensen said, pointing to upcoming actions in 2014 on the issue. "In March, there's going to be a Sabbath week to end gun violence. It calls us to ask why our faith cares about this issue, and to find points of common ground to work together on."
Because 2014 is a midterm-election year for members of the House of Representatives and some members of the Senate, Sorensen thinks it's unlikely there will be many changes to gun legislation before the election season as it could impact lawmakers re-election chances.
Crebbin wants to see elected leaders pressed on their stance for gun control, and candidates for political office asked to publicly state where they stand on the issue and scrutinize their choice if they flip their votes or don't support the opinion of their constituency.
"If close to 90 percent of the population supports universal background checks, let's get [Congress] to say why they don't support it," Crebbin said. "Let's encourage conversation about how we can make our communities safer, and how you would do that if you are an elected official. If the facts and info are out there, the public generally supports a common sense approach to this. But the challenge is sometimes elected officials are the last ones to decide they need to adopt something."
Two states – New York and Connecticut – found success in passage of the toughest state gun laws on record last year. Those pieces of legislation include bans on some high-powered weapons, the sale or purchase of high-capacity magazines, and required background checks for all gun purchases. In Connecticut, the state added more than 100 guns to a list of banned assault weapons, and limited the capacity of magazines to 10 rounds except for people who already own and register them.
The hope is that changes at the state level can trigger changes at the federal level.
"There are glimmers of hope. The more we can raise consciousness and awareness, the more we can encourage change on the federal level," Sorensen said. "Anything at state and local level pushes the conversation forward."