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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Names So American: Guns and Race

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Ken Redd, Worship Associate, and the Choir

Names So American:  Guns and Race

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Martin Luther King Jr Sunday – January 20, 2013

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

This is going to be a sermon informed and inspired by newspapers.

On Thursday, January 3rd, the lead story on page 1 of the New York Times featured a stirring photograph of somber young African American boys at a Chicago peace vigil. One of them held a bumper sticker that said “Don’t Shoot. I want to grow up.” [i]

Indeed, the US gun homicide rate for children in their age range, 5-14 years old, is more than 13 times the rate for that age group in other high income countries. And for their older siblings, 15-24 year olds, it is nearly 43 times! [ii]And, in Chicago, like many other American cities, residents living near homicides are much more likely to be black, earn less money and lack a college degree than compared to residents not living near homicides.[iii] 

Like a lot of Americans, and people around the world, my emotions ran high in the days following the horrifying shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT last month.  As I read the next day’s papers, which described Newtown as a “typical New England town,” I knew what that was code for:  White. I lived there for twenty-six years; this is what I observed:  With rare exceptions, only the cities in New England are racially-mixed; the suburbs and towns are not.

So, leaving the news pages and arriving at the Washington Post’s lead editorial, I was prepared to be incensed, and was. I also found the title for an angry sermon I would surely give, sometime soon, on gun violence.  It would be “Names So American:  Guns and Race.”

The day for the sermon has come, five weeks later. 1019 gunshot deaths later, including 57 teens and 15 children 12 and under. In only five weeks.[iv]

Back to the Post editorial the day after the Newtown shootings. After acknowledging that many of its readers are among those who will say that “gun policy has nothing to do with any single event, that tragedies should not be exploited for political purpose,” the editors stated, “And then there will be others, ourselves included, who will say, whatever the facts of this case, that the country would be safer with fewer guns, that mass killings are more difficult with knives, that it is not the Second Amendment but political cowardice that precludes sensible regulation. That we are not supposed to exploit tragedy to talk about this issue, but that in the absence of tragedy it never gets talked about at all.”   

So far so good. It’s good the Post acknowledged the diversity among its readers.

Next came the final paragraph,

“In the meantime, new names will be inscribed on that peculiar American roll call of grief:  Newtown, Connecticut. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Names so ordinary, so American, so unthreatening, that in their very recitation they refute what we all would like to believe:  It couldn’t happen here.”

There it was:  racism, just as I’d expected. Right away, I pictured the names of the dead when published in the paper. They’d be white-sounding names. The first names would be those common among whites, not those popular among blacks. The last names would be Italian and Irish, or Anglo-sounding, maybe some German like mine, and from other Western European countries – one or two Latino or Asian or Black. Is it only when the names of the victims are “so ordinary, so American, so unthreatening” – in other words, White – that we as a nation focus on our problem with gun violence?

Later, as I watched the television coverage, and saw the horrified and panicked parents rushing to the school and the scared children being marched out of the school, I knew it to be true:  almost entirely white folks. My heart went out to them. The two children cowering together in the woods. The horror but relief on the faces of some of the parents. Nothing but horror on others. The shock, on everyone’s faces. The priest whose flock included half the mourning families. “Grief beyond imagining,” was the Post editorial headline, and that was right-on.  

But “names so American” is not right. We are all Americans. Not some more than others. Out of many, one.

Last July 20th, a mass shooting happened at an American shopping mall, in the movie theater. I was in Australia then. People there offered sympathy and then a pointed and proud story: when Australia had its last mass shooting, their prime minister immediately called for, and led the way toward, gun control. Really? What’s more, they said, “that was 16 years ago, and we haven’t had a single mass shooting since.” I couldn’t believe my ears. No mass shootings in 16 years? Really?

It’s true. It gives me hope for us!

This past Thursday, the New York Times happened to publish an op-ed piece telling that story from Down Under by Australia’s prime minister back in 1996. Elected as the leader of a center-right coalition, John Howard had been in office only six weeks when thirty-five people at a popular tourist spot were slain by a man using two semiautomatic weapons. The prime minister persuaded the states to enact uniform laws totally prohibiting the ownership, possession and sale of all automatic and semiautomatic weapons and licensing of other firearm possession, while the national government banned the importation of such weapons. To make it work, they funded a gun buy-back program with a one-time tax on all Australians, which resulted in 700,000 confiscated weapons.

The results of this gun control were phenomenal. Whereas in the 18 years prior to 1996, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres for a total of 102 deaths, since then there have been none.  Another blessing resulted: since 1996, Australia’s firearm suicide rate dropped by 74 percent.[v] The share of gun-owning households there nearly halved, from 15 per cent to 8 per cent.[vi]

This is also going to be a sermon informed and inspired by you. I received more helpful input from you for this sermon than for any previous sermon. For example, I learned that Ken Redd, our Worship Associate this morning, is not the only person to have suffered the death of a loved one by gunshot.

Also, one of you told me about his experience going skeet shooting with other church members. He wrote, “I’ve found these sports to be enjoyable, challenging, and requiring the same singleness of focus that you develop through Zen meditation.  It’s not my absolute favorite thing to do, but I now have to admit I have a better understanding of why people would want to participate in shooting sports on a regular basis.”  He further commented, “Apropos of your sermon topic, what really impressed me was the great variety of people from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds who were all there on a Saturday morning enjoying the shooting sports.  In particular I was impressed by several older African-American gentlemen who had clearly been practicing the sport of trap shooting for many years.” 

By the way, target shooting is an allowed reason to own a gun in Australia, along with pest control, hunting, and gun collecting, with documented secure storage is required in the licensing process. There are skeet shooting ranges and competitions in Australia. So, if we copy their gun restrictions here, you could still enjoy the shooting sports.

One of you told me about a community policing meeting last week in College Park, at which she bravely raised the question of gun control, and got the definite impression that she was the only neighborhood resident present, in a racially-mixed crowd, who does not have a gun in her house. One African American lady told her, “If they come after me at my house, I’ve got a gun!” The trouble is, that gun is more likely to be used against her or someone she loves than against the intruder. Of the fifteen children killed by gunshot since the Newtown shootings, ten were by accident by family members or friends. By the way, self-protection is not an allowed reason for an Aussie to own a gun.


But my most eye-opening message from a congregant was about the Second Amendment. You know it, it states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The message came with a link to a recent article by a political commentator who was new to me, Thom Hartmann, with the provocative title “The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery.” He cites dialogue in James Madison’s Papers and extensive historical research on the local slave patrol militias mandated by law in Southern states. Madison’s original Second Amendment wording said “nation” not “state.” He changed it to “state” on the insistence of George Mason, Patrick Henry and other Southerners who wanted the Constitution to protect their slave patrols, necessary to keep down uprisings and insurrections. Madison needed Virginia’s vote to ratify the Constitution. I need to read more to know if this is so.

Hartmann says in closing, “Little did Madison realize that, one day in the future, weapons-manufacturing corporations, newly defined as ‘persons’ by the Supreme Court… would use his slave patrol militia amendment to protect their ‘right’ to manufacture and sell assault weapons used to murder schoolchildren.”[vii]

As you may know, some anti-gun violence activists are advocating the repeal of the Second Amendment so that we can move forward on gun control. While this movement would effectively counter-balance the gun-proliferation extremists, it has seemed to me an unrealistic and polarizing idea.

However, if what Hartmann and his sources say about the history of the Second Amendment is true, it means that the relationship between race and guns in America goes back to the cruelty of slavery enforced by state-mandated armed militia using force to repress uprisings and enforce fear, protected by the Second Amendment.

By the way, Australia does not and has never had a constitutional right to bear arms. And in the US it is only relatively recently that our Second Amendment has been interpreted to confer an individual right to own weapons, ignoring the clause referring to “well-ordered militias.”

In the US today, what is the relationship between the easy availability of guns, the drug trade in our cities and the so-called “war” against it, the high homicide rate among young Black men, and the disproportionate incarceration rate of young black men compared to young white men (6 times!) while we have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world???

It’s enough to make you think that some want to keep Black people in this country down.

Indeed, that’s what I believe. In The New Jim Crow, published by Beacon Press, our Unitarian Universalist publishing house and chosen as a “common read” for UU congregations this church year, Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander convincingly argues that we have a caste system in the US. “Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration...which [like them] operates as tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” [viii]

The work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life is celebrated this weekend, is not done. The “freedom train” of which the choir just sang has not yet arrived. “Freedom is Coming” we sang at the very start of the service, but freedom from gun violence for all will only be coming if we curtail our freedom for guns. I don’t see how it can be otherwise.

Freedom from gun violence will benefit us all, White people included, but for African Americans, it is crucial. Freedom will not come with without it. Amen.

Note: this on-line version is edited from the original because I since have read an argument against the claim that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery. Whatever the intent of its passage, though, it certainly did support Southern states’ enforcement of slavery.

[i] “A Soaring Homicide Rate, A Divide in Chicago,” by Monica Davey, New York Times, Thursday, January 3, 2013.

[ii] “Homicide, Suicide, and Unintentional Firearm Fatality: Comparing the United States With Other High-Income Countries, 2003” by Richardson and Hemenway, The Journal of TRAUMA® Injury, Infection, and Critical Care • Volume 70, Number 1, January 2011, p. 240.

[iii] Davey, p. A12.

[iv] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=sm&utm_campaign=button_chunky

[v] NY Times, January 17, 20113, p. A-21.

[vi] http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/guns-policy-saving-lives-20130114-2cpny.html#ixzz2ITJLzw3i)

[vii] http://truth-out.org/news/item/13890-the-second-amendment-was-ratified-to-preserve-slavery?tmpl=component&print=1

[viii] The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, pp. 12-13.

You can play an MP3 audio file of this sermon by clicking: HERE.

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