Episcopal bishops to meet with lawmakers on background check bills as gun deaths mount

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 20, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] There are several reasons a group of Episcopal bishops is preparing to descend on the nation’s capital next week, but the motivation to travel is rooted in one democratic principle.

“In our legislative process, showing up really does matter,” Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, one of the co-conveners of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, said in an interview with Episcopal News Service about the bishops’ upcoming Capitol Hill visits.

During a month when the nation marked one year since the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, and when five new victims were mourned after a mass shooting at a workplace in Aurora, Illinois, Douglas and his fellow bishops will gather Feb. 27 on Capitol Hill to represent a “culture of life in the face of a culture of death.” Eight bishops, working with the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, are scheduled to spend the day meeting with lawmakers and their staffs to advocate for legislation toughening regulations on background checks for gun purchasers.

Bishops United also will hold internal planning meetings while in Washington, D.C., as well as meetings with partners in the push to end gun violence, such as the Brady Campaign, the Newtown Foundation, Everytown for Gun Safety and Guns Down America. The week will culminate March 1 with a brief prayer service that will be streamed live on Facebook, part of Bishops United’s series of services held every Friday during Epiphany and hosted by bishops around the country.

Bishops United Against Gun Violence is a network of about 80 Episcopal bishops that formed in the wake of two mass shootings in 2012, at a Sikh temple just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite the national outcry over such violence, calls for gun safety reforms have gained little traction in Congress, even as the number of mass shootings continues to climb.

Douglas, though, remains hopeful.

“I’d like to believe the landscape is changing,” he said, pointing to the large freshman class of lawmakers after November’s midterm elections.

When meeting with some of those lawmakers, the bishops’ focus will be on passage of two companion pieces of legislation – the Bipartisan Background Checks Act in the House and the Background Check Expansion Act in the Senate – which aim to close loopholes in government oversight of gun purchases.

U.S. Capitol exterior

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations is arranging for the Capitol Hill visits of eight Episcopal bishops on Feb. 27. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Such measures are just a piece of the wider package of reforms that Bishops United and its partners are advocating, including toughening enforcement of existing gun laws, making gun trafficking a federal crime, promoting “smart gun” technology and spending more money on research into violence-prevention strategies. The bishops’ immediate focus will be on background checks, but their scope is broader, Douglas said.

“I’m taking the long view on this one,” he said. “This is not going to be a one-off. It’s about culture change and awareness.”

And the bishops, a mix of gun owners and others who have never fired a gun, stress that ending gun violence shouldn’t be a partisan issue. They are deliberate about highlighting the “common sense” behind the measures they are advocating.

“The goal in Bishops United was always to be about common-sense gun laws that could bring as many people to the table as possible,” said Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller, who also is a Bishops United convener. Miller won’t be joining the Capitol Hill visits but will be in Washington for the subsequent partner meetings and prayer service.

“All of us want sane and reasonable gun laws that protect both the rights of those who wish to own firearms and use them in appropriate ways but also to keep our country and our streets safer,” Miller said.

The Episcopal Church has spoken out forcefully on the issue through the years at General Convention, and in July, bishops and deputies passed a new resolution recognizing gun violence as a public health issue.

The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show gun deaths in the U.S. are on the rise, with the number of fatalities nearing 40,000 people in 2017. Of those, about 24,000 were suicides and about 15,000 homicides.

“We are in an epidemic,” Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton, representing Bishops United, said in July during a committee hearing on the General Convention resolution. “Think of the cost to our families, our communities, our health systems.”

The Office of Government Relations also has been active on the issue of gun violence, based on church policies set by General Convention. The office monitors legislation, coordinates with partner agencies and denominations, develops relationships with lawmakers and encourages Episcopalians’ activism through its Episcopal Public Policy Network. The bishops’ visits on Capitol Hill amplify that work.

“As bishops, what we bring uniquely to this conversation is the voice of a particular Christian denomination that has gone on the record by General Convention for gun safety,” Douglas said. “In addition to that, we are speaking out of our conviction as Christians in the Jesus Movement that the loving, liberating and life-giving reality of Jesus commands us to address matters that are death dealing.”

Advocacy is only one part of the mission of Bishops United Against Gun Violence. With mass shooting deaths still all too common, the network also is committed to providing spiritual and pastoral support to those affected by gun violence, Douglas said. Public liturgies are another major component of the bishops’ work.

Last year during General Convention, Bishop United gathered each day at the convention center in Austin, Texas, for five-minute liturgies that included prayers for victims of gun violence. Those services were streamed on Facebook and attracted a sizable viewership, as did a larger public liturgy in a park across from the conference center.

The positive response to those liturgies prompted the bishops to consider ways to continue that witness after General Convention. In November, Bishops United Against Violence released its “Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting.” The bishops’ discussions also led to the Friday prayer services this year, and some have drawn as many as 4,000 viewers, Douglas said.

“Where else in The Episcopal Church are you getting 4,000 people together to pray?” he said.

Last week, Western Massachusetts Bishop Douglas Fisher hosted the prayer service, and Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee followed up the next day, Feb. 15, with a litany in memory of the Aurora shooting victims in his diocese. This week, on Feb. 22, the prayer service will be led by former Newark Bishop Mark Beckwith.

The prayer service next week during the bishops’ trip to Washington will be held at noon ET March 1 in the chapel of the building where the Office of Government Relations offices are located. It is expected to last about a half hour. Check Bishops United’s Facebook page that day for the video feed.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.