Pennsylvania bishops lead interfaith call for gun reforms, pressing state lawmakers to act

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 7, 2023
Audrey Scanlan

Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan speaks at a rally March 6 at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. Photo: Diocese of Central Pennsylvania

[Episcopal News Service] Pennsylvania’s five Episcopal dioceses are at the forefront of a growing interfaith push for the Legislature to enact gun law reforms, most recently through a March 6 rally inside the Capitol in Harrisburg.

“As a faith leader, there is plenty to pray about. God have mercy,” Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan said at the late afternoon rally. She cited data compiled by national Gun Violence Archive showing that more than 7,000 Americans—including over 4,000 by suicide — have died so far in 2023 from gun violence. Pennsylvania averages about 1,600 gun-related deaths a year, she added.

Such statistics should be “a call to all of us to action,” Scanlan said. She was backed by a crowd of about 50 other advocates, many holding signs with the slogan “With One Voice: End Gun Violence Now.”

The event amplified a joint pastoral letter issued last month by the dioceses’ five bishops lamenting the toll that gun violence takes on their state and urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to prioritize four pending gun safety measures. In it, the bishops offered “a united call to address gun violence as a leading source of death in our commonwealth.” Scanlan is joined in this advocacy by Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez, Bethlehem Bishop Kevin Nichols, Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe and Pittsburgh Bishop Ketlen Solak.

The push for gun reforms in Pennsylvania follows a similar campaign in Michigan, where the state’s three Episcopal bishops are among the leading voices behind End Gun Violence Michigan. The coalition of community groups was launched last year and has stepped up its advocacy this year, after voters in November elected Democratic majorities in the state Legislature and re-elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has prioritized gun safety legislation.

Michigan Bishop Bonnie Perry, also a leading voice and convener of the Episcopal network Bishops United Against Gun Violence, spoke on March 1 at a news conference in the state capital Lansing to urge passage of several related bills.

“After so many years of waiting and begging and sharing stories, we are finally going to have hearings on gun violence bills that will save lives,” Perry said.

The Michigan legislation would expand background checks for firearm purchases, toughen parents’ legal responsibility to curb children’s access to guns, and implement so-called “red flag” measures when citizens show a threat to commit violence. The Rt. Rev. Prince Singh, bishop provisional of the dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan, and Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford Ray also have been active in Lansing and around the state supporting such reforms.

Pennsylvania also is considering a “red flag” law. In addition to supporting that measure, the Episcopal bishops there have rallied behind bills that would limit handgun sales, ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and end the sale of “ghost guns,” which are made from kits, making them difficult to trace.

“Membership in our Christian community of faith calls us to strive for justice and peace, and to love our neighbors as ourselves,” the Pennsylvania bishops said in their Feb. 23 letter. “The Baptismal Covenant that joins us is an invitation to collaborate for the building of God’s kingdom. …

“We recognize that our commonwealth is a place where many enjoy the recreational use of firearms through hunting, target shooting and gun clubs. We also recognize the choice of many to own handguns out of a sense of personal safety in their homes. The measures that we advocate do not seek to remove guns from lawful citizens or restrict responsible purchases of firearms. These measures focus on the illegal trafficking of firearms, immediate access to excessive amounts of firearms (often resold illegally) and the elimination of unnecessarily powerful assault weapons.”

The Episcopal Church has long advocated for gun-safety measures in response to the increase in gun-related violence in the United States. General Convention has passed resolutions aimed at reducing gun violence dating at least to 1976. In July 2022, the 80th General Convention passed an additional resolution advocating bans on ghost guns.

Another approved resolution calls for “investment in evidence-based community violence intervention programs and strategies that address gun violence as a public health issue; improve physical environments; strengthen anti-violence social norms; engage and support youth; reduce substance abuse; mitigate financial stress; reduce the harmful effects of the justice process; and confront the proliferation of guns.” That resolution was proposed by Gutiérrez, who also is a convener of Bishops United.

The church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations also regularly advocates for policies backed by General Convention at the federal level, including legislation that would restrict who can own firearms, require background checks, eliminate loopholes, tighten laws against gun trafficking, require gun safety training, fund gun violence prevention programs and address gun violence as a public health crisis.

Episcopalians interested in joining the church’s advocacy are encouraged to sign up for alerts through the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at