Monday, December 14, 2015

The Sky is Falling

This is the text of my sermon from December 13, 2015. Here is a link to the audio, as well if you'd like to listen. 

When I decided to participate in the national vigil to end gun violence some months ago, I felt that it was the right thing to do. It was important to stand in solidarity with those around the nation who have suffered immeasurable, senseless loss at the hands of predominantly white Christian-identified men with all too easy access to weapons of war and unlimited ammo.

I felt that it would be good to have a conversation. Oh, sure it would be an intellectual exercise, a kind of --- well not hypothetical, because the violence I’d be talking about is all too real-- but definitely a sanitized conversation; a conversation seen from a distance, as Sharon’s prelude suggests, a peering through a telescope at tragedy without being touched by it.

But of course, that’s all changed hasn’t it?

Suddenly, instead of watching the tragedy unfold on the evening news, we were the evening news. Twice. In 27 days. Bookended by tragic violence in Paris, and in San Bernadino.

In our own community, we lost six lives in 27 days to mass shootings. Who knows if there were other gun deaths that occurred, a single gun death not enough to make the news anymore; a gun death by suicide hardly causing a ripple in the current of our communities.

You know, this isn’t the first mass shooting we’ve experienced here in Colorado Springs. The New Life attack that took the lives of two sisters, and was linked to an attack at the YWAM center in Arvada, just a few hours earlier --which also took two lives-- happened in 2007; the 8th anniversary of that was just this past week, December 9th.

And this certainly isn’t the first string of mass shootings I’ve lived through in my 53 ½ years on this earth. And beyond the mass shootings that actually make it to the news, there are approximately 32000 gun deaths in the United States every year.

In fact, according to an October 3, 2015 news story on CNN published, you know, in the wake of the shooting at Umqua Community College in Roseburg, OR that took the lives of 9 people, according to that news story, we are the most heavily armed nation in the world, with a firearm for nearly 90 percent of our 321 million citizens. None of them belong to me.

In that Oregon shooting, the shooter had six firearms at the scene, and eight other firearms were found at his apartment, and all of them were legally bought by himself or a family member.

That shooting was on October 1, just 30 days before our Halloween shooting, which was just 27 days before our Black Friday shooting, which was just 5 days before the San Bernadino shootings.

So I’ve witnessed all these--and more-- through the years, and witnessed gun violence in my own family when my brother bought a gun he should have not been able to buy, and shot himself in the heart.

And what I have finally realized is that we are in a state of emergency, my friends.

I feel such a sense of urgency about this epidemic of gun violence. It’s like being back in the US AIDS years, and seeing all my gay male friends sick and dying, and everyone else having a party-- not even noticing.

Well this has reached a point where we have to notice. We have to speak up.

The sky really is falling; it is falling down in a hail of gunfire and our little paper umbrella laws
and prayers are not going to save us. And if we, as Unitarian Universalists, really hold true to our first principle that every life has inherent worth and dignity, then we cannot be silent. We can no longer be on the sidelines of this issue.

Despite Dan Hodge’s tweet on June 19th of this year that stated: “In restrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We cannot let this conversation be over.

If we are to honor the lives of the 20 6-7 year olds and the six adults who were gunned down
in Sandy Hook with weapons obtained legally three years ago tomorrow, if we are to honor the lives of our own that we lost recently, and in 2007, we cannot put a period at the end of the sentence; it must be a semi-colon.

We cannot let the benediction at the funerals of the fallen be the last word; we cannot let the sound of Taps being played at the memorial services of Andrew Myers--gunned down while riding his bicycle on Halloween morning-- or Ke’Arre Stewart-- shot outside Planned Parenthood on November 27--both veterans who survived multiple tours of duty in Iraq--we cannot let that song Taps be the final song we hear.

If we are to maintain our own humanity, our own ability to be shocked, and outraged, snd deeply grieved by these events, we cannot be silent.

We cannot, as I wrote in an article for the Quartz website, be content with the fact that this time we were spared, and that this time no one we know and love has been killed.

We must take action.

And I know it can be so easy to feel hopeless and helpless. In the wake of the San Bernadino shootings, I sat in on a skype call with about 12 other Unitarian Universalists, most of them clergy, and the pervasive emotion was helplessness, was a sense of what else can we do?

I don’t know about you, but I cannot give up Hope. I must believe that we can do better as a nation, as a city, as a community of faith.

And I do believe there are things that we can do-- concrete things that can make a difference.
We can urge our legislators, at the state and national level, to pass gun safety laws that make sense. For example, in the Quartz article, I talked about Australia’s response to their 11th mass shooting, a horrific mass shooting in 1996 that left 35 people dead.

Australian lawmakers took only 12 days to make sweeping changes to gun laws. These included a buyback of over half a million semi-automatic weapons, registering individual guns with their owners, eliminating private gun sales, implementing background checks, and requiring prospective gun owners to supply a valid reason for purchasing each weapon. Self defense is not a valid reason. In the decade following, murders dropped by 59% , and suicides fell by 65%. Most importantly, there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in Australia since then. We can do that.

There is a petition afoot, here in Colorado, to ask our legislators to ban open carry that is legal everywhere except the city of Denver. On the morning of the Halloween shooting, the shooter was walking about openly with an AR15--a weapon produced for war--and even had coffee in a McDonald’s where he laid it across the table, and was unhindered. Why? Because we’re open carry. The first call to the dispatcher from a neighbor was answered with, well, we’re open carry. That’s legal.

And minutes later three people were dead.

There is a vetting process, a very comprehensive one, if you want a concealed carry permit, but no vetting process for open carry. There is no need for any citizen of this state to carry a firearm openly. What that does, is make you and me responsible for determining who is the good guy and who is the bad guy when we see someone with a firearm. I don’t know about you, but I’m not trained for that.

Beyond writing letters to our legislators, we can make the choice, as I have, to immediately leave a public place should I see someone with a firearm. If I’m at a restaurant, that means I will not pay my bill. My safety is more important. If I’m in a store, I will leave my cart, and then I will call and tell the manager what I did and why. I will make it a point to shop and dine in places that do not allow open carry. Businesses don’t have to. Safeway and Albertsons don’t allow it. King Soopers does. Some restaurants don’t allow it.

In our own church, in the wake of the Halloween shootings, we researched to see if we had a policy in place, and discovered we did. In 2001, this church created a policy of being a weapon free zone, out of respect for the safety of our families. And our current board is researching signage to get so that it can be clear. If you have weapons, leave them home.

I said in a statement to City Council following the Halloween shootings, that our first amendment guarantees us the right of free speech, right up until the moment we falsely yell fire in a crowded theatre. Then it becomes a crime, because it threatens public safety. Open carry laws force us citizens to determine, when we see a gun, is it really a fire? Is it not? Public safety needs to come first.

There are other things we can do. If you are a gun owner, make sure your guns and ammunition
are locked up and secure. According to the Smart Gun Laws website, people of all age groups are significantly more likely to die from unintentional firearm injuries  when they live in states with more guns, relative to states with fewer guns.  On average,  states with the highest gun levels had nine times the rate of unintentional firearms deaths compared to states with the lowest gun levels. A federal government study of unintentional shootings found that 8% of such shooting deaths resulted from shots fired by children under the age of six. The U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated  that 31% of unintentional deaths caused by firearms  might be prevented by the addition of two devices: a child-proof safety lock (8%) and a loading indicator (23%). If you have a child, make sure you know if the friends he or she is visiting, have guns in their house, and if they’re secure.

And there are other ways to help prevent violence, simple things like getting to know your neighbors, paying for the car behind you in the Starbucks line, making a decision to let love and not fear of the “other” rule your life. These may not seem like they have anything to do with ending gun violence, but they do. They foster a culture and attitude where openness and love is the coin of the realm, rather than fear and suspicion.

The reality of it is, at the end of the day, as the reading from Erik Larson reminds us, no one wants to take away the genuine right to bear arms the second amendment gives us. But this is a different world than it was when that was written, when it took a full minute to load your single shot musket. Still, both sides want to make sure that guns only wind up in the hands of stalwart, responsible citizens. No civilian needs a weapon of war, A weapon of mass destruction.

This weekend is no longer an intellectual exercise in solidarity. This weekend is a clarion call to justice, to safety for our children. It is a wake-up call; it is a stark reminder that the biggest terrorist threat does not come from outside our borders, but from within.

The sky is falling, but we can take comfort in knowing that it’s a false sky in A false world, and we can choose another way. We can choose to live in a saner world where the sky is an empyreal blue, marked only by the nesting clouds of hope and peace, a world where gun violence does not rain down upon us, s world of love.

I don’t know about you, but that is the world n which I choose to live.\

And we can. I swear to you, we can.

But it will take more than our prayers. It will take our action. Are you with me? Then let’s go.

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