Since the Las Vegas mass murders on Oct. 1, there have been 38 mass shootings in the United States. From Jan. 1 through Oct. 31, there have been 370 mass shooting incidents. The Gun Violence Archives, using a definition derived from the FBI, defines a mass shooting as four or more persons shot and/or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location, not including the shooter.

After tragedies like Las Vegas there are many calls for prayers. This is a good thing. Opening our hearts and minds to God can help us to see things more clearly. Prayer, especially in the case of a tragedy, forces us to look at the world and respond. Prayer, in short, is essential. But prayer by itself is not enough.

Public performance sympathy

Here is what typically happens when there is a mass shooting incident like Las Vegas. Politicians and high-profile religious leaders offer thoughts and prayers for victims. Then, when there are suggestions about dealing with the causes of gun violence they say that this is not the time to talk about these things. That makes me suspicious when I hear them calling for thoughts and prayers, but not for taking action after these tragedies. Given their track record, their calls for thoughts and prayers are usually an excuse to do nothing. It’s what has been called “public performance sympathy.”

Yes, I have offered public and private prayers for victims and their families, first responders, police officers, firefighters and EMTs, and for others. Plus I’ve offered public and private prayers for national, state, and local leaders to respond to the causes of gun violence and will continue to do so.

Prayer isn't enough

The call for thoughts and prayers and nothing else, however, is so lame that there’s a satirical video game on gun violence called “Thoughts and Prayers.” Goon line and you can play it. I did. You lose every time. Nothing changes, just like in real life. Prayer without action is meaningless. Gun violence is evil, and prayer should drive us to intervene to challenge what causes this suffering and injustice.

Large-scale murders such as the Las Vegas massacre shock and stun us because of their scale. But we should also be horrified by the fact that there are mass shootings every day in our country. Did you know that on the same day as the Las Vegas tragedy three people were shot and killed in Lawrence, Kansas, along with two wounded? I am writing this column on All Saints Day (Nov. 1). Yesterday afternoon, an unknown shooter killed one and wounded three in Hammond, Indiana. Day in, day out. Another mass shooting.

Reasonable changes

What can we do? Gun violence should drive us to our knees in prayer. Then we should stand up and become advocates of reasonable reform. Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, suggests some modest changes in our gun laws. They strike me as quite reasonable and are consistent with the Second Amendment’s protection of gun rights. We need to share these ideas with our leaders. Here they are:

1. Impose universal background checks before buying a gun. Twenty-two percent of gun purchases take place without a background check.

2. Ban bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more like automatics.

3. Enforce a ban on possession of guns by anyone subject to a domestic violence protection order.

4. Limit gun purchases by any one person to no more than, say, two a month, and tighten rules on straw purchasers who buy for criminals. Make serial numbers harder to remove.

5. Adopt microstamping of cartridges so that they can be traced to the gun that fired them.

6. Encourage the use of “smart guns” that use technology to limit their operation, such as not firing without a PIN, a fingerprint or a device nearby, like a special bracelet, so that children cannot misuse them. They would also be less vulnerable to theft.

7. Require safe storage, to reduce theft, suicide and accidents by children.

8. Invest in research to see what interventions will be more effective in reducing gun deaths, so we can base our policies on sound evidence.

Maybe you would add a few other reforms, maybe modify a couple of his suggestions, or perhaps drop a couple of these ideas that you don’t think are workable. Then write, call, and email our President, Senators and Representative, along with our Governor and our respective state Legislator and Senator.

The Biblical witness

We need to get past the superficial call for thoughts and prayers followed by no action. The prophet Isaiah warns

When you stretch out your hands,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers,

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I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood. [Isaiah 1:15]

Later, Isaiah 5 depicts Israel as a vineyard, a common image in the Scriptures. It is a song and most likely Isaiah would have sung it to his listeners. It begins like a love song, akin to the Song of Songs, where God woes Israel with romantic language.

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill. [Isaiah 5: 1]

Suddenly the song changes direction:

he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. [Isaiah 5: 2]

In light of daily mass shootings we are God’s vineyard gone amuck. Something terrible has happened to the land we love. Instead of protecting and encouraging the good fruit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness our vineyard has produced wild and worthless grapes of acceptance or hopelessness in the face of daily tragedies. We have become traumatized in the face of everyday violence. Leaders wring their hands, offering phony, pious public thoughts and prayers, then nothing else. Non-stop media coverage enriches cable news. Gun manufacturers (aided and abetted by the gun lobby) play to the unfounded fear that guns will be taken away from Americans. Irrational fear has become the key marketing tool for gun and ammunition manufacturers, who become richer and richer off the blood of innocent Americans.

Tragedy is heaped upon tragedy. This is sinful. Get down on your knees. Then stand up and take action. Not doing anything about gun violence is to surrender to evil. Our faith requires us to act to reduce suffering and injustice. Can we talk about these things? Can we challenge our leaders to do something about it? I would hope so.

For if we don’t this lovely vineyard we call America will continue to get worse. From Isaiah’s song:

He expected justice, but saw bloodshed,

Righteousness, but heard a cry! [Isaiah 5:7]

The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired dean of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena.


Copy Editor at The Independent Record.

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