Storytelling tour highlights illegal gun trafficking

In a news release distributed from Philadelphia, Pa., Mennonite Central Committee East Coast (MCC EC)—a regional office of the Anabaptist relief, development, and peace agency sponsored by Brethren in Christ and Mennonite churches—provided this update on the three-week Gun Violence Prevention Storytelling Tour organized in September:

The tour connected with over 800 people on its 21-stop trip, including Eastern University near Philadelphia; Messiah College near Harrisburg; and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., as well as area Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.

Citing Romans 8:2, Curtis Book, MCC EC peace and justice coordinator, said the storytelling tour “aimed to encourage a conversation among Jesus’ followers about ways that the church can bear witness to the ‘Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ in the face of the ‘law of sin and death’ so evident in gun violence.”

On the tour, Book and J. Fred Kauffman, MCC Philadelphia program coordinator, spoke about illegally trafficked hand guns that they said are flooding urban neighborhoods already struggling with many other problems.

In Philadelphia, for example, they cited Mayor Michael Nutter who reports that in 2011 there were 316 murders in the city, 85 percent committed with guns, and all of them illegal. They explained that to legally purchase a firearm in Pennsylvania, a person must be over 21 years of age and pass a background check to assure no criminal record, no restraining orders, and no record of mental health issues. 

Kauffman explained that in spite of the background checks, guns still get into the hands of people with criminal records through “straw purchasers” who can pass background checks. Typically. a gun trafficker gives money to others and asks them to buy multiple hand guns at a legal gun shop. The contacts purchase the guns, then give them to the trafficker for a commission, and the trafficker sells the guns on the street to anyone who has the money. Most often, these are people who would otherwise not be able to buy a gun legally. If a gun used in crime is traced back to straw purchasers, they claim it was “lost” or “stolen” and face no liability. According to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of over 752 U.S. mayors, only seven states have laws regarding liability for lost or stolen weapons used in crimes.

“Legally owned guns are used in very few crimes,” noted Kauffman, “so our concern is not law abiding gun owners: it is precisely about illegally trafficked handguns.” 

At each location on the tour, storytellers shared experiences of loss and trauma due to these illegal handguns.

“We have to get the guns off the streets!” pleaded Movita Johnson Harrell, during the tour’s Sept. 20 stop at the Circle of Hope Brethren in Christ congregation in Philadelphia. Her 18-year old son, Charles Johnson, was shot in his car as he waited for his sister.

“Every day I think of my son, and all I want to do is kiss him on his neck,” said Johnson Harrell.

The police reported it as a case of mistaken identity, she said. The young man that shot Charles Johnson could not own a handgun legally because he had a criminal record. 

At Messiah College, Michael Adams recalled his high school friend, Marquel Colbert, who was shot in Philadelphia. Pastor Glenn “Woody” Dalton, from Harrisburg (Pa.) BIC, reflected on the impact of three gun deaths that touched his congregation in the past two years. “We’ve had our faces rubbed in this reality,” he said.

In an EMU Conflict and Peace class, professor Deanna Durham led her class in analyzing the illegal gun market and factors that contribute. “Money!” was the first response.

“There is money at stake,” Kauffman noted, and stated that “in 2011, Philadelphia police confiscated over 4,600 illegal guns—worth at least $1 million.”

At Iglesia Discipular Anabautista in Harrisonburg, an older Honduran man with a tear in his eye spoke about the violence from illegally trafficked weapons in his country. “Once Honduras was known as a peaceful country, but now we have the highest per capita murder rate in the world,” he said.  “Most of the guns come from the U.S.”

To raise further awareness and to work to prevent gun violence, Book urged participants to take action: sign and send in the MCC advocacy postcard on gun violence prevention to elected federal officials, make use of the MCC Preventing Gun Violence packet, do additional research on the illegal gun market, and connect with a church that has been touched by gun violence. 

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