Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

I have attended many vigils and funeral services in my years as a news reporter. I did so primarily as a general assignment reporter covering crime in New York City throughout the early 2000s.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I attended dozens of funerals for firefighters and other first-responders who perished during the collapse of the World Trade Center in the biggest terror attack on American soil.

There is a new terror threat that faces our nation. The rise of domestic terrorists with easy access to guns have made even a routine weekend trip to the mall something to fear. Those memories of covering vigils and funerals — many involving children and teens shot and killed in senseless gang violence — came flooding back to my mind this past weekend.

The back-to-back massacres — one at a Texas Walmart on Saturday and another in an Ohio nightclub the following day — cast a pall on our nation at a time when many families are enjoying time at the beach.

Again, the violence had to do with guns. As flowers and candles piled up at both scenes of the tragedy, the political response was all about finger-pointing and racism. It was yet another example of our country’s increased political (and news media) polarization. Mainstream media news coverage could be summed out this way: Democrats blamed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, while Republicans pointed the finger at mental illness and violent video games.

The news coverage was predictable, boilerplate even. As usual, it lacked any real focus on religion, either in the many main news stories of the first few days or the sidebars that evolved. You would think the aftermath of two major tragedies wouldn’t lack talk of faith. Instead, the focus was politics — both regarding the motives of the shooters in each case and the need for gun control.

It’s a topic that comes up each time there is a mass shooting. And each time the coverage lacks any real consideration for what faith-based organizations are doing to try and stop future incidents. That is, have religious leaders offered more than prayers.

In this case, what the Catholic church has done to reduce gun violence has gone largely unreported or underreported the past few years.

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'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

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God, guns and theology: In lengthy trend piece, why not ask if Jesus would pack heat?

God, guns and theology: In lengthy trend piece, why not ask if Jesus would pack heat?

“God and guns” has been a frequent topic of news coverage — and GetReligion commentary — in recent years.

It’s a subject that tends to lend itself to compelling sound bites.

“Jesus loves me and my guns,” said a speaker at last year’s National Rifle Association prayer breakfast, which I covered for the Washington Post.

From past GetReligion posts, other quotes — from a variety of perspectives — that have stood out to me include:

“Jesus is not a member of the NRA.”

“All of us here are not going to turn the other cheek while you shoot us.”

• “You can fight by everyone throwing a Bible at them, and I mean that in a very respectful way because I am a Bible-fearing person.”

“I think people in the South have a certain familiarity with guns and are also strong in their religious beliefs. But we don’t always think about the relationship between them.”

“It is very common for Christians to simply assume that they live in Mayberry, trusting that because they know the Lord Jesus, everything will always be fine and nothing bad can happen to them and their families.”

I bring up this subject because of an in-depth NBC News story this week with the headline “Guns and God: Growing number of churches want armed security.” There’s a lot to like about NBC’s report. At the same time, its lack of attention to theology disappointed me.

This is the question I wish NBC had pursued even just a little: Would Jesus pack heat?

More on that in a moment. But first, let’s check out the compelling opening paragraphs:

When Chris Crews prepares for church on Sunday mornings, he follows a routine. He rises early. He puts on his church clothes, a button-down shirt paired with blue jeans or khakis. Then, before leaving the house with his wife and two children, he straps a firearm — a 9 mm or a .45 — to his right hip.

“I don’t leave home without a gun,” Crews said. “It’s kind of like the old American Express card ads: I just won’t leave home without it.”

Crews, 47, is part of the security team at Ava Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church of 300 members in Ava, Missouri. The church has no paid security guards. Instead, it counts on a team of 18 church members to keep fellow congregants safe. None of the security team members are paid and all carry handguns.

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One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

Did you notice that Rep. Steve Scalise returned, to the best of his abilities, to the annual Congressional Baseball game the other night?

It has been a year since that stunning mass shooting, when an angry liberal Democrat came close, close, close to gunning down most of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here is a link to a nice NPR update on how Scalise is doing, using the 1-year anniversary as a news hook,

Sure enough, the word "miracle" is a key part of the story.

The anniversary reminded me of a magazine-length piece at BuzzFeed that has been buried deep in my GetReligion folder of guilt for several weeks. This happens, sometimes, with long, long stories. They are hard to critique in a short post and, well, they rarely draw responses from GetReligion readers. We are all rather busy, aren't we?

Anyway, the BuzzFeed story focused on two primary angles of the near massacre -- one political (and rooted in journalism) and the other is religious. This is the rare case in which the religion angle was handled better than the political one. The massive headline on this piece proclaimed:


How The Congressional Baseball Shooting Didn't Become The Deadliest Political Assassination In American History

The political angle?

Why wasn't this bizarre and troubling event a bigger deal -- a bigger news story -- than it was? Why did the story slide on A1 so quickly? This story almost, almost, almost was one of the biggest events in the history of American politics. BuzzFeed noted:

What is certain is the disquieting way June 14 slipped beneath the news so quickly. The shooting felt much further away by July, August, September than mere months. If people joke about how the weeks feel like years in the current era, there’s an unsettling truth behind the joke -- the way anything can lose scale and proportion. Two dozen members of Congress were nearly killed one morning last year, and the country didn’t change very much at all.

Was the problem blunt politics, including bias in newsrooms?

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American Muslims and guns: The New York Times bursts some stereotypes

American Muslims and guns: The New York Times bursts some stereotypes

Rarely do photographers put together religion stories, but the New York Times just came out with a piece on gun-owning American Muslims that truly stands out.

Egyptian documentary photographer Amr Alfiky, together with Adeel Hassan, who writes for a Times newsletter on race, assembled vignettes on nine such Muslims in Ohio, Florida, Oklahoma and northern Virginia.

It’s the kind of piece that definitely stands stereotypes on their heads. The familiar surroundings (the local gym, the tree-lined neighborhood streets, a university library) in which these folks are photographed convey the idea they could be us.

What these Muslims want to say in this story is they are us. As for the Second Amendment,  they own it.

American Muslims ... say they own guns for the same reasons as anyone else: for protection, for hunting and sport shooting, for gun and rifle collections or for their work.

They also cite another factor: fear of persecution, at a time when hate crimes against Muslims have soared to their highest levels since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But owning a gun is no assurance of security. Muslim gun owners are viewed with suspicion by gun stores, ranges and clubs, and occasionally met with harassment. ... Gun ranges and gun shops in several states have declared themselves “Muslim-free zones.”

Guess I had no idea such thing existed. Then again, I googled "Muslims and guns" and saw non-stop images of ISIS, jihad, you-name-it.

What the Times is offering is a whole different side of God and guns.

One gun range owner in Arkansas, Jan Morgan, gained national attention in 2014 when her business was one of the first to declare a ban on Muslims. (She used her newfound prominence to run for governor, losing in the Republican primary last month.)

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Bring your Bible to church? Check. Bring your gun? Yes, say some leaders after Sutherland Springs

Bring your Bible to church? Check. Bring your gun? Yes, say some leaders after Sutherland Springs

A week ago, I highlighted the first wave of church security stories that followed the Sutherland Springs massacre. Our own Terry Mattingly tackled the issue again later in the week.

My original post prompted an interesting comment from reader Steve Weatherbe, who complained, "No story yet has referred to the 2007 shooting at a Colorado church, where 5 were killed in the parking lot but when the gunman entered the church itself he was shot by a church member and volunteer security person who was a police officer too."

Religion News Service national reporter Emily McFarlan Miller must have read Weatherbe's mind. Or great minds think alike. Or pick your own cliché ... 

But just about the time Weatherbe made his comment, RNS published a piece by Miller focusing heavily on the Colorado shooting. (Full disclosure: I write occasional freelance stories for RNS.)

The lede on Miller's story:

(RNS) — In 2007, the unthinkable happened at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.
A gunman opened fire outside the church, just as its midday service had dismissed. His bullets hit several members of the same family as they left, wounding David Works and killing his two teenage daughters, Rachel and Stephanie.
More than 600 people were on the church campus when Matthew Murray — a 24-year-old man armed with an assault rifle, two pistols and enough ammunition to kill 100 people — made his way inside the building, church pastor Brady Boyd remembered.
“I know there’s a great theological debate about what Jesus would do,” he told RNS. “I just know firsthand for me, on the day the shooting happened on our campus, we lost two very good, sweet, young teenage girls, and that was awful and horrific, but we could have very well lost 100 people that day.”
Boyd believes that didn’t happen because Murray ran into Jeanne Assam, a former police officer and member of the church security team who was legally carrying a pistol. Assam returned fire, ending the attack that had started 12 hours earlier, when the gunman had shot and killed several others at a nearby mission center.

The weekend drew more major coverage of God and guns from two of the nation's leading newspapers — the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Both papers published stories (with Godbeat pros Laurie Goodstein of the Times and Ian Lovett of the Journal as the lead writers) on churches that see a need for armed protection in the wake of the 26 deaths at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

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Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Day after day, I get waves of promotional emails from groups that I have covered during my 30 years as a religion-beat columnist.

Some of them I merely glance at. Others I fill away for future use.

One email this morning stood out, for obvious reasons. It was from the team of church-security advisors with an organization that calls itself the Sheepdog Seminars (as in workers who fight the wolves that prey on "sheep" in a church flock). One member of the team, Jimmy Meeks, is a Hurst, Texas, police officer who is also a Southern Baptist preacher. I've been corresponding with him for years (click here for a column from five years ago).

The email was from Sutherland Springs, Texas. Here's what it said:

This newsletter is short. Quite frankly, I don't know what to tell you this time. I do know this: we have now set a new "record" for the number of people killed on church and faith-based property this year: 92 so far.

The old "record" was 77 lives in 2015. This violence is not going to stop. You had better prepare your church. 

As our own Bobby Ross, Jr., noted at midweek, journalists have been all over the church-security angle of this latest tragedy -- with good cause. The fact that there are multiple companies and networks dedicated to this kind of work is evidence of the validity of this story.

The common theme is not that church pews need to be packed with people who have concealed weapons. The bottom line is that religious institutions need some kind of plan for security and, tragically, this now means preparing to stop or slow down a gunman, with worshipers briefed on evacuation plans, etc.

This is not a new story, of course. Thus, I appreciated that The Fort Worth Star-Tribune team dug into its own local angle on this latest massacre in a church. I am talking about the attack nearly two decades ago at that city's Wedgwood Baptist Church, which was the tragedy that -- for security experts -- started the clock ticking on a bloody new era.

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After #TexasChurchMassacre, it's an obvious must-cover story — and major news orgs are doing so

After #TexasChurchMassacre, it's an obvious must-cover story — and major news orgs are doing so

"How can we be safe?" asked a minister I interviewed after Sunday's mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

With the death toll at 26, countless church leaders — all eager to protect their flocks — are posing the same question.


Just six weeks ago, a separate mass shooting at a church — this one at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn. — raised the church security issue, as I pointed out in a GetReligion post:

Sadly, in America in 2017, a mass shooting in which one person dies is not going to dominate the news cycle for long. Such tragedies have become too common. Even then, I noticed a national Associated Press piece just today on houses of worship addressing security in the wake of the Tennessee shooting.

Two years ago, church security made a bunch of headlines after nine people were killed at a Wednesday night Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. I remember writing a front-page story for The Christian Chronicle with the headline "God, guns and keeping churches safe."

And no, the issue of church safety didn't start with Emanuel. 

Sadly, here we go again.

Given the magnitude of Sunday's tragedy, church security is an obvious must-cover story for journalists across the nation. Already, some major news organizations are doing so, including Time magazine.

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Gospel of guns falls short: Something's missing in paper's exploration of faith, family and firearms

Gospel of guns falls short: Something's missing in paper's exploration of faith, family and firearms

"Faith, family, firearms drive Georgia's devotion to Second Amendment," says the headline on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece tied to last week's mass shooting in Las Vegas.

What we have here is a case where I really wish the story had lived up to the headline.

Unfortunately, guns — not God — are the star of this report.

To some extent, maybe that's to be expected. On the other hand, I had hoped that the Journal-Constitution would delve — really delve — into the religion angle. Alas, faith makes just a few cameo appearances in this story focused more on economics than spirituality.

Up high, the article hints at a deeper religion angle than the paper chooses to explore:

An outsize American flag flies above the factory where Daniel Defense makes some of the world’s highest-priced assault rifles.
At NASCAR races, the No. 3 car flashes the Daniel Defense logo.
And when the company’s founder talks about his values, he distills them to three potent words: faith, family, firearms.
Daniel Defense, based in Bryan County, 25 miles northwest of Savannah, is a Georgia success story, one that embodies a culture that often conflates patriotism, religion, regional pride and devotion to the Second Amendment.
But the company, and the culture, came under scrutiny last week after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Late Sunday night in Las Vegas, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on an outdoor music festival from his 32nd-story hotel suite, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 500 before taking his own life. Authorities reportedly found about 20 guns in the hotel suite – including at least four military-style rifles manufactured by Daniel Defense. The rifles appeared prominently in crime-scene photographs by the Las Vegas police.
“Our deepest thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families of the Las Vegas incident,” the company said Monday on its Facebook page, its only public statement on the shooting. Company executives did not respond to telephone messages and emails requesting an interview.

So what is the role of faith that the company's founder distills?

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