Thank you, Chairman Seabaugh and committee members, for allowing me to share my thoughts about the proposed changes to current Georgia gun laws [which would allow permit holders to carry concealed handguns into our congregations.] I’m Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Atlanta, one of the largest Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States.
Recently, the Unitarian Universalist religious movement has been tested with violence. On the morning of July 27th, during a worship service at our sister church in Knoxville Tennessee, a man named Jim Adkisson started shooting. 200 people were in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church sanctuary that morning, including the 25 children and youth who were leading worship that day. Many were wounded and two ended up dead. Based on Jim Adkisson’s own testimony, as well as that of a letter he had written, he wanted to target the church because of its emphasis on freedom and inclusivity—his belief that liberals should be killed because they are ruining the country. He concealed a shotgun in a guitar case, carried that case into the church sanctuary, took the gun out and started shooting indiscriminately into the crowd, fully expecting to keep shooting until police arrived and he was killed himself. He fully expected to die that day, even going so far as to leave his home unlocked to make it easy for police to enter.
In the aftermath of this event, Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country are feeling vulnerable to hatred. Our sanctuaries should be places of safety, but we know now that safety is not a guarantee. There are people in this world who are already dwelling in hell, and they want to take it out on the innocent. So it is a time of discernment for us and for congregations everywhere, as we face the question of gun violence. Would things have been different if there had been people in our sister church’s sanctuary carrying concealed handguns? Ready to defend the congregation against the shooter?
One thing is clear—even if people in the Tennessee Valley Church had been carrying concealed handguns, this would not have deterred Jim Adkisson from doing what he did. He was not afraid of dying, and I suspect that this is generally true of the kind of person who’d want to kill people at a church.
Then there is the issue of competence. Even trained police officers, on average, hit less than 20% of their intended targets. As I understand things, there are no physical force or proficiency training requirements in order to get a concealed carry permit in Georgia. To me, this all adds up to my conviction that, even if some members of the Tennessee Valley church had been carrying guns, they would probably have missed their target.
But bullets would be flying, and this leads to yet a third consideration: unintended side effects. Not just in the moment, but over the long haul. In the moment, if some Tennessee Valley Church members had been carrying guns, they probably would have accidentally shot fellow church members. As for the long haul: imagine what happens if a gun accidentally goes off during a church event, or during a service—or if, God forbid, a child or youth somehow gets a hold of one. In the long haul, the presence of a gun does not minimize the possibility of violence but multiplies it. Imagine people coming to church carrying concealed handguns, and because of tragedies like Tennessee Valley, they are on the look out for others who appear suspicious and may, in their vigilance, develop an itchy trigger finger.… The long haul has to do with what happens to the larger culture of a religious community, which is supposed to lay out a welcome table to all who want to connect with the sacred in life. To bring handguns into the sanctuary is to bring the expectation of violence into it and therefore spoil the culture of the generous welcome table, which was so central to the spiritual vision of Jesus as well as to so many other great religious leaders. The guiding religious principle here is that the means we use to achieve the ends of nonviolence and justice in the world must themselves be nonviolent and just. You can’t get to true nonviolence through violent means. You can’t get to true justice through injustice. Perhaps this is why the U. S. Supreme Court, in its Heller decision, acknowledged that houses of worship are truly “sensitive places” where guns do not belong. This is emphasized by even Justice Scalia, who is one of the most conservative Justices on the Supreme Court.
In light of all I have said, I believe that for the Tennessee Valley Church, members carrying concealed handguns would not have prevented the tragic shooting and, in fact, would have made things worse in both the short and long haul. What did make all the difference, in the moment, were a couple of heros who tackled Jim Adkisson at full risk to themselves. One of these heros, in fact, died. In a situation like this—when someone is set on killing others—something bad is going to happen. But our task is to identify responses to violence which do the least harm. Our desire to be safe must not make us reach for solutions that will do more harm than good.
Is it possible to prevent tragedies like the one that happened at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church from happening ever again? Is there a way to guarantee that our sanctuaries will always be safe places? I don’t think so. Danger and risk are nonnegotiable aspects of the human condition. But what is all important is that religious communities are able to model spiritual leadership and might in the face of evil. Concealed handguns have absolutely no role to play in this. I believe this, and so does the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church—even after what happened.
Rev. Anthony David
Sept. 23, 2008
Objection: But why shouldn’t congregations have the right to decide for themselves? Why not allow some congregations to ensure safety for themselves by developing and deploying armed security teams, while congregations that disallow concealed handguns can put a sticker on the door to make declare their places “gun free zones”?
· Reply: First of all, a sticker on the door cannot replace the kind of deterrent that exists now, which is a misdemeanor charge. Even with a sticker at the door, people won’t have to be afraid of breaking the law, so what will stop them from carrying them in? Don’t see how this avoids all the negative consequences I mentioned earlier.
· Also, whereas it may be true that some congregations may want the right to develop and deploy their own armed security guards—and again, given my comments above, I don’t know why they’d want to do this—I would not underestimate the incredible burden that this will put on all the other congregations in Georgia. Even congregations with stickers on the door will need to invest financial and volunteer resources to ensure safety in a world where people are not prohibited by law to carry firearms into churches.
· Finally: this objection assumes something false about the role of government, as well as the nature of constitutional rights. Government’s proper job is to balance competing interests and competing rights in a way that does justice to the common good. As important as Second Amendment rights are, when they are emphasized to the detriment of other rights, then this is not justice but injustice. Government has the right and the obligation to establish laws that reflect a just balance between competing interests. The decisions it makes then act as healthy boundaries, and within such boundaries, people can exercise their individual freedoms.