Thursday, June 30, 2016

We need a broad coalition for responsible gun reform

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

Ever since the tragedy in Orlando, my Facebook news feed has been filled with cries for action. Yet another mass shooting, the epidemic of gun violence seems to be an insurmountable tide threatening to engulf us.

And so, my friends on the left proclaim the need for rigorous gun control laws, while my friends on the right insist that this would not stem the tide of violence. Neither seems to listen much to the other — confident that their views on this question is the correct answer.

But we must break this logjam of political opinions, because the current state of the debate on gun control is doing just as much as anything else to leave open the possibility for greater danger and more loss of life.

I was raised in a family with guns. My father was a member of the National Rifle Association. My stepfather was a licensed gun dealer with a locked room in our home for the many and various firearms he owned. Both of them taught me from an early age to respect guns.

One of the first friends I made when I moved back to West Michigan is a gun enthusiast, his wife certified to teach concealed-carry classes. He helped me get back involved in hunting, as I learned to hunt rabbit, goose, duck, pheasant and deer. The past couple of years, I have not spent nearly as much time in the woods as I would like, the demands of life crowding out the time needed to hunt well, but I still cherish any time I am able to spend hunting.

A big reason I love hunting is that, done well, hunting teaches you the true value of life — a central concept for Christianity. For too many people in our society, food is an industrialized reality, and chicken and beef is something that simply appears pre-packaged in Meijer. Hunting reminds you the cost behind the meat you consume. Indeed, one of the reasons I started hunting was I felt that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I needed to be closer to where at least some of my meat actually came from.

So, in addition to my compound bow, I also own a shotgun and a rifle. I use all for hunting. Further, I have enjoyed the sport involved in the time I’ve shot handguns and other rifles with friends and family.

Yet, that does not mean I oppose gun control laws. I do oppose foolish political grandstanding that advocates for laws popular on the left but that will be unlikely to have an effect on gun violence.

Like the majority of Americans, I support sensible gun reform. Guns are a lethal product and so, like any lethal product, they should be regulated and licensed through a common-sense system.

For example, even though our Legislature has failed to act, an overwhelming majority of Americans (85 percent) support expanded background checks for firearms sold in private gun sales and at gun shows. With power of today’s internet-connected world, this system should not be cumbersome or difficult. That system should include people who are reported as a possible danger, either through terrorist watch lists or extreme mental illness. A clearinghouse needs to be created so that this information is centrally located, with a flag delaying the sale of the gun (without stating the reason) and enabling the person denied the sale to contact a central location for the reason their purchase was flagged and delayed and a process to appeal that flag.

While I do not believe a full ban on assault-style weapons would have the effect many seem to think, I do think that guns should be rated in terms of their lethality and that advanced license should be required to purchase the most lethal firearms. Those advanced licenses should involve deeper background checks along with required training. We require advanced training and licensing to drive a semi-truck because of the greater danger posed; we should do the same with any weapons that have a higher lethality.

And while I am comfortable with the idea that all guns should be registered and tracked in a federal database, I know that would be unlikely to gain support needed to occur. At the least, any firearm with advanced lethal capability should be registered and tracked.

The National Rifle Association should be encouraged by its members to return to its original ideals of promoting firearm competency and safety. It has only been involved in direct lobbying for and against legislation since 1975. Anyone who wants to own a gun should be required to go through a class teaching proper firearm use and safety, with the above-noted different classes for different levels of certification. The NRA could be a partner in this process if it would stop its reflexive opposition to any limit on firearms and once more become an advocate for safe and responsible gun ownership.

These ideas are not cumbersome. They do not violate the Constitution. Most are supported by wide margins of the American people. The only thing stopping them is big lobbying money — along with our continued fighting with each other.

Because the longer the left and right fight over the government taking away your guns versus the unlimited right of the individual to own as many and as lethal firearms as desired, more people will continue to die. And the lobbyists on both sides will just keep cashing their paychecks.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Torn feelings in response to death penalty in Charleston

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
Last week, we read in the news that federal prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for a white man accused of killing nine black church members in Charleston, S.C.

This grisly act of violence and racial hatred shocked many of us last year, as the suspect, Dylan Roof, entered into a Bible study on June 17, sat with people, listened to them, and then stood up and started shooting them.

It was indeed an act of racial hatred, with the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church serving as a decades-long leader in the struggle for civil rights. Not only did Roof choose the church specifically for racial reasons, but federal prosecutors in their filing have provided evidence that he singled out victims who were elderly and showed no remorse for his actions. One of his friends pleaded guilty last month to concealing his own knowledge that Roof had planned this attack for the previous six months.

The very act of seeking the death penalty in this federal case is abnormal. As Reuters reported, citing information from the Death Penalty Information Center, only three federal prisoners have been executed in the past 50 years, and none since 2003. The most well-known execution was Timothy McVeigh, the man who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

The families of Roof’s victims have a variety of views on whether Roof should be executed for this act of heinous murder. Some oppose the death penalty due to their religious beliefs. At the initial hearing last year, several family members of victims spoke words of forgiveness. Other families of victims, however, are content to support whatever decision our government deems is appropriate.

And, I must admit, I am torn over this emotionally charged case.

I understand the rationale for the death penalty; the arguments I have heard from advocates of capital punishment. I know that momentum has been for support of the death penalty in our country since 1966, with as many as 80 percent of the nation supporting it in 1994. Current numbers indicate that roughly one-third of Americans oppose it and two-third support it. Still, its use has dropped 60 percent since a peak in 1999.

But I remain unsettled by its use — even in this painfully difficult case. As I wrote a couple of years ago, when discussing the possible death penalty for the Boston Marathon bomber, we rank fifth in the world for executions — the list, in order of number of citizens executed, being China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Yemen, Sudan and Afghanistan. Those numbers have not shifted much in the past two years.

Decades of research have demonstrated that the death penalty is not a deterrent. The 14 states without it have homicide rates at or below the national rate. It also costs significantly more to execute someone than to hold them in prison for life without the possibility of parole. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called on those countries that still maintain the death penalty to enter a moratorium with a goal of abolishing its use.

What makes me torn about this case is the racial motivation — which is ironic. After all, for decades scholars have demonstrated that the use of the death penalty disproportionately affects people of color. A study conducted by the Yale University School of Law in 2003 concluded that African-Americans receive the death penalty three times as often as white defendants when the victims are white. Further, killers of whites are often penalized much more severely than those who kill minorities.

There are some who may feel this case will, at the least, tip the scales a bit on the side of justice — putting the same value upon the black church members murdered as we would if the victims were all white.

But I cannot find myself in that place. I want to be clear, I cannot say that the families should forgive Roof; I cannot even say that they should oppose his execution. I cannot imagine the horror they have experienced and would not dare to tell them how to feel or what to desire in response to their grief.

And yet, as a priest, I believe that the death penalty will not bring healing. This is precisely why we, as a society, must continue to work to eliminate the death penalty. In a just society, people who are wracked with grief cannot be asked to determine appropriate punishment.

Dylan Roof — no matter how despicable I find his actions — is a child of God, one whose sense of humanity has been cruelly twisted through a combination of racism present in our culture and his own choices to participate in that racism. But I desire him to come to repentance — something he cannot do in this world if his life is taken from him.

So, I will try hard, very hard, not to preach to the families of the victims. Forgiveness is not mine to give, not even mine to encourage. But I will say to the rest of us, still reeling from the effects of this killing — let’s not answer death with more death. In particular, for those of us who are people of faith, let us find how to answer death with life and opportunity for change.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.