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BOB ABERNETHY: As we reported, among its other actions, the United Methodists also came out in support of strong laws to control handguns. This as hundreds of thousands of people in Washington and more than 60 other cities prepared for Sunday’s Million Mom March, a Mother’s Day attempt to convince Congress to pass tougher gun control laws. Every major faith group — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — has endorsed the march, but the gun issue still divides many believers, as correspondent Lucky Severson discovered. Here is his report on God and guns in Kentucky.
LUCKY SEVERSON: This is the heart and soul of horse country, a few miles outside of Lexington, Kentucky. It is Sunday morning at the New Union Christian Church. Pastor Nancy Jo Kemper is at the pulpit.
Reverend NANCY JO KEMPER (New Union Christian Church) (To Congregation): The theme of this psalm is about unity and about …
SEVERSON: One of her favorite sermons is about loving and trusting thy neighbor, something she thinks is disappearing from the American scene.
Rev. KEMPER: Folks seem to be more and more frightened by their neighbor. In place of trying to love their neighbor, they want to arm themselves against their neighbor. And that’s why I think churches need to be involved.
SEVERSON: But like other Kentucky preachers, Pastor Willie Ramsey thinks that people arming themselves is a God-given right. In 1998, Pastor Ramsey convinced the Kentucky legislature to enact a law that specifically allowed clergy to carry concealed weapons on church property, providing they have a license, as the pastor does. It is the only law of its kind in the country.
Reverend WILLIE RAMSEY (Church of Christ): As a preacher, a — and as a religious person, I don’t think that I need to be attacked simply because I’m a preacher or a religious person. My family wants me to come home safely in the evening, just like anyone else’s, just like the policeman’s family wants him to come home safely in the evening. The Second Amendment is a treasured right, and I appreciate it.
SEVERSON: Was there an incident here in Kentucky that made certain pastors feel that they needed to carry guns?
Rev. KEMPER: No, we’ve not had a church robbed, except maybe once in the inner city of Louisville, in 20 years.
Father ANTHONY CHANDLER (St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church) (To Congregation): We pause now, calling to mind our sinfulness, asking God’s forgiveness and loving mercy.
SEVERSON: Father Anthony Chandler owns guns, but doesn’t carry one.
You haven’t personally felt threatened.
Fr. CHANDLER: No. No, I’ve never — in my 11 years, I’ve not felt threatened.
SEVERSON: Pastor Ramsey says there has been an epidemic of crimes against religion in Kentucky, including the shooting in a Paducah high school targeting a prayer group. Three students were killed and five injured. And there was a robbery in a Kentucky church three years ago. Pastor Ramsey did not want us to take pictures of his church in rural Kentucky or his four guns, and he wouldn’t tell us if he was carrying a gun on his way to church.
Rev. RAMSEY: Like, if I was going somewhere right now and I told somebody I’m not, that I — you know, somebody that heard that or somebody found out, I could be in danger.
SEVERSON: He says his feelings about guns are based on biblical teachings: that Christ owns our bodies, and it is our obligation to protect them.
Rev. KEMPER: I think Jesus instructed us, you know, if someone strikes you on one cheek, to turn the other. If they want to take your coat, give them your cloak as well.
SEVERSON: But with Pastor Ramsey and other pro-gun preachers we spoke with, what is most sacred is the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which says, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Tom Riner is a minister and state legislator.
Reverend TOM RINER (Louisville Church for the Homeless): It’s a basic freedom for each individual American to be able to own a firearm, and that helps, our forefathers said, stabilize a society, and it makes it less likely that we’ll ever have the type of tyranny that has taken place in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
Rev. KEMPER: Liberty has become the American civil religion, and it’s destroying the democracy that we share. A democracy is based on moral values implemented in law for the benefit of the whole, not for the benefit of the one.
SEVERSON: In Kentucky this year, the legislature overrode the governor’s veto and ordered that all confiscated guns had to be auctioned back to the public.
The new law stunned Sherry Hammond. In 1997, her 15-year-old son Quintin was shot and killed on his way to school. Quintin didn’t belong to any gangs. Everyone agreed he was a good kid, one of 4,223 in the U.S. killed by gunfire in 1997.
Ms. SHERRY HAMMOND (Mother of Gun Victim): I think the gun should be made to be destroyed, and let that be the end of it. Why would you want to own a gun that killed somebody like my child? It’s not — it doesn’t make sense to me.
SEVERSON: The Kentucky legislature passed another law this year, making it legal for everyone, not just pastors, to carry concealed weapons to church. Did you vote for those two laws?
Rev. RINER: Yes, I did.
SEVERSON: The law does allow individual churches to forbid concealed weapons, but that would be a silly thing to do, if you listen to Pastor Ramsey.
Rev. RAMSEY: Anytime a business or a home puts a big sign on the door, “We have no weapons here,” it’s like putting a big bull’s-eye on that door.
Rev. KEMPER: I think it is nauseating, and I think Jesus would be absolutely appalled at the thought that we have to post signs on church property that say, “Concealed deadly weapons prohibited.”
Rev. RAMSEY: And what I resent is people in urban areas and in the media who don’t own a handgun and treat handguns kind of like they would a spider or a snake. They’re afraid of them.
Fr. CHANDLER: When that was passed, we were told immediately, by letter by our ordinary, that we would not be carrying guns in the churches.
SEVERSON: Will you discourage your members from carrying concealed weapons to church?
Reverend RON SISK (Crescent Hill Baptist Church): Oh, goodness, yes. We wouldn’t permit a weapon in this facility for any reason, and I certainly would never carry one.
SEVERSON: Ron Sisk is pastor of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church, and he’s chairman of an Interfaith Kentuckiana Alliance to End Gun Violence. It is an alliance of several Kentucky faiths, including Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and Baptists.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You can actually put it through the hole in your cylinder.
SEVERSON: In April, the alliance distributed 5,000 free gun locks to Kentucky gun owners. Churches, of course, have banded together on moral issues many times before, but this is one of the first times they have taken on guns as a moral issue. Why haven’t churches gotten involved in this issue before?
Rev. SISK: One of the things that has happened in the last year or two is that the epidemic of violence has found its way into the religious community, and we’re getting a hearing, whereas there really wasn’t room for that years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whatever you got for me.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Okay.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you so much.
SEVERSON: And you’re in favor of locks for guns.
Rev. RAMSEY: No. No, I’m not.
SEVERSON: Why not?
Rev. RAMSEY: Well, a gun, by its very nature, is something that if one needed for self-defense, they would need it quickly.
Rev. KEMPER (To Congregation): And now may the joy of God shine from your face.
SEVERSON: Nancy Kemper and a growing number of Kentucky religious leaders think it’s time that churches use the pulpit to battle gun violence.
Rev. KEMPER: God intends for us to live in a compassionate community of care with one another, not arming ourselves for battle against one another.
SEVERSON: The Pastors Riner and Ramsey and other preachers in Kentucky are not inclined to budge. For now, they have more sway with the legislature than pastors who want some gun control. But that may be changing. For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Louisville.