Sunday, May 10, 2009

Faith, Guns and Direct Action

In preparation for our trial on May 26, our lawyer asked each defendant to put together a personal statement as to why we participated in the direct action against Colismo's gun shop. While this will not be my exact testimony, the following is my basic reasoning for particpating in the action.

My Statement at Trial

For years I was troubled by the nightly reports of violence and death on the streets of Philadelphia, often at the hands of young people, mostly young men, using guns. As a Christian, I had long believed and witnessed to my conviction that God has not created people for violence but for community. Long ago I had dedicated myself to be a person who lived out lifestyle of peace and called others to the way of peace. So I agonized over the statistics of violence in our city, and I wondered what can I, and what can we as Christians concerned about peace do in response to this situation. I had been involved in numerous efforts to stop the wars in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq, and had even supported some folks who went to witness as Christian Peacemakers in Baghdad on the eve of the 2nd Iraq war. I wondered: if we can send people halfway around the world to protest war and witness for peace, why do we feel so powerless in stopping the violence in our city streets?

About two years ago, I met Bryan Miller, the founder of CeaseFire New Jersey and CeaseFire Pennsylvania. Bryan spoke about the gun laws in Pennsylvania and explained in simple terms how guns could be bought legally in Pennsylvania gun shops and then sold or given to criminals or young people who could not legally own a gun. This process is called straw buying and is a major source of illegal guns on the streets of Pennsylvania cities. There is no legal repercussion for straw buying if when a gun is traced back to him or her, the straw buyer simply says the gun was lost or stolen. Bryan talked about two laws that had been proposed in the state legislature and passed in Philadelphia and other cities that could discourage this practice. The “Lost and Stolen” bill would require people whose legally purchased gun had been lost or stolen to report to the police when the gun was missing. The other was a bill that would limit handgun sales to one per month. Similar laws in New Jersey had significantly reduced the flow of illegal guns being bought and sold in that state. However, because of Pennsylvania’s truck-size legal loophole, PA is a major source of guns not only in its own state, but several surrounding states, including New Jersey. After hearing Bryan Miller’s simple and logical explanation, I realized there was something concrete and practical I could work for.

So for these past two years I have been writing letters to my local newspaper and to my representatives. I have helped organize a community forum on gun violence. I have blogged on the issue, and talked at length with friends and colleagues. Furthermore, as a college professor with students from Philadelphia, I have had personal contact with young people who have lost brothers and friends to gun violence. I have had at least one student who survived a gun shot wound as a young child, but as a young adult is still traumatized by it. Changing the laws and changing the practices around guns became personal for me.

Bryan has often reminded me that changing the laws is going to be a long slow process. So when we who were part of Heeding God’s Call began talking about a gun merchants’ Code of Conduct signed by Wal-Mart, I was interested. We chose to present the code to Mr. Colismo, since by all reports his shop was a major source of illegal guns bought through this process of straw buying. When Mr. Colisimo refused to sign the code, we discussed the possibility of performing a direct action at his shop. For me the decision to join the direct action was simple, and a logical next step in my growing commitment to stop the flow of illegal guns.

Others may have more developed rationales for joining the action, but my rationale is straightforward, and is captured in the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans where he said: “I beseech you brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to the Lord. For this is your act of spiritual worship.” For me, participating in the direct action and sitting down in front of Mr. Colisimo’s store when we were refused entry, was an act of my Christian commitment and an act of worship. It was a way for me to literally put my body on the line for stopping gun violence. My sitting down in front of Colisimo’s store was a concrete, physical act of faith, pure and simple.

The irony of this whole affair is that the police who arrested me and who blocked our entrance to Mr. Colisimo’s shop are the ones on the front lines suffering from the presence of illegal guns on our streets. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them to go out on some calls knowing they could be fired at. I admire their courage. Yet how ironic that they arrested me for trying to stop the flow of the illegal guns being fired at them. I pointed this out to one of the officers just before I was arrested, but he was not hearing any of it.

It is also ironic that the D.A.’s office is bringing this case, when they have testified on behalf of the very laws I too would like to see passed: the lost and stolen, and one handgun a month bills. It is further ironic that I am being tried in a court in Philadelphia, which itself has passed these laws, but has been prevented by legal challenges to enforce these laws I too would like to see enforced.

I am not the offender in this court. I am not the criminal. The criminals in this case are those who block the passage of sane laws, and who object to signing a simple code of conduct that would slow down the process of straw buying. Those are the ones who should be on trial, not the twelve of us who stand before you today. If I am a criminal, then the DA’s who are trying me, and the city of Philadelphia are also criminal, because we are all on the same side. I contend I am not in the wrong and should not be convicted of a crime because I don’t believe the city of Philadelphia is wrong or the DA’s office is wrong in trying to stop the process of straw buying. The criminals in this case are still free to operate: gun shops like Mr. Colisimo’s who look the other way to make a sale, and who won’t put common sense practices in place to discourage straw buying. The criminals in this case are those like the NRA who oppose the passage of these common sense laws. The criminals are politicians who allow their votes on these gun laws to be swayed by the NRA’s money. These are the criminals in this case, and they are not on trial, but were we acting logically and in accordance what is right and just, they would be.

So, your honor, I ask that you see this case for what it is: a complete contradiction of justice, and acquit me on the charges brought against me.

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