J. Fred Kauffman with Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers
Jennifer Steiner

J. Fred Kauffman (left), Mennonite Central Committee Philadelphia program coordinator, leads an Indiana workshop for Goshen and Elkhart pastors that included a discussion with Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers. The workshop culminated in visits to three local gun shops. 

A version of this article was printed in the June issue of The Mennonite.

Months before the mass shooting of teachers and children in Newtown, Conn., brought the issue of gun violence to national political attention yet again, MCC U.S. was raising awareness about the problem of gun violence in the U.S.

Through MCC East Coast’s work with those touched by gun violence they knew that any gun violence caused tremendous loss and trauma, forever changing the lives of the families, the friends, neighbors and communities who knew both the victim and the offender.  

They also knew that many of those murders were committed with illegally trafficked handguns.

So MCC East Coast organized the Gun Violence Prevention Storytelling Tour to schools, universities, churches and small groups in the fall of 2012, and MCC Great Lakes did a similar tour in the spring of 2013. 

The tours “aimed to encourage a conversation among Jesus’ followers about ways that the church can bear witness to the ‘Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ in the face of the ‘law of sin and death’ so evident in gun violence,” said Curtis Book, MCC East Coast Peace and Justice coordinator, citing Romans 8:2.

More than 1,700 people at 32 events heard local storytellers share personal experiences of loss and trauma because of illegal handguns. Along with other tour participants, they talked of ways faith communities and families can respond in order to cope with these losses and to prevent further violence. 

On the East Coast tour which visited Philadelphia, Harrisburg (Pa.) and Harrisonburg (Va.), Book and J. Fred Kauffman, MCC Philadelphia Program coordinator, spoke about illegally trafficked handguns that they said are flooding urban neighborhoods already struggling with many other problems.

“Legally owned guns are used in very few crimes,” noted Kauffman, “so our concern is not law abiding gun owners: it is precisely about illegally trafficked handguns.”

Typically a gun trafficker gives money to friends who can pass background checks and asks them to buy multiple hand guns at a legal gun shop. The straw purchasers then give the guns to the trafficker for a commission, and the trafficker sells the guns on the street to people who cannot buy a gun legally – youth or people with a criminal record. 

If a gun used in crime is traced back to straw purchasers, they claim it was “lost” or “stolen” and face no liability.

In Great Lakes, after presentations in the Chicago area, Kauffman also led a workshop for Goshen and Elkhart (Ind.) pastors which culminated in visits to three local gun shops. Most of the pastors had never been in a gun shop. The goal was to learn how gun shops operate and engage in discussions about how the owners can be allies in the fight to keep illegal guns off the streets.

Charles Geiser, pastor at Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart who participated in the visits, said he thinks everyone should be able to agree that gun violence is a problem.

“Our church is located a few blocks from a cemetery where a beautiful seven-year-old girl was recently buried after being shot by someone who shouldn't have had a gun,” said Geiser. “This isn't about taking guns away from people but about making our communities safer. We need to be able to sit down together in spite of our differences to talk about how we can best respond.”

Workshop participants, who were surprised to learn about the illegal flow of guns, agreed. “We can do something about this,” was a common response. Many people signed the MCC advocacy postcard, asking the U.S. government to take common sense actions to reduce gun violence.

The tours raised awareness and issued a challenge to people in the U.S. to make peace in their own backyards, said Kauffman.

MCC U.S. will continue to resource congregations. MCC East Coast will lead a workshop at Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix this summer on illegal trafficking of guns throughout the U.S., Mexico and Central America. Staff members are available to preach in churches and lead Sunday School discussions on the spiritual dimensions of this violence, along with workshops on similar topics as the tours.

Contact Curtis Book (CurtisBook@mcc.org) or Jorge Vielman (JorgeVielman@mcc.org) to arrange for a guest speaker or resources.  Resources are also available through MCC U.S.’ “Fear not: Seek peace” campaign that focuses on domestic violence, community violence (mostly from illegal guns) and national militarism. Visit mcc.org/fearnot.

What can I do?

  1. Connect with a church that has been touched by gun violence. Listen to their stories of how this violence has touched their lives.
  2. Pray for victims and offenders of gun violence, for churches and communities who walk alongside of them.
  3. Sign MCC Gospel of Jesus & Gun Violence postcard on gun violence prevention to send to elected officials.
  4. Make use of the MCC Preventing Gun Violence packet with your church or group for study, discussion and prayer.
  5. Do research on illegal gun markets. Learn about the flow of illegally trafficked handguns from legal gun shops to criminal markets through straw purchasers.