Virginia Tech Tragedy Reflects Gun Violence Epidemic, UM Leaders Say

April 17, 2007

By United Methodist News Service


As they grieved for victims of the deadly shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University (campus file photo, UMNS), United Methodist leaders condemned U.S. gun laws as lax and questioned why Congress allowed a federal ban on the sale of 19 types of semiautomatic weapons to expire in 2004.


The social action agency of The United Methodist Church also renewed the church's call for governments around the world to ban ownership by the general public of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits and weapons that cannot be detected by traditional metal-detection devices.


"...Had this ban been in place, this shooting might have been prevented since one of the guns used by the assailant was a 9-mm handgun," said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.


"We once again call on the Congress to ban all handguns and assault weapons so that our communities will be safer and so that this endless cycle of violence can be ended," Winkler said in an April 17 statement, one day after the shootings in Blacksburg, Va., left 33 people dead.


A Virginia Tech student identified as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, shot and killed 30 people in a building of classrooms and offices on campus and is believed to be responsible for the earlier killings of two people in a dormitory. Fifteen people were wounded, and the gunman took his own life.


"What is indeed tragic is the fact that this violence is commonplace in U.S. society," Winkler said." In 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that there were 10,100 deaths by firearms in the United States. This represents an average of four deaths for every 100,000 people in the United States. By contrast, England, Wales, Scotland, and Canada averaged .54 deaths for every 100,000 people.


"The presence of guns in U.S. society has not led to greater security but in fact has undermined the general sense of safety."


Currently, most states do not require gun owners to be licensed or guns to be registered. Most states also allow the purchase of guns at gun shows without background checks and do not update criminal history databases in a timely manner, allowing criminals to obtain firearms.


The United Methodist Church officially supports regulation of the importation, manufacturing, sale and possession of guns and ammunition.


The church's resolution on gun violence in the denomination’s 2004 Book of Resolutions points to the significant risk of handgun violence, especially to young people. "Our communities and schools are so exposed to large numbers of privately owned guns that no mere attempts at providing slightly better security can match the awful threat of guns finding their way through our well-intentioned safety systems."


Epidemic of gun violence

The Rev. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist pastor who is the leader of the National Council of Churches, said the Virginia Tech massacre reflects an epidemic of gun violence in the United States.


"My pastor's heart breaks for the families of those who died today," Edgar said in a statement released April 16. "I pray for them and for those who witnessed the unspeakable violence that destroyed the peace of a spring day on a scenic campus at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia."


A former U.S. congressman, Edgar said faith leaders have frequently spoken up about the epidemic of gun violence. "Despite repeated calls from faith and community leaders to Congress and Presidents, nothing ever seems to get done to stem the tide," he said.


"How many more will have to die before we say enough is enough? How many more senseless deaths will have to be counted before we enact meaningful firearms control in this country? How many more of our pastors, rabbis and imams will have to preside over caskets of innocent victims of gun violence because a nation refused to stop the proliferation of these small weapons of mass destruction?"


Edgar pointed to the National Council of Churches' 1967 policy calling for firearms control and a March 2000 interfaith campaign urging an end to the epidemic of gun violence.


"The escalation of gun violence compels us to call for an end to the manufacture and easy distribution of such instruments of destruction," Edgar said in 2000, reiterating that statement after the Virginia Tech shootings.


Concern around the world

The Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya who serves as chief executive of the World Council of Churches, pointed out that disbelief and grief over the sorrowful tragedy in Virginia must translate into action.


"Today and in the days to come, national leaders, state leaders and the gun lobby across the USA must hear more than the latest outburst of anger at violence in America," he said in an April 16 statement. "They must also begin to understand the rising frustration among concerned citizens and governments around the world.


"The World Council of Churches has 347 member churches in over 100 countries. For many of them the news from Virginia today is little different than the news from Darfur yesterday and the news from Iraq tomorrow. They see wanton killings, the indiscriminate use of armed force and the widespread availability of deadly weapons."


Kobia noted that U.S. arms manufacturing and arms sales policies have violent consequences abroad as well as in the United States. He called for firm controls on the small arms trade.


"We are all Virginians in our sympathy, but many people around the world are also Virginians in their vulnerability to the misuse of unregulated guns," he said. "Each day, about 1,000 of them die from gun violence and many more are injured."


The Rev. Randy Day, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said the Virginia Tech carnage shows the impact of violence on families and society in general.


"The rampage in Blacksburg offers further indication of too many guns, too freely available in this country and around the world," Day said.