Faith Communities Organize Against Gun Violence


John O. Mason

Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence

On Sunday, February 13, 2011, the Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence, a group of religious communities organized to bring down handgun deaths, held its first meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. The group is based in the Northwest Philadelphia — including Germantown, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, Roxborough, Nicetown — and is affiliated with Heeding God’s Call, a religiously-based advocacy group against gun violence.

Congregations involved with NPGV include:

  • Mishkan Shalom Synagogue,
  • First Presbyterian Church in Germantown,
  • Chestnut Hill United Church,
  • Germantown Mennonite Church,
  • Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, and
  • the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The Reverend Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, is one of the Co-Coordinators for NPGV. “The Northwest part of the city,” she says, “has the highest incident of gun-related violent deaths of the whole city… So it affects us very significantly in this corner of the city.” NPGV is a faith based organization, says Noonan, “that consists of churches, synagogues, faith-based organizations, and partnerships.”

Of the organization of NPGV, Noonan says, “Folk in the faith communities in the Northwest have been aware that we have the highest incident of gun related deaths in the city, and so we felt moved, as clergy and lay people and people of faith, to take action. Many of us are already connected with Heeding God’s Call, which is a broader citywide and national organization, and we wanted to focus specifically in the northwest corner and mobilize our congregations in this part of the city to take action with a specific gun shop in Philadelphia.”

More after the jump.
The illegal sale of guns, adds Noonan, “knows no neighborhood boundaries. Guns sold in one neighborhood are easily moved across the city and across state lines as well. While there are no gun shops in Northwest Philadelphia, we still have the highest incident of gun-related deaths.

“Our position,” Noonan goes on, “isn’t gun control, it’s reducing and eliminating the gun-related deaths in the city…Our mission is to pressure gun-shop owners to voluntarily sign on to the code of conduct which implements ten measures that would significantly reduce the likelihood that the guns they sell will not be resold illegally (a “straw purchase”) and used in violent crimes.”

The Code of Conduct for gun retailers, which NPGV and Heeding God’s Call advocates, includes videotaping the sale of guns at the point of transaction; a computerized crime gun trace system; a declaration by purchasers that they meet the legal requirements for purchasing a firearm; accepting only state and federally issued identification cards; signs alerting customers of the legal responsibilities; employee background checks for selling and handling firearms; employee responsibility training; daily and quarterly audits of inventory; no sales without background check results; and firearms in secure and locked cabinets.  

Bryan Miller, Director of Public Advocacy of Heeding God’s Call, says that HGC and NPGV are “explicitly non-legislative” (they do not participate in contacting state or federal legislators on firearms bills). “Although we will contact on specific legislation is moving, we’ll ask our members to make phone calls, but we don’t lobby in Harrisburg or Washington, we’re sort of behind the scenes if you will, but we do view our work as having an important long-term legislative effect. In order to pass legislation, you need to build grassroots support for it. That an important part of what we do.”

As for working with police, Miller says, “We contact the police before we do any public actions, like the ones we did at Colosimo’s (the gun store on Eighth and Spring Garden streets, since shut down), and soon at a couple of gun shops in Philadelphia. Although we obviously support law enforcement very strongly, we don’t work too closely together. Law enforcement’s goal is to deal with demand for illegal guns and the crimes that result. What’s we’re seeking to do is restrict the supply, it’s a whole different way of looking at it and a different set of activities… We focus on diminishing the likelihood of gun going from the gun shop to the street, and if there are fewer guns on the street, there are fewer people that are going to be able to use them.”

Bob Swenson worked as an internist and infectious disease doctor at Temple University Hospital for forty years. “That is the busiest emergency room in Philadelphia,” he says, “I think it’s the biggest in the United States. The level of gun violence was incredible, we were in the emergency room every day, trying to save somebody, many of which we couldn’t. The thing that got to me was seeing the people who survived — lives were altered forever. Fifteen-year-old kids who are now paraplegic or quadriplegic, I would see them over the years because of their infection, and they would die at twenty-seven. For me, the level of people maimed, it’s like a hundred and fifty thousand people a year in Philadelphia are shot and (they) survived. Many of those people are left with deficits that make their life difficult, and they eventually die at an early age because of complications.”

Swenson heard of the organizing of NPGV several months ago when he decided “that I wanted to be involved, to try to do something, because…(in foreign countries), it’s like a hundred people are shot in Japan a year, and maybe three hundred in Great Britain. It’s something that’s at least in theory preventable.”