Every morning when I wake up, before my children spring onto my bed, I peek at my cell phone to the check the headlines, the sports scores, the weather. Far too often, the first alert that I see bears tragic news: another life lost to gun violence.
It is a reality that we know well in Norfolk, which according to a recent article on wavy.com saw 41 homicides in 2016, along with seven officer-involved shootings. And when you broaden the lens, the problem only seems to worsen. More than 30,000 people are killed by guns each year in the United States. By many estimates, it is the leading cause of death among Americans younger than 25. On top of that, a spate of mass shootings across the country, including recently in Fort Lauderdale, has heightened our sense of fear and tragedy.
While these incidents tend to dominate the headlines, I was surprised to learn recently that nearly two-thirds of gun deaths nationally are suicides. Servicemen and women and veterans are among the populations most susceptible to suicide, and the Hampton Roads area is home to one of the world’s largest populations of military personnel, with approximately 83,000 active duty men and women, according to the Chamber of Commerce.
Clearly, our community is vulnerable, and gun violence is an epidemic that affects all of us.
So often, when we talk about guns, the conversation is over before it starts. We retreat to pitched positions in a political and rhetorical battle that has no end. Instead of focusing on the common experience of human suffering, the debate calcifies into a hardened argument about the Second Amendment and individual rights. But I have faith that we can do better. I believe that if we keep trying, we can climb out of our bunkers and find common ground and shared values. Whether we are gun lovers or gun haters, we all want the same thing – safe and healthy homes and neighborhoods and children.
Last summer, on the heels of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five police officers in Dallas, me and my colleagues, The Rev. Harold Cobb at Grace Episcopal Church and The Rev. Win Lewis at Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, decided to act. Along with our parishioners, we had become heartbroken by the steady stream of gun deaths in our city and country. It felt like it wasn’t enough anymore to offer prayers on Sunday and go on with our lives. There is an old African proverb that says, “when you pray, use your feet.” It seemed time to take action, but we were unsure how to make a difference and wary of wading into the political minefield of the gun debate.
So we decided to start with a creative approach: we partnered with the Rutter Family Art Foundation and the folks at Work|Release in the NEON District of Norfolk to organize an art show and community dialogue focused on reducing gun violence in all forms. The show, entitled “Under the Gun” and curated by Jesse Scaccia and Hannah Serrano, will open on Friday, January 13 and run for three weeks. It will feature prominent local and national artists and a host of opportunities for dialogue and action.
Our goal is simple: to reduce gun deaths in all forms. We hope that this show will open people’s eyes and hearts to how much we all live under the weight of gun violence, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. If we can only set aside tired arguments and recognize that we are all straining under this burden, then maybe we can find the conviction to work together. Where there is shared suffering, there is also shared hope.
In truth, there is so much we can do. We can promote gun safety and education in our schools and doctor’s offices and neighborhoods, utilizing programs like the Be Smart campaign promoted by Moms Demand Action. We can push for more research about the costs and causes of gun violence, and advocate for increased funding for best practices on a state and local level.
We can build new partnerships between the military, the City of Norfolk, public and private support services, and other community networks to help reduce local rates of suicide. There is still a lot of stigma around mental health care, but there shouldn’t be, and it’s up to all of us to talk about it openly and improve access to life-saving help. Health care facilities and Community Services Boards and nonprofits are doing what they can, but they need our support, a groundswell of commitment to improve access and resources for mental health.
We can strengthen relationships between the community and our police departments, and build coalitions in the name of peace. Two new networks of faith leaders in Norfolk – one an interfaith group called Hands United Building Bridges and the other an ecumenical Christian group called the Pastor’s Roundtable – have been working over the past few years to do just that. We recognize that we can’t leave activists and officers on their own to face the complex challenges of gun violence; we in the faith community, along with other civic partners, need to stand in the breach with them and help support positive engagement and cooperation.
There is so much that we can do, if we come together. Gun violence is a heavy topic, but working on this art show has actually lifted my spirits. I have been so impressed by the commitment of our partners at the City of Norfolk, in the arts community, the nonprofit sector, the faith community, and more. It has given me hope that someday I will wake up to my phone buzzing with a different kind of headline – the news that Norfolk is leading the way in reducing gun violence, providing mental health care, and fostering a culture of peace. What a beautiful day that would be.
Opening night of Under the Gun is Friday, January 13. The event is free and open to all. For more info, click here.