The deadly shootings in Arizona came little more than a week before the national holiday dedicated to honoring the non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.
As 2011’s day of service in memory of Dr. King approaches, his principles are much in the thoughts of the eight Northwest Philadelphia faith organizations that have come together in a group called Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence.
The interfaith group was formed in early September to join an already-vibrant grassroots campaign to cut the illegal flow of guns from area stores to people barred by law from carrying a weapon.
Those guns are often sold to what are called straw buyers, people who can buy guns legally, but swiftly resell them on the black market.
The initiative will look to stop straw purchases using a battle-tested, non-legislative approach championed by a small, but influential faith-based movement, Heeding God’s Call.
Instead of petitioning state lawmakers to draft anti-gun violence legislation, Neighborhood Partners will go straight to the source: the gun shops themselves.
The goal: to identify problem stores and work with the owner to nix straw purchases from store practice.
“We’re not trying to close down shops,” says Bob Fles, a member of the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church, the lead congregation in the effort. “We’re trying to reach a point of mutual concern.”
Pushing a code of conduct
That’s not to say the movement doesn’t have some teeth.
Once the lines of communication have been opened, Neighborhood Partners will try to persuade the owner to adopt and post a 10-point code of conduct created by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition (of which Mayor Nutter is a part) and most notably adopted by Wal-Mart, which sells the most guns nationwide.
The non-binding code asks store owners to videotape all transactions, run criminal background checks on all employees and keep better track of inventory, among other things.
“It’s more of a public statement to abide by the law,” says Fles.
If an owner refuses the code, the group will hit the streets and hold regularly scheduled, non-violent protests in front of the shop’s doors.
“It’s people really calling those who are selling guns on what they’re doing and saying, ‘We need you to be responsible,’ ” says Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who heads Mishkan Shalom synagogue inRoxborough.
There are no gun shops in the Northwest, so the group will target stores inside and outside the city. They’ve already made contact with the owner of Delia’s Gun Shop in Northeast Philadelphia. Mike and Kate’s Sports Shopp, the Shooter Shop of Philadelphia and Lock’s Philadelphia Gun Exchange are also under consideration.
While current members are expecting push-back from gun shop owners, they say they prefer this type of action over working with legislators in a state with such a powerful gun lobby.
This approach was developed by the Heeding God’s Call group, which is credited by many in the anti-gun violence movement with hastening the closing of Colosimo’s Gun Shop in 2009.
After six months of protests outside the Spring Garden Street locale starting MLK Day weekend, city officials stepped in and stripped the store’s license.
Bryan Miller, director of public advocacy for Heeding God’s Call and director of Ceasefire NJ, says Colosimo’s highlighted how public pressure leads government officials to take note and take action.
“Contacting a legislator without that legislator knowing that there’s grassroots support for a position is not particularly effective,” says Miller. “They’re two halves of a whole.”
Ready for a long road
While part of a family of organizations connected to Heeding God’s Call, Neighborhood Partners will work independently for now.
On Feb. 13, the group will hold a rally called “In Their Names: A Remembrance and A Call to Action”. The rally will be held at The First Presbyterian Church in Germantown.
Commitment, organizers say, will be the key to achieving the group’s ambitious goals.
Says the Rev. Cynthia Jarvis, pastor at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church: “It’s a large order, but you just bite off a bit and trust that every little bit is going to move toward the future we were meant for.”
Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence currently has eight member institutions:
Chestnut Hill United Church
Germantown Mennonite Church
Mishkan Shalom synagogue
Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church in Germantown
Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration