Recommendations that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) advocate measures to prevent gun violence, including limits on ammunition, were overwhelmingly approved Monday by the 221st General Assembly (2014)'s Committee on Social Justice Issues and sent on for plenary approval later this week.

Other recommendations covered trauma crisis counseling, maternal and child nutrition, and food sovereignty.

After some discussion, the committee voted 61-5 to approve as a package overtures from the presbyteries of National Capital and Hudson River.

Open hearings and subsequent committee discussions revealed a general consensus on the need for a stronger church response to gun violence.

Speaking at the open hearing, Deborah Avery, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California, said people in her congregation regularly share prayer requests for friends and neighbors who have been shot. Oakland is a “victim of traumatic stress,” she said, as parents wonder if their own child will be next.

“Despite our church having already made a prophetic witness for gun control reform and despite the vast majority of Americans supporting sensible reform measures, frighteningly little has been done legislatively,” said Sara Dorrien, a teaching elder from Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Meanwhile, 30,000 Americans die every year. Eighty people will die today, and 10 of them will be children.”

“We should do something about that,” she continued, “as people who follow the Prince of Peace and as people who have been set free from all of the powers and principalities that tell us ‘this is just the way it is.’ “

Speaking against the overtures, committee member Jim Houston-Hencken, a teaching elder commissioner from Nevada Presbytery, told about the trauma that his family –including his 3-year-old daughter – suffered during a home break-in a decade ago. He said efforts to tighten control of guns and ammunition “take away one of my options to protect my child.”

Among other things, the measures call for

  • formation of support, healing and advocacy groups for those who have experienced gun violence in their families,
  • opposition to legislation that exempts gun manufacturers and marketers from legal liability and/or financial accountability for the medical and security costs of predictable gun misuse and availability to criminals, the unstable, and the self-destructive,
  • opposition to “stand your ground” and other legislation that may entitle gun owners to shoot before taking alternative measures (such as relying on law enforcement and/or other de-escalation techniques) in perceived defense of persons or property, and
  • church sessions and PC(USA) entities that own property to declare their particular premises and gatherings to be gun-free zones.

The committee approved unanimously an overture from the Presbytery of Nevada that seeks training in trauma crisis counseling for pastors and other caregivers so that they can respond more effectively to the needs of survivors following a homicide or mass shooting.

The measure would expand work already being done by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to provide spiritual and emotional care for disaster survivors. It would cost an estimated $13,550 over the next two years.

But the financial implications should not be a barrier to approval argued Harold Armstrong, a commissioner from the Presbytery of Sierra Blanca. “We need to put our dollars where the grace of God has called us to go,” he said.

Also approved overwhelmingly by the Social Justice Issues Committee were two overtures seeking to address root causes of hunger and poverty.

One, from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, calls for measures to promote food sovereignty, which includes the right of all people to “safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and food-producing resources.” Some committee members questioned language calling the church to seek ”to return unfairly obtained land to communities,” but ultimately voted down an amendment that would have removed the language.

The other overture, from the Presbytery of National Capital, urges the Assembly to affirm the importance of maternal and child nutrition in the 1,000 days between the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday. The overture cites the 1,000 Days Movement, a campaign of Bread for the World supported by Presbyterian Women and other faith-based women’s organizations.

Because all of the approvals were by 75 percent or more, the recommendations will be placed on a consent agenda that will open Wednesday's plenary session and be dealt with in a block of other proposals from Assembly committees. However, any one proposal can be removed from the agenda and dealt with during the individual committee report.