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United Way of Lancaster County


‘With One Voice’: Faith-based groups push for stronger gun laws in Pa.

In this March 6, 2023, file photo, the Rev. Audrey Scanlan, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, speaks at a news conference on gun violence at the Capitol in Harrisburg. (Source: Provided)

Lancaster County faith leaders are at the head of an ecumenical initiative that is expected to bring hundreds of people to Harrisburg next week to advocate for measures against gun violence.

“With One Voice” will take place Tuesday and Wednesday at and around the state Capitol. Representatives of at least 15 denominations are taking part.

Public events include a “forging guns into garden tools” demonstration and prayer service on Tuesday; and on Wednesday a recitation of gun violence victims’ names, a march and a news conference. Leaders are also arranging meetings with state legislators.

The activities are being organized and led by Saving Lives: Ending Gun Violence, a task force created by the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. The Rev. Jennifer Mattson, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church is the task force’s co-chair, while the Rev. Martha Harris, who has charge over St. Paul and St. Luke’s Episcopal Churches, chairs its advocacy committee.

Another local priest, the Rev Barbara Seras of St. Paul, is leading outreach to local parishes.

With One Voice follows an open letter that the five bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania issued in February, which they followed up in March with a demonstration and press conference at the state Capitol.

Gun violence is an “epidemic” in Pennsylvania, they wrote, one that is “fueled by the sheer volume of guns and assault weapons that are readily available in our State.”

Acknowledging the legitimacy of responsible firearm ownership for hunting, recreation and personal defense, the bishops called for four measures to deter illegal trafficking, bulk purchases and military-grade weaponry:

  • Limit purchases to one handgun a month
  • Enact a “red flag” law allowing judges to temporarily order removal of firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others.
  • Ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines
  • Ban ghost guns

At least three of the bishops are members of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a nationwide Episcopalian organization with more than 100 active and retired clergy members.

The Rev. Martha Lester Harris

Pennsylvania’s rate of gun deaths is comparable to that of the U.S. as a whole, and much higher than the rate in developed countries elsewhere in the world. In 2019, there were an estimated 1,906 gun deaths in the commonwealth, 48% homicides and 52% suicides, for an overall rate of 14.7 per 100,000 population.

The religious organizations are coming together out of “a common concern that all life is sacred,” Harris said.

Mattson described her daughter coming home from second grade with a flyer about “HERO,” the acronym children her age are taught for responding in the event of a mass shooting: “Hide, Escape, Run, Overcome.”

The Rev. Jennifer Mattson

“How is my 8-year child supposed to ‘overcome’ an armed assailant?” Mattson asked.

Saving Lives: Ending Gun Violence is partnering with several organizations for next week’s advocacy, including CeaseFire PA, Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence and Raw Tools.

The state House Judiciary Committee will be considering two pieces of gun control legislation on Tuesday, one that would make parents liable when their children commit crimes with a firearm, and one that would require secure storage of firearms in homes where children are present.

The timing is a coincidence, but a welcome one, Harris said, and the task force is hopeful one or both of the bills could be voted out of committee.

The time for “real change” is now, Mattson said.

“We aren’t seeking to take away guns from responsible owners,” she said. “We are advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves: Our children.”