By Jack Calhoun
I was back on the picket lines at the NRA headquarters on Aug. 14. Ever the pragmatist I have to confess to some slow-growing doubts about the utility of this monthly picketing — does it change anything, move the needle at all, this standing there with a sign when in the last few weeks we’ve experienced the unabated horrors of mass shootings in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, El Paso, Texas?
The Dec. 14, 2012, murders of 20 defenseless children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, spurred the initial protests in front of the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, protests that soon became monthly vigils. All the protesters hold signs, which have grown in number and creativity over the years: “Choose life: Stop Gun Violence;” “Newtown Parents We Love You;” “The NRA Buys the GOP;” “Cowards Carry. Mothers Bury.” While standing here on a hot August day I estimate that about 28,000 have been killed so far this year, well on our way to America’s annual average of 40,000 gun deaths. The number staggers. But not enough to stagger Virginia’s legislature or Congress — yet.
As I looked over the crowd of about 168 protesters, some who show up religiously — rain or shine, cold or hot, and some for seven years (!) — made me question my pragmatism. We need hard-nosed policy work and legislation and equally hard-nosed political work, ensuring that we elect gun-safety candidates to state and Congressional offices. Do we need this? Is picketing really a part of our action portfolio? Speaking with fellow protesters and listening to those interviewed by local news stations, I came to this realization, almost an epiphany: this monthly public vigil is not an important part of our struggle for sensible gun policies, it is an essential part.
First, I thought, we are not alone, but are together, witnessing. We are there with each other, supporting each other, giving each other strength for the long haul, embodying the message. Second, who knows what is lodged in the hearts of the many drivers who speed by, many honking in affirmation. Third, this is something almost anyone can do for an hour, namely, standing, holding a sign. Fourth, the ripple effect, the vigil serving almost as an information-sharing mart, a connection to the necessary political work, e.g.”A few of us are going to visit some of Virginia’s Congressional delegation. Come with us?” Fifth, the inspiration, some provided by the Parkland kids who once joined us, some of it provided by the seniors, a few with canes, all holding signs. Said one passionately to a Channel 9 interviewer, “I’m going to get gun legislation passed before I die. I owe it to my grandchildren.”
Third, this is something almost anyone can do for an hour, namely, standing, holding a sign. Fourth, the ripple effect, the vigil serving almost as an information-sharing mart, a connection to the necessary political work, e.g.”A few of us are going to visit some of Virginia’s Congressional delegation. Come with us?” Fifth, the inspiration, some provided by the Parkland kids who once joined us, some of it provided by the seniors, a few with canes, all holding signs. Said one passionately to a Channel 9 interviewer, “I’m going to get gun legislation passed before I die. I owe it to my grandchildren.”
Perhaps it’s even deeper. Perhaps a message, a visible, moral public counter-message to Trump by 150 or so people lining the sidewalk in front of the NRA waving signs saying in essence, “We will not be moved until policies change.”
Witness is a noun, as one who testifies, attests to a fact. Witness is also a verb, as, “We witnessed the birth of a new era.” Witness, then, can be passive — watching, recording — or it can be active, a proclamation of a message.
Those on the picket line embody energy, urgency, purpose, and persistence. They witness to the horrible truth of gun violence that seems to grow daily in America. Pockets of hope do exist: new local and state laws have been passed; new candidates run on gun safety platforms, marches and demonstrations abound, and although blocked by the Senate, Universal Background Check and Assault Weapon Ban bills have been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and youth — witness the Parkland youth — have rallied. Progress, yes; but still the deaths continue unabated.
For me, a biblical reference captures the witness ideal: “…and you will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The number of gun violence prevention “witnesses” grows. How far into “Judea and Samaria” these “witnesses” have penetrated is anybody’s guess. But without the witnesses, there will be no penetration at all.
One thing we do know: In this small corner of Virginia about 150 witnesses will, no matter what, picket with signs held aloft on the 14th of every month next to the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, their witness born of gun tragedies but sustained by the collective hope that change is possible, senseless deaths avoidable.
Jack Calhoun is president and CEO of Hope Matters and co-leader of Lewinsville Faith in Action.