Severna Park church to battle for gun control Member's death sparks action

November 07, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Stunned by the shooting death of the son of one of its parishioners in a Severna Park doughnut shop in August, the governing body of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church is joining the fight for gun control.

The session, as the governing body is known, has written to church members, urging those who have handguns to "reconsider what may have seemed prudent in the past, but now is shown to be dangerous."

It also plans to distribute literature and invite politicians to speak on the issue.

Cynthia Ferris, an assistant state's attorney and church member, said the murder of 21-year-old Charles Willis "woke up our congregation."

She helped form an ad hoc committee in the Severna Park church to discuss guns and violence.

"Maybe churches are a source of political pressure. Maybe churches can do something other kinds of citizens groups can't do," Ms. Ferris said.

Mr. Willis, of Smuggler's Cove Road, was shot about 3:15 a.m. after he refused to sell another man a dime store pen. His assailant, Thomas Joseph Cummings, 24, of Arnold, turned the same 9 mm handgun on himself five hours later as police closed in on him in Norfolk, Va.

The Rev. Terry S. Schoener, the pastor at Woods Memorial, said last week that gun control has "been an issue for Christians for a long time, but people simply haven't organized around it."

"I think the carnage on the streets has forced people to rethink their positions," he added.

Woods Memorial, however, is not unique. Many religious groups are joining the fight for gun control in response to a violent crime rate that has increased nearly 19 percent in the last five years and 40 percent in the last 10 years, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.

Vinnie DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, said a wide range of religious groups have endorsed his coalition's proposal for one of the strictest gun control laws in the nation.

"The religious community is galvanized on this issue very strongly," Mr. DeMarco said. "Virtually every denomination has gotten involved. They believe it's a moral imperative to protect people from gun violence."

The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington has offered its approval of the coalition. The Baltimore Jewish Council and Baltimore Muslims also have supported Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, as has the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council of clergy, Mr. DeMarco said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore said last month it would work hard for tough gun control laws and the state governing body for the Presbyterian USA denomination has publicly endorsed the concept of gun control.

The Woods Memorial congregation has restricted its efforts to its members, the minister said.

"Also, we're not raising the issue of sportsmen," said Mr. Schoener, who has received sharp-shooting medals from the National Rifle Association. "They are two separate issues. But I suspect gun control legislation will probably get a good hearing in a lot of churches."

The death of Mr. Willis, a sophomore at the University of Vermont, has made the members of Woods Memorial more receptive to gun control, Ms. Ferris said.

"This tragedy was like a catalyst in our church. More than 1,000 people were at Charlie's funeral, and this created a very receptive audience to address the issue of guns and violence," she said.

Ms. Ferris has worked as a prosecutor for 14 years and has observed the increase in violent crime and its impact on families.

"I'm in juvenile court a lot prosecuting and working with crime victims," she said. "I've had the experience of seeing first hand the impact of this kind of violence, and it made me think the church ought to look at this."

Members of her committee want to educate themselves about guns and gun control legislation first, she said.

"We may decide the best thing we can do as a church is to educate own congregation. We may decide other citizen groups are already doing innovative things and there's nothing we can add. Or perhaps we'll lobby for particular legislation," Ms. Ferris said.

The church leadership voted Oct. 20 to offer forums for politicians to state their positions on handgun and assault weapons control.

In the pastoral letter to Woods Memorial members, the session asked: "If Jesus sat down to watch our television any morning and saw the agony of family after family . . . resulting from the carnage which readily available handguns and assault weapons inflict, would he not cover his eyes with his hands and weep? Does anyone of us doubt that Jesus does watch?"

The session also confessed its "tardiness in calling your attention to the spiritual issues which are raised" by handgun violence.

Because the members of many churches also are handgun owners, there is "a lot of potential for reaching people if churches can unite on this issue and figure out what they should do," Ms. Ferris said.

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