Protesters Cite Faith In Pa. Gun Shop Arrests
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - It was no small matter for the Rev. J. Fred Kauffman, a man of faith and a law-abiding citizen for all of his 61 years, to defy a police officer's order to leave a downtown gun shop.
All Kauffman wanted was for the owner of Colosimo's Gun Center to pledge to sell firearms responsibly. When the owner refused, Kauffman decided there was too much at stake - too many illegal guns, too many senseless deaths - to just give up and go home. He blocked the store entrance and was arrested.
"I'm a timid farm boy from Nebraska,'' Kauffman said. "I never make trouble.''
The Mennonite leader was one of 12 activists from the interfaith group Heeding God's Call to be arrested at Colosimo's over two days in January. They face trial Tuesday in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia on charges including conspiracy, obstruction and disorderly conduct.
Heeding God's Call is adding a different religious voice to the national gun-control debate, which members say has been dominated for too long by conservative Christians opposed to firearms regulation.
The group has partnered with more than three dozen Philadelphia area congregations - including Jews, Muslims, Quakers, Catholics and Protestants - to work against gun violence.
"Every faith tradition calls on its followers to be their brother's keeper,'' said organization cofounder Bryan Miller.
About 30,000 people die of gun violence each year in the U.S., according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In Philadelphia, the murder rate was more than one a day for several years until 2008, when 333 people were killed - most by gunfire.
Activists targeted Colosimo's because of its record for selling guns later used in crimes. Colosimo's sold 425 guns used in crimes - including at least 10 homicides - between 1989 and 1996, according to a 2003 Brady Center report compiled with data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Owner James Colosimo, who said he was unaware of the statistics, stressed that he follows all laws. And, at 78, Colosimo said he's not looking for any confrontations.
"Nobody wanted to have those people locked up,'' Colosimo said. "They were asked three times to move.''
But Heeding God's Call wants him to sign a 10-point conduct code being promoted by the national group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The code was adopted last year by Wal- Mart, the country's largest seller of firearms.
Supporters say the voluntary regulations will help reduce straw purchases of weapons that end up being used in crimes. But Colosimo opposes one stipulation that involves purchase monitoring, saying it invades customers' privacy.
Heeding God's Call continues to protest twice weekly outside Colosimo's, though no additional arrests have been made.
Such activism builds on a trend of grassroots religious organizations trying to reframe public policy discussions once dominated by the religious right, said Damon Linker, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Theocons.''
Miller, who also serves as executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, said that while national governing bodies of many denominations have issued statements against gun violence and perhaps lobbied in Washington, the activism hasn't really filtered down to the sanctuaries.
"It's about getting into the congregations, getting people in the pews involved in preventing gun violence,'' Miller said. "This marriage between faith and gun violence prevention is working, it makes sense, and I believe it has the potential to be the tipping point issue on Americans' attitudes about guns.''
Kauffman spent about 12 hours behind bars, during which he received words of support from a jail guard concerned about violence in the city. Kauffman said that validated his sense that he was following in the footsteps of many religious prophets, including Jesus.
"He purposely outraged people by doing stuff that was not acceptable in order to be able to create a new paradigm,'' Kauffman said. "I felt like that's what I was doing. It's so obvious we have problem and we have to ... challenge the accepted way of doing things.''