The Right to be Free From Guns By John Johnson, Mount Vernon Unitarian Church, Alexandria, VA


John Johnson, Mount Vernon Unitarian Church, Alexandria, VA

Gun violence is a serious problem in the United States. And it is not just mass shootings. On average 92 Americans die from gunshot wounds each day in gun suicides (57), gun homicides (33), and unintentional shootings (2). The number of Americans killed each day by firearms is greater than the number of victims (49) who died in the mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida nightclub the night of June 11-12. But you don’t read about this other face of gun violence because most gun deaths are single perpetrator/single victim events. In fact most gun homicides are not mass shootings, but rather are the result of arguments or disputes between family members, friends, and acquaintances.

The gun lobby argues that we would all be safer if more people carried guns. If that were true, the United States would already be the safest country on earth. Make no mistake, the gun lobby is not interested in safety. They are only interested in pushing guns into every nook and cranny of society. By all measures, the proliferation of guns in our society promulgated by the NRA and its allies has been a disaster.

On the other hand, people who want to live, shop, go to school, and go to church where there are no guns have rights too. But in order to protect these rights, we have to be willing to fight. We can’t let the gun lobby claim a monopoly on arguments about individual rights.

Lawmakers have neglected their duty to protect Americans from the rampage of gun violence. What could be wrong with requiring a background check on all gun purchases? And you have to ask yourself, why do we allow private citizens to buy military-style, semiautomatic assault weapons?

The Del Ray Project

The Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, Virginia has a strong commitment to reducing gun violence. Most of our work is done through a Gun Violence Prevention Task Force comprised of concerned church members and friends. We consider that the proliferation of guns in our society runs counter to our 2nd Principle: Justice, equality and compassion in human relations.

Virginia is an “open carry” state. That means that anyone 18 or older – and who may lawfully own a gun – may openly carry firearms in most public places, including Virginia businesses. Anyone with a permit to carry concealed weapons may also carry firearms in public.

However, under Virginia law, owners of private property, including Virginia businesses, may prohibit firearms on their property (Code of Virginia §18.2-308.01).

In June, the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force distributed No Guns signs/decals to about 120 business owners in the Del Ray community of the City of Alexandria. Most of the businesses are small businesses located along a 10 block strip on Mount Vernon Ave – restaurants, retail stores, hair and beauty salons, yoga studios, fitness centers, etc. We asked these business owners to exercise their right under Virginia law and prohibit firearms in their business by posting the No Guns sign/decal.

No Guns Decal

Why are we doing this? The answer is that Gun Violence Prevention Task Force members have become frustrated with the lack of action by state and federal lawmakers to address gun violence. We wanted to do something that doesn’t require any action by the Virginia General Assembly or Congress. All it takes is a business decision. While stronger gun laws are needed, we believe that we also need to change the culture.

And that is what the Del Ray project is all about. It’s about changing the culture. We know that Del Ray businesses don’t have a problem with people openly carrying firearms. But by posting the No Guns sign/decal, these businesses are sending a powerful message to the Del Ray community and Alexandria. And that could be the beginning of a culture change. It’s called fighting back.

To date, approximately 10 Del Ray businesses have made their business gun free. We are monitoring the reaction from the community. We hope that the idea will catch on in Del Ray so that we can expand the initiative to Old Town (another community in Alexandria) and the City of Alexandria.

Following the Orlando shooting, Mount Vernon Unitarian Church held a vigil/memorial for the victims. At one point in the service our minister, Rev. Kate Walker, asked those present to express their feelings. Most said that they were angry. Angry at the NRA. Angry at Congress. Or just plain angry.

The Del Ray project is how we are turning our “anger” into “action.”

John Johnson, Coordinator
Del Ray Project
Mount Vernon Unitarian Church