One Life at a Time:Preventing Gun Violence and Caring for its Survivors

February 22, 2017
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By the Rev. Marc D. Smith, Ph.D., Bishop’s Deputy for Gun Violence Prevention and Priest Associate, Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, University City

Despite innovative policing strategies and the increasing engagement of the community in violence prevention, the number of homicides in St. Louis City (overwhelmingly from guns) increased from 120 in 2013 to 188 in 2015 (+63.8%).

The homicide rate per 100,000 population is more than eight times the national average (37.7 compared to 4.5). And, the majority were the result of young black male-on-young-black-male shootings. Tragically, a notable number of victims were innocent bystanders or mistaken targets—the “collateral damage” of a community in which lethal aggression has become an acceptable instrument for conflict resolution.

Nationally, as well as locally, the response to the growing epidemic of gun violence has varied. Some efforts have focused on legislative changes to restrict access to guns. Others have attempted to address underlying structural causes, including poverty, family disintegration and institutional racism. Although these initiatives likely will be part of a comprehensive solution, their ability to effect immediate relief is limited.

Recently, however, the academic, activist, and faith communities also have begun to examine the gun violence that pervades our urban centers as a public health crisis and have noted that there are strategies that can be deployed immediately to combat it. 

In St. Louis, for example, collaboration between the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine (WUMS) and the Pastoral Care Department of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in structured interventions with the hospitalized victims of violence demonstrated significant opportunities to assist them in redirecting their lives.

Currently, at least 36 public and private organizations, including the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, are engaged in gun violence prevention in the St. Louis metropolitan area. 

In 2016, the United Way of Greater St. Louis and Washington University’s Institute for Public Health convened regular meetings of these entities—together known as the St. Louis Gun Violence Prevention Collaborative (STLGVPC)—to begin to develop a more coordinated response to the gun violence crisis. 

Following a year of information sharing, planning and initial program coordination, STLGVPC requested the diocese’s assistance in securing funding through the Episcopal Presbyterian Health Trust (EPHT). Specifically, to retain a consultant to facilitate the development and implementation of a governance model for the Collaborative. The goal is to enhance accountability of the individual organizations to each other and, collectively, to the community. 

The grant was awarded by EPHT in December 2016, and Requests for Proposals were circulated nationally in early January 2017. The Collaborative anticipates hiring the consultant by the end of February and receiving final recommendations for the governance model by mid-year. 

In a metropolitan area long-plagued by multi-jurisdictional division, the importance of the diocese’s role in bringing these organizations together for the common good cannot be underestimated.

Homicide ministers
The diocese and WUMS’ Department of Psychiatry have begun to develop a proposal to enhance the engagement of local faith communities in the care of survivors of gun violence. This is supported by a separate grant from EPHT. 

Central to this initiative is an active partnership with St. Louis’ “Homicide Ministers”—a loosely knit, small group of black clergy who work with the St. Louis City and County Police Departments in the care of survivors and the de-escalation of the momentum for retaliation. 

The project’s objectives include:

  • Recruiting a diverse cohort of additional “Homicide Ministers” from throughout the community
  • In collaboration with the Walker Institute for Leadership at Eden Seminary, developing a 10-hour curriculum for the initial training of clergy (and potentially) lay “Homicide Ministers”
  • Structuring a program of active mentoring and support for “Homicide Ministers” 
  • Organizing and staffing monthly educational and case review meetings for “Homicide Ministers”

Lock It for Love
The diocese and WUMS are joining with Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice in recruiting parishes and individual members throughout the diocese to participate in its “Lock It for Love” program. 

Although too often overlooked in strategies to address gun violence, the number of deaths from accidental shootings and suicide is staggering. 

In the period from 2005 – 2014, for example, nearly 20,000 minors across the United States were accidentally killed or seriously wounded in accidental shootings, the majority of whom were under 12 years of age. During this same decade, 5,530 minors intentionally shot themselves. 

The evidence is clear that accidental shootings could be virtually eliminated with the use of gun locks, and suicides markedly reduced. 

“Lock It for Love” raises funds to purchase gun locks ($5.65/lock) and distribute them throughout the community. To date, more than 1,300 have been given to local families. 
We anticipate this partnership will provide a specific opportunity for individuals and faith communities to engage in gun violence prevention through fundraising for gun locks and volunteering for distribution events.

Tracking our efforts
Finally, this project also includes an active evaluation component. A comprehensive data base is being developed to facilitate research and the publication of findings in scientific journals, as well as in the professional and popular press.

The recent rise in gun violence in many communities in the United States, including metropolitan St. Louis, is a national tragedy. 

Although the causes are many and complex, they are not insurmountable. 

The diocese, both independently and in collaboration with many community partners, is committed to this cause. And while we pray for this violence to end completely, we know it begins with saving one life at a time.

The Rev. Marc Smith may be reached via email at cotterboatworks@aol.com.

Episcopal News Service article, 2-22-2017, "Priest in America's 'murder capital' brings public-health approach to gun violence prevention"

First published in the February issue of Seek: voices of the Diocese of Missouri. Read online here, read past issues, or subscribe.

Author: Beth Felice

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Need more information? Contact Beth Felice, diocesan director of communications

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