WASHINGTON, D.C. — I entered the White House yesterday at the same time as did a young couple with a baby and car seat/carrier that all of us parents are so familiar with. That was unusual for a meeting with leaders at the White House. They introduced themselves and their 15-month-old daughter, whose smile lit up the cold winter day. Then the couple told me this: “Her six-year-old sister was shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.”
Then I understood. They were there for the same meeting I was: President Obama’s announcement of new executive orders on background checks and other gun enforcement and safety issues. The East Room of the White House was full of the victims and family members of victims of mass shootings, which occurred 372 times in 2015, killing 475 and wounding 1,870.*
Many families that lost children and parents were there. Former Congress-woman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly were there.
And it was the people and the faces that most moved me—and moved the president. Much is being made this morning of his emotional response yesterday. When he said, “Our inalienable right to life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg and Santa Barbara, and from high-schoolers in Columbine, and from first-graders in Newtown,” he had to wipe tears away from both eyes. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.” I know Barack Obama and have seldom seen him so emotional. I know the hardest day of his presidency was when he had to go up to Newtown to meet and talk to the families of 26 students and teachers—those who lose their lives to another mass shooter. And it is clear he is responding as a dad who has two girls of his own.
I think it’s partly because he feels so helpless to do the things that will matter to save these lives. He announced limited measures within his authority like working to narrow or close background check loopholes, hiring more ATF agents, increasing funding for mental health treatment, and supporting gun safety technology—all of which will save some lives.
There is so much more we could do, but we can’t because the gun lobby blocks anything happening in the Congress where everyone admits the real changes would have to take place.
The couple I met ended the story about their slain daughter with these words: “And nothing has been done by the Congress to stop this.”
Sitting in that room, watching a president cry, seeing the tears of so many victims’ families, I of course asked myself what can or must the churches do, the Christians who say every life is sacred, those whom Jesus called to be peacemakers.
Commonsense gun regulations and safety is such a lost political cause in America, even though most Americans and even gun owners support such measures and they clearly have saved lives all over the world.
But aren’t Christians supposed to support ‘lost causes’ and change them? Haven’t we done that throughout our history? A president in tears because he feels so helpless and a room full of families who have lost their dearest loved ones made me say to myself: It is time for Christians to stop, pray, sit down together and talk, and ask the Lord what we are called to do.
*As defined by the Mass Shooting Tracker, a mass shooting is any shooting in which four or more people were injured and/or killed.
(Jim Wallis is a New York Times bestselling author, public theologian, speaker, and international commentator on ethics and public life.)