BY J. ANDREW CURLISS, The News and Observer
A gathering on a hillside outside a church in West Raleigh late Sunday marked the one-year anniversary since a shooting in Tucson, Ariz., left a federal judge and five other people dead and 13 injured, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Organizers used the occasion to highlight a shifting focus in what has been a decades-long effort to promote legislation aimed at limiting people’s access to guns.
Instead, there is a growing focus on using churches and other faith-based efforts to promote a change in how the American culture views guns, they said. It’s also an acknowledgement that work in legislatures across the country have been met with resistance to many anti-gun measures.
“The reality is that we can’t look to our political leaders to make significant changes,” said Rachel Smith of Raleigh, a member of the board of trustees of the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“So how do we change the culture? We want to make it socially unacceptable to be armed, much like drinking and driving and smoking in public.”
Smith said the efforts are “pro-peace,” not anti-gun.
Advocates of gun rights say the faith initiative is yet another way that anti-gun advocates want to limit rights.
Sean Sorrentino, a member from Raleigh of a group called Firearms Owners Against Crime, said such efforts “ignore the fact that taking guns away leaves people vulnerable.”
“The basis of peace is to be left alone,” he said. “If I can’t defend myself, I have no peace.”
North Carolina is like many states in recent years, with lawmakers expanding gun rights, not curbing them.
Last month, a new law took effect that gives North Carolinians the right to carry a concealed weapon in state parks and extends more protection to people who shoot an intruder on their property.
Republicans in power in the legislature say more laws to expand rights are in the works.
“We have been to the left of most states on gun issues,” said Rep. Mark Hilton, a Republican from Conover who is a private company police officer.
“Nothing we are doing is extreme.”
Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican from Mocksville and leader on gun-rights issues in the Senate, said more efforts to expand gun rights are on the horizon.
“We’re looking at some things to allow more people to carry in more places and to have more rights,” he said.
Up next: Restaurants.
Hilton said a bill he expects to pass this year would allow carrying concealed weapons in restaurants; he said he has successfully negotiated several concerns raised by the idea. Hilton said the bill would prohibit weapon-holders from drinking alcohol in restaurants and would give restaurant owners the ability to prevent concealed weapons by posting a sign, much like signs now are posted at various public places across the state.
Hilton said other legislation friendly to gun owners might come up, but he couldn’t be more specific.
At Sunday night’s gathering, held at Community United Church of Christ on Dixie Trail not far from the Cameron Village shopping center, the signs of the faith-based effort were present. There was little talk about laws and lobbying. Scriptures were read. Prayers were said.
George Reed, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches, said he hopes a message of “reconciliation and not violence” can take hold.
“Our scriptures call us away from violence,” Reed said.
Also at the gathering of about 50 people was the Rev. Johnnie Darden of Raleigh’s Community Kingdom Building Ministries. He said he lost two relatives in a shooting last year and believes expanding gun rights is “going in the wrong direction.”
But he said efforts to change gun laws are not where energy should be spent because it likely wouldn’t be fruitful.
“We’ve got to be talking within the community, and with loved ones and with relatives,” he said. “That’s where we can curb the problem of gun violence.”