Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Just Me," Just a Few, Can Begin to Make a Difference

There were just 42 of us, sitting around tables at St. Mark’s Community Center in this small Midwestern city of about 60,000 but we all knew why we were there. This was only the second meeting of the newly formed Dubuque “Culture of Nonviolence Coalition.” Mary, the chair of the steering committee, invited us to go around and introduce ourselves and tell if we were from a group: Dubuque Peace and Justice, NAACP, B.V.M. “Just Me,” Franciscans, Quakers, “Just Me,” Rescue Mission, Unitarians, Loras College (Roman Catholic), “Just Me,” Wartburg Seminary (Lutheran), Sisters of the Presentation, “Just Me,” Family Services, Sisters of Charity, Sinsinawa Dominicans, Free Church, Riverview Center, and more …  Many who identified their affiliation as “Just Me,” came because they cared as individuals.  Others knew each other from ecumenical, interfaith and justice networks.  My husband and I had heard about the meeting from one of the many nuns in the room.

We knew why we had come: to address at the local level the national issue of the culture of violence. Gun violence is closely tied to a culture of all kinds of violence. It would have been easy to not meet. After all, it was Super Bowl Sunday.  After all, relatively speaking, one could say gun violence is not a big issue here; our city is the 4th safest city in Iowa, which USA Today named the 9th most peaceful state in the union.  But the fact is people all over this nation are realizing that gun violence anywhere calls for citizen participation everywhere. And a culture of violence pervades every corner of this nation.  
The chief of police had been invited to address the group.  The local sheriff came too. Each with decades of service, they provided information the group needed to assess the local situation.  While the murder rate is not high here, changes in state gun laws have changed the culture.  At the state level the seemingly simple change of a verb from the sheriff “may” issue a concealed carry permit to the sheriff “shall,” which went into effect two years ago produced these results: Number of concealed carry permits in Dubuque County: 2008: 122; 2009: 119; 2010:125; 2011:2007.  In January of 2013, 270 permits to carry were issued.  Before the change in law the sheriff could assess if a person was a constant substance abuser or had significant mental health issues.  Now the danger a person carrying a gun could be to the community needs to be legally proven beforehand.

The police chief noted that of course not everyone who has a permit carries a gun around all of the time. Often it’s a matter of “I got a permit to carry because I can.”  He noted carrying a gun around is a big responsibility.  He locks his own guns in a safe.  A few people need permits to carry because of their work, but that number is few.  Both men emphasized the importance of gun safety, and of the need for actual  physical training in how to use a gun.  But now one can in “3 easy steps get certified” by taking the Iowa Concealed safety Training Course  on-line.  A one-hour on-line  training course is not sufficient preparation for a concealed pistol permit, both men emphasized.
The group engaged the guests with questions for over an hour.  We wanted to know.  We wanted real information so that we, together, could act responsibly and helpfully.  By the end of the afternoon it was no longer “just me,” but people informed together.  Not only was the Culture of Nonviolence Coalition grateful to dialog with the law enforcement leaders but it seemed they also were pleased to have come. They both said, “It’s really about social connection, helping people get along better together.  It starts with grass roots efforts.”  Otherwise fear begets fear and perception of my neighbor being dangerous prods one to think, “I need a gun, too.”

The meeting was over at the appointed time of 4:30. Still time to watch the Super Bowl.  We could now all go back to our regular lives. Dubuque would be safe enough.   But, not so fast.  The 42 people in the room had no intention of leaving things at that.  They would meet again.   The steering committee would guide the group.   Should we invite our state representatives next time?  Yes, both a Republican and a Democrat.  We need to focus locally and it’s crucial we watch carefully what’s going on at the state as well as the national level.  And this is the “Tri-State” area.  How do gun permits issued in Iowa affect guns being available in Wisconsin and Illinois?  Towns, rural areas, cities, individuals are never “just me” or even “just us.” We are connected.  We need each other everywhere to work towards and sustain cultures of nonviolence.