A couple of weeks ago, we were escorted out of the National Prayer Breakfast hosted by the National Rifle Association by about a dozen police officers. What did we do to get thrown out of the prayer breakfast? We prayed.
After the back-to-back shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, we were given tickets by a lifetime member of the NRA who is deeply concerned about gun violence. Like many of us, the person who gave us tickets wants to see our thoughts and prayers turn into policies and change.
I, along with a couple of friends, attended the prayer breakfast with one ambition – to pray. The prayer breakfast kicked off with statements from NRA executives. There was an advertisement from “Patriot Mobile,” a cell phone provider who assured members they shared the NRA’s values for faith, family, and guns. Then there was the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of the National Anthem. But not one mention of the victims, not one prayer for those whose lives were lost the week before in Buffalo and Uvalde.
We had visited Uvalde the day before, doing what we could to honor the lives lost, to listen to the grief and tears and outrage and calls for change. We visited Robb Elementary School, where you could still see the kid’s papers hanging in the windows of their classrooms.
So our hearts were heavy as we walked into the prayer breakfast the next day. I carried with me the Uvalde paper we had picked up. The front page had all those babies’ faces and the two teachers who died with them. We also had a list of all their names, along with the names of the 10 people killed in Buffalo. Our goal wasn’t to get kicked out of the prayer breakfast. Our goal wasn’t event to disrupt it. We had tickets and waited until there was a space without speakers in the program so we didn’t interrupt. Our goal was singular – to pray for the victims by name, and to invite everyone to join us. With the help of a coalition of clergy around the country known as National Faith Leaders For Ending Gun Violence, we had created a liturgical, call-and-response, prayer. Before reading aloud each name, we say together, “God knows their names.” And after each name, we say, “Lord, have mercy.” Simple, heartfelt prayer.
As we were told that the program would pause, and breakfast would begin, I stood, holding the Uvalde paper, and invited people to join us in prayer for the victims. After the first name, we were told that we would be arrested if we did not leave. So we invited people to join us outside, as we respectfully complied with police orders. It is noteworthy that the police came quicker to kick us out of the prayer meeting than to confront the shooter in Uvalde. And we were asked to leave a prayer meeting for praying – by an organization that boasts of its commitment to religious freedom, free speech, and the Constitution. We finished our prayer in front of the Convention Center.
There are many things I learned attending the NRA Convention and prayer breakfast. I learned that you can legally purchase a missile launcher for $6500, but the missiles cost over $3000 so you really need to want to blow something up before you invest in that. We saw all the extreme stuff you can imagine – vendor after vendor showcasing assault rifles just like the ones used in Uvalde and Buffalo and so many mass shootings. There weren’t many hunting rifles there in the exhibit hall.
After participating in the protests and vigils a day or two before, we had the rare opportunity to cross the line, with legitimate passes and interact with people inside the NRA Convention.
It allowed me to see some things I didn’t expect. For instance, a protestor we had stood with the day before, yelled insults at us as we left the building, having no idea why we were there. As the old saying goes, “Where you sit determines what you see.” And going inside surely allowed me to see some new things I didn’t see just by protesting outside of it.
As we entered the Convention Center, one of the first people I met had a warm smile and told me he had read some of my books. We had an incredible conversation… it quickly relieved some of my presumptions. And yet, what we saw inside the Convention was anything but harmless. In fact it was haunting to see vendor after vendor displaying military style assault rifles and high capacity magazines. We had one exhibitor show us a magazine that could easily be attached to a Glock pistol for less than $100, allowing it to shoot over 50 rounds without reloading.
But there is good news. The NRA is hemorrhaging in almost every way. It has been on the verge of bankruptcy, and is in the midst of a civil war within its own ranks. One thing was very apparent as we attended the Convention – it is aging out, and overwhelmingly white, old, and male. It does not reflect who America is and who we are becoming. As we crossed the line and went inside this intimidating organization, we had a “Wizard-of-Oz” moment where it felt like the veil was stripped away, only to reveal the great Wizard is just a little old man behind it all.
It is also a reminder that the real obstacle to gun reform in America is not gun owners, but gun extremists and gun profiteers, which is exactly who the NRA has become. When the NRA says that it has 5 million members, what we need to hear is that over 95% of gun owners are NOT part of the NRA. In fact, as we researched for our book Beating Guns, we found that 62% of gun owners find themselves at odds with the NRA. And when it comes to common sense gun reforms like banning assault rifles, raising the minimum age, requiring universal background checks, red flag laws, eliminating ghost guns, a majority of gun owners and nearly 90% of Americans want to see change.
Keep in mind that two-thirds of Americans live without guns. And even though we now have more guns than people in America, almost half of the guns are owned by less than 5% of our population. Those are folks who don’t just have a 12 gauge for hunting deer, but own about 20 guns average each. Some of them have over 1000 guns. That’s what we mean by gun extremists.
While the NRA only represents a small percentage of the US population, they still own a lot of our politicians. In 1998, the NRA became the biggest contributor in congressional elections. In 2016, the NRA allocated 96% of its total election spending, over 50 million dollars, to the presidential race and six Senatorial races. Donald Trump received over 30 million of that – it’s no coincidence that he was one of the speakers this year in Houston. Henry Ford once said, “Tell me who profits from violence, and I will tell you how to stop it.” Perhaps if every city and municipality started passing commonsense gun reforms – banning assault rifles, limiting handgun purchases to one per month per person, and other policy changes that would save lives, we could bankrupt the NRA and its ability to purchase politicians (as undoubtedly, the NRA will sue every municipality that regulates guns as the Second Amendment suggests).
Here’s one constructive thing we can learn from the NRA – contacting our legislators makes a difference. One recent study found that nearly 50% of NRA members have contacted a public official to express their opinion on guns, and about 25% of them have done that in the past year. Compare that to the general population – where only 15% of Americans have contacted their legislators and only 5% in the past year. In the words of Dr. King, “Those of us who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as the war hawks.”
I believe in prayer. That’s why we went to the NRA prayer breakfast. But I also believe in action. As we were escorted out of the Convention Center, one of the NRA leaders came to talk with us. He pointed to the newspaper I held in my hands, with all of the faces of the kids in Uvalde, and told us that it broke his heart. I reminded him of this timely verse from the book of James: “Faith without works is dead.” He shook my hand as we exited the building. Every one of us is faced with a decision right now – what does it look like for us to have courage and turn our thoughts and prayers into change. The best way we can honor the lives of all those lost to guns is by taking action to end gun violence. Now is the time.