Religious leaders across the US have vowed to mobilise their congregants to push for gun control legislation and support politicians willing to take on the gun lobby, saying the time has come for action beyond praying for and comforting the families of those killed.
A group of clergy members representing mainline and evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, plans to lead off their campaign in front of the Washington National Cathedral at an event on Friday timed to mark the moment a week before, when Adam Lanza opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut.
The cathedral will toll its funeral bell 28 times, once for each victim, including 20 children, six teachers and school administrators, and the mother of the killer, as well as Lanza, who killed himself.
"Everyone in this city seems to be in terror of the gun lobby, but I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby," Gary Hall, the dean of Washington National Cathedral, said in an impassioned sermon on Sunday that has served as a rallying cry for gun control. People in the cathedral's pews rose and applauded.
Mr Hall said in an interview that he and Mariann Edgar Budde, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, are calling on their parishioners to support four specific steps: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tightening rules for sales at gun shows and re-examining care for the mentally ill.
Clergy members have been involved in gun control efforts for at least three decades because, they say, they are the ones called to give the eulogies at funerals and comfort victims' families. But they acknowledge they have been unable to mount a sustained grass-roots movement against gun violence — partly because they have not made it a priority, and partly because their efforts have been overshadowed by the organisational and fundraising power of the gun lobby.
Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, a two-year-old coalition that counts 40 religious groups as members, has only one part-time employee, Vincent DeMarco, who is simultaneously organising coalitions on obesity, health care and smoking. Asked his budget, he laughed and said, "de minimis".
Jim Winkler, the general secretary of the United Methodist Church's public policy arm, the General Board of Church and Society, said he was seeing some signs that the shooting in Newtown could be a watershed.
His office immediately sent out an "action alert" on gun control to bishops and other church leaders, and he said he was surprised how many wrote back, thanking him effusively.
"I could tell there was this real need, real hunger, at least in my denomination, for there to be some response that is not only prayers and expressions of sadness, but also a call to action," Mr Winkler said. "And it came from some who wouldn't normally care that much about public policy action, but who would be more interested in spiritual responses."
On Wednesday, the US President, Barack Obama, said he would make preventing gun violence a legislative priority, but that it would take "a wave of Americans" to move it forward.
But advocating limits on guns is controversial within many religious groups, and many evangelicals are opposed.
A CBS News poll conducted from December 14 to 16, after the massacre in Newtown, showed that while 69 per cent of Catholics said they wanted stricter laws on gun control, only 37 per cent of white evangelical Christians agreed.
The evangelical leaders expected at the cathedral event on Friday are relatively moderate: Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
Mark DeMoss, a prominent evangelical who recently served as an adviser to the campaign of the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, told Politico.com that measures to address gun control, mental health treatment and violence in the media should all be on the table.
But he said in an interview that evangelicals were unlikely to support gun control efforts because they do not want to break ranks with the Republican Party, and because they tend to see gun violence as a concern to be addressed spiritually, rather than through policy change.
He said he also considered violence a spiritual problem, but that he saw a "double standard" at work.
Evangelical clergy had boycotted the makers of violent video games and pornography, but on guns they say, "No, this is just a spiritual matter of the heart", he said.
The New York Times