A Prayer for Action, One Year After Sandy Hook

On the morning that Adam Lanza killed his mother and then opened fire on children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we were on the phone with one another, talking about a priest who was hoping to move from one of our dioceses to the other. There was an early report of a school shooting somewhere in Connecticut, but no official word yet. "It's a harsh world, Mariann," Ian said. We paused, prayed silently, and said our goodbyes.

A year later, both of our communities are among the growing list of places across the country with names linked to mass violence: Newtown. The Navy Yard. As bishops, we have led funerals, as pastors we have comforted those who mourn, and as citizens we have petitioned our governments to take steps to prevent such heart-wrenching violence.

Yet our communities' grief and concern are not limited to the victims of horrific outbursts that seize the nation's attention. Nearly every day on the streets of our cities, teenagers and young adults die or are forever maimed because of easy access to lethal handguns. Because the vast majority of those killed in urban violence are people of color, handgun violence is largely ignored by white America.

Ignored, too, are those who use a gun to take their own lives. In the United States, on average, approximately 30,000 people are killed by bullet wounds each year. Most of these victims pull the trigger themselves. Many of those who die this way are veterans haunted by the trauma they endured serving our nation. Our hearts break for each and every one of these victims.

We are beyond frustrated with political leaders who continue to turn their backs on this national tragedy. Poll after poll has demonstrated that close to 90 percent of Americans favor closing the loopholes in the national system of background checks that is already in place. More than 50 national religious leaders wrote to every member of Congress this week, urging them to pass the legislation known as the Manchin-Toomey bill in the Senate and the King-Thompson bill in the House. This legislation would expand background checks to cover sales at gun shows and on the Internet.

We know that this legislation will not, by itself, end the mass killings that now occur in this country every other week, according to a recent study by USA Today. By itself, it will not end the violence that takes one life at a time either in suicide or in urban violence. But it will help save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, primarily by keeping guns out of the hands of those who are not legally permitted to own them.

According to a study released in September by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, private transactions that are not covered by the current federal system of background checks account for about 40 percent of the gun sales in this country -- a total of 6.6 million guns. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have closed this loophole, and the results are encouraging. Federal and state data establishes that in these jurisdictions, 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners; 39 percent fewer law enforcement officers are shot to death with handguns not their own; 49 percent fewer people kill themselves with handguns, and there were 17 percent fewer aggravated assaults involving a firearm.

A year has passed since that terrible morning when we first heard the news from Newtown. Church and community leaders have comforted those who mourn, rallied the faithful, and worked at piecemeal solutions to a systematic problem. In all this time, Congress has done nothing. It is long past time to pass legislation that will expand background checks and other modest measures that will save lives and assuage even a small portion of the grief caused by gun violence that has become a staple of our pastoral duties and our prayers.

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. They are members of Bishops Against Gun Violence.