At noon on the Saturday of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas, the Rev. Holly Bandel sat under a pop-up tent on City Hall Plaza, a white stole over her patterned blouse, and prepared to lead a prayer for the victims of gun violence.
The N.R.A. drew an estimated 80,000 members to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in early May. For as long as the annual meeting was in session, so was the vigil on the nearby plaza, with numbers ranging from a few to a few dozen throughout the weekend.
Ms. Bandel, a United Methodist minister and member of Faith Forward Dallas, lit a tall white candle and placed it on the concrete in the middle of a circle of folding chairs. The candle would not stay lit in the breeze. Someone fired up a generator to power the sound system. About a dozen others, including clergy and community organizers, joined Ms. Bandel as she sat down, picked up a microphone and began the prayer.
“Blessed be God, the source of all being.”
Just then, the first few of about a hundred gun-rights demonstrators walked past the tent. Most were carrying rifles or holstered pistols. Some had both. One young man with his hair in a taut ponytail carried a long gun on his back and the Gonzales Flag—a star, a cannon and the words “Come and Take It”—on a pole in his hand.
The service continued: “Gracious and loving God, we ask that you liberate us from the sin of gun violence.” By the time Ms. Bandel handed out cut-paper hearts to the prayer circle, the gun-rights group had unfurled a 10-foot banner reproducing the Gonzales Flag, but with its 19th-century cannon replaced by an Model 82A1 .50-caliber rifle.
Our gun debate in the United States isn’t just political—it’s theological. In Dallas, it seemed that we are two nations divided by a common scripture.
“God is a God of peace, not a God of violence,” said D. Scott Cooper, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a member of Faith Forward who attended the vigil. But some attendees at the N.R.A. meeting saw a call for Christians to arm themselves. John Smithbaker is the C.E.O. of Fathers in the Field, a ministry that pairs fatherless boys with men who pledge to mentor them through outdoor activities, including hunting. He recalled Jesus telling his disciples, late in Luke’s gospel, to acquire swords. “Being meek does not mean being weak,” Mr. Smithbaker said.
Some attendees at the N.R.A. meeting saw a call for Christians to arm themselves: “Being meek does not mean being weak.”
On the day before Ms. Bandel led the prayer service, members of Faith Forward gathered under the tent protecting them from a light drizzle. “The one thing we all share together is belief in the power of prayer and preservation of life,” said Deanna Hollas, a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Several members of Faith Forward mentioned that they had guns in their homes, but Mike Gregg, pastor of a Baptist church, said he is concerned with the kinds of weapons readily available to Americans. “Weapons that aren’t used for anything besides death,” he said.
Linda Abramson Evans, who is Jewish, is a member of the Thanks-Giving Square Interfaith Council, the umbrella organization that includes Faith Forward. She said the group’s goal was not to protest the Second Amendment but to use prayer to motivate political action that will reduce gun violence and repair the world, according to the principle of tikkun olam. “We are not to stand by and do nothing,” she said.
Religious advocates of gun rights say they are also moved to action.
“Standing by and letting the innocent be harmed or abused is not standing up for righteousness,” said Mr. Smithbaker. He sees being ready to confront dangerous threats as an outgrowth of neighborly love, most fully expressed in the willingness to lay down one’s life for a friend.
The pastor of a Baptist church said he is concerned with the kinds of weapons readily available to Americans: “Weapons that aren’t used for anything besides death.”
Fathers in the Field hosted a prayer breakfast for 1,300 people on the Sunday morning of the convention. The keynote speaker was Col. Oliver North, who was announced as the N.R.A.’s new president the next day.
Before Mr. North spoke, former major-league baseball player Adam LaRoche stood at the podium, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Jesus loves me and my guns.” Mr. LaRoche spoke about the virtues of humility and devotion to family, but his Christology was unapologetically militant. He cited Jesus’ statement that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. “Jesus was, is, and always will be a badass,” he said.
After the prayer service early Saturday afternoon, Ms. Bandel reflected on the moment when the N.R.A. members walked past her tent. “Gosh! You could just feel the tension in the air,” she said. But she said Faith Forward members hoped they could dialogue with N.R.A. members. “We probably want some of the same things,” she said.
Gerald Cantrell was among a few gun-rights advocates who approached the tent. He wore the leather vest for the Sons of Thunder, a Christian motorcycle club named after the apostles James and John. The patch on his back read “No Fear of Death.”
“I heard y’all praying, and my heart went out to you,” Mr. Cantrell said. He calls himself a “sheepdog,” or a trained defender of the innocent against harm.
“When these are beat into ploughshares,” Mr. Cantrell said, gesturing to the Glock 17 tucked in a holster under his belt, “I will shout with joy.” He was apparently referring to the Second Coming of Christ, when, he said, there will be “no more tears, no more violence, and no more weaponry.”
Until then, Mr. Cantrell said, he is ready to meet evil with force if necessary. Like Mr. Smithbaker, he cited Jesus’ teaching on self-sacrificial love. Because God has promised salvation to believers, he said, “Christians should be the bravest men.”
But Mr. Cooper, the Unitarian Universalist minister, sees no biblical injunction to armed bravery. To his eyes, it is a false version of Christianity that idolizes weapons and feeds on fear. Mr. Cooper also argued that arming more citizens does more harm than good. “The chances of you protecting your family and being able to thwart evil are statistically much less than those of an innocent person being hurt,” he said.
Two hours after the gun-rights demonstrators walked past the tent, the Rev. Erin Wyma, a United Church of Christ minister, asked, “Anyone want to pray?” The generator fired up again, and she read the names of gun-violence victims in Texas. “Jonathan Vackar, Joshua Wood....” Candles, flowers and teddy bears sat in front of a posterboard memorial, which the wind kept threatening to blow away. “Karissa Flores, Jose Salazar….”
A hundred feet away, a young man wearing a black suit and tie, with a black cowboy hat and boots, started speaking through a bullhorn, rallying gun-rights advocates to demonstrate against a gun-control assembly in a downtown park. When he left, many of the people carrying their rifles and flags followed him.
The plaza grew quieter. Ms. Wyma’s voice carried over the lingering conversations. “Joe Andy Cardenas, Harriet Deison, Terry Taylor….” And on, and on.
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