This is an open letter I sent to my representatives and the executive office, including Senators Saxby Chambliss and John Isakson, House Representative Hank Johnson, and President Barack Obama.
September 9, 2013
Dear United States Congress,
A little over a month ago on 5 August 2013, Rockne Newell stormed a town hall meeting in Ross Township, Pennsylvania, with a semi-automatic rifle, firing off 28 rounds. He killed three people and injured two more. One of the people he killed was my father, James “Vinny” LaGuardia.
Dad was attending the meeting because, as an active citizen, he always sought to improve his community by participating in the democratic process. He was there with his neighbor and good friend, Gerry Kozic, who also died in the shooting. Dad was 64, and we were looking forward to his 65th birthday this November.
My father was a loving husband of 40-plus years to my mother, a wonderful man of integrity, a deeply compassionate grandfather to his seven grandchildren, and my hero. He was very proud of us, his three children and our families. He was the glue that held our family together and had always been the life of the party.
When I was growing up, my father taught me how to box and how to defend myself. When we watched violent movies or talked about his childhood experience in Brooklyn, however, my father would be sure to tell me, “If you live by the gun, you die by the gun.” Aside from an old .22 hunting rifle he kept in pieces scattered throughout three separate dresser drawers, my father never talked about guns or advocated for guns. He always taught us to love and accept everyone just as his Lord, Jesus Christ, did according to the Bible.
My father was vehemently against gun violence because he saw so many friends fall victim to gun violence in Brooklyn and during the Vietnam War. He tried boxing because his father and brother were involved in boxing, but quit because he couldn’t stand to hurt another person, even with padded gloves.
As a Baptist minister with a congregation in Georgia, I have always carried on Dad’s values concerning peace and non-violence. I, too, have told parishioners a time or two about the negative effects of gun violence, and when doing so have echoed my father’s words that those who “Live by the gun, die by the gun” more often than not.
You can imagine, then, the indescribable grief and sorrow I and my family face due to this senseless act of gun violence that has taken my father’s life and has stolen away my children’s grandfather. I cringe whenever I hear of people being affected by gun violence or violence of any kind, but for it to hit home and take the life of such a beautiful man, my father, continues to be almost too much to bear.
Let me tell you something else about Dad. Dad believed in the Second Amendment right for people to bear arms. He has many friends who love to hunt and fish, and he would never impose radical gun control legislation upon anyone. He did, however, believe that common sense legislation, such as a standardized background check procedure and limited gun clips, did not infringe on those rights. I agree.
On that fateful night, Mr. Newell got off 28 rounds. Two other participants in the town hall meeting were able to subdue him and bring the violence to a halt only when he ran out of ammo. He was, after all, quoted as saying “I wish I killed more of them” according to police reports.
I have spent long nights wondering whether Dad would still be here for me, for his wife, and for his grandchildren, if Congress had passed legislation last Spring limiting ammo clips, especially for high-powered rifles, like the one Mr. Newell used.
I grieve my father’s senseless death, and I also grieve that Congress failed to act on common-sense legislation that might have prevented his death. I find it disturbing, also, that on my own senators’ websites, there is pride that at least one of them “stands up for the Second Amendment” (Senator Saxby Chambliss) and that the other has an “A” rating from the NRA on gun rights (Senator John Isakson). (Senator Isakson boasts on his website that he voted to defeat Obamacare 57 times; I wish he felt this passionate about working across the aisle for greater gun control.)
I wish Congress and these congressmen were as passionate about passing gun legislation as they are about placating a lobbying organization (the NRA) that I feel has very different interests in mind than the interests and values of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who never advocated violence or even the protection of rights, and would not do so today, especially when today’s “right” causes the suffering of so many people.
You know, Mr. Newell’s weapons were perfectly legitimate. Neither of his guns were illegally purchased nor stolen. Gun legislation would not have kept him from his Second Amendment right, and I can almost hear some critics say, “Then why push for greater gun control if it wouldn’t have helped in this situation?”
I feel that we need greater gun control not out of some naive idea that it will curb all gun violence, but because it communicates something deeper about our nation’s values concerning the sacredness of life and the sanctity of our nation’s welfare. We may stand up for this or that “right,” but at what cost?
My father never “lived by the gun,” but he has now become a victim of a gun culture that is out of control, be it embodied in a heinous “Stand your Ground” law or some inconsistent lax gun background check policies that allow too many guns in far too many hands.
I appreciate many people who own guns for hunting and recreational activities. In fact, I feel that a majority of Americans are safe, law-abiding citizens and responsible gun owners. I do have a problem, however, with a congressional body who fails to act on matters relating to the sanctity of life on a broader scale thereby protecting all of our citizenry, especially when it concerns common-sense gun control legislation.
I pray that there will be a day when Congress–both the Senate and House of Representatives alike–will be able to come together and pass legislation that curbs our gun culture, nurtures a culture of peace and non-violence, and creates sustainable communities in which reconciliation rather than revenge becomes our noblest virtue.
Blessings in the name of the Prince of Peace,
Rev. Dr. Joe LaGuardia