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After Charleston shooting, Baltimore gun control advocates take to church to spread message

Pastor Donte Hickman discusses the shooting in Charleston last month and gun violence in Baltimore in general at Southern Baptist Church on Sunday, with the images of the nine Charleston victims behind him. (Kevin Rector/Baltimore Sun)
Pastor Donte Hickman discusses the shooting in Charleston last month and gun violence in Baltimore in general at Southern Baptist Church on Sunday, with the images of the nine Charleston victims behind him. (Kevin Rector/Baltimore Sun) (Baltimore Sun)

In the middle of a rousing sermon at his Southern Baptist Church on Sunday, the Rev. Donte Hickman asked congregants to raise a hand if they had personally been affected by gun violence.

Hands immediately shot up, one after another, in nearly every pew in the East Baltimore house of worship — a testament to a problem Hickman said disproportionately impacts black communities in the city.

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"People are not our problem," Hickman said. "It's the pistols that they're packing that are our problem."

Hickman's message came as part of an organized, nationwide effort to engage black church communities in the country's gun control debate following the fatal shooting on June 17 of nine black church members in Charleston.

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The #RisingForCharleston event — organized by the gun control groups Everytown For Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and The Black Church Center for Justice and Equality — included a moment of silence for the Charleston victims and a call for congregants to sign postcards urging Gov. Larry Hogan to consider tougher gun laws in Baltimore and across the state.

"You and I as a church, as people of faith, have the power of our voice and our influence to speak truth to power and bring about substantive change," Hickman said. "God has called us to pray, but he's also called us to action."

Several elected officials also stood on the Southern Baptist stage during the service to speak to the issue of gun violence, which has spiked in Baltimore in recent months.

"We can't afford to continue to lose 88 American lives to gun violence every day," said U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, citing a national statistic used by the organizing groups for the daily toll bullets take in the country.

Edwards, a Democrat running for the Senate seat held by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring, said the "people of God" must take the lead in standing up to those bent on committing violence in Baltimore's streets.

"When we do, our communities are going to stand with us," she said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is also running for Mikulski's seat, invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in calling on the congregation to use its voice to address not just gun violence, but also the kind of hate that he said was apparent in the "evil act" in Charleston.

"We must fight both these scourges — the scourge of hate and the scourge of gun violence," said Van Hollen, also a Democrat. "And we must do it with what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now.'"

Van Hollen recently introduced legislation in Congress — unlikely to pass with Republican control of both chambers — that would give states incentives to pass stricter, "permit to purchase" gun laws similar to what was passed in Maryland two years ago. The Maryland law requires handgun buyers to give their fingerprints to law enforcement and get a $50 license.

Such laws are most effective for a state when they are also in place in surrounding jurisdictions, he said.

Also in attendance were Rep. John Sarbanes, who said he hopes the "defeatism" in Washington about passing sensible gun control measures will end soon, and state Sen. Nathanial McFadden, who Hickman called one of Southern Baptists' "very own." Both are Democrats.

As the service ended and congregants began filing out of the church, many said the gun control messages resonated with them.

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Shawntae Wheeler, 29, of West Baltimore, said she lost a nephew to gun violence in the city and is constantly afraid for her 4-year-old daughter, Alexx, who was also at the service.

"There's no reason that people in the inner city should have such easy access to something that can cause so much damage," Wheeler said of guns. "My daughter is 4 years old, and I'm afraid to let her go outside."

The Charleston shooting was another wake up call, she said, because it happened in a church.

"If your place of worship, the place where you go to bare your all, isn't safe, where can you go?" she asked. "It really diminishes my soul."

Wheeler's sister, Tiffany Wheeler, 32, said gun violence is "a crisis that really needs to be taken care of."

Kristy Davenport, 29, of Dundalk, who attended the service with her 9-year-old son and 7-year-old nephew, said she was glad Hickman put a call to action on gun violence before the congregation.

"We need to make a better Baltimore for the next generation," she said.

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