Moved by the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, retired Methodist minister John Evans is working to lessen gun violence in Columbia through his nonpartisan and nonprofit Faith Coalition on Gun Violence. The Hollywood-Rose Hill resident continues to organize events like Saturday’s gun giveback day.
By Deborah Swearingen
April 18, 2014
As retired Methodist minister John Evans watched the aftermath of the 2012 Connecticut school shootings, he felt compelled to act, and the local Faith Coalition on Gun Violence was born.
With Evans at its head, the group is trying to lessen gun violence in Columbia with events like Saturday’s planned gun giveback day at Washington Street United Methodist Church (29 guns were collected at the event). Evans hopes it will result in the guns’ remains being melted and transformed into a piece of public art.
The event, which is being called Peace Lilies for Guns, will be from 10 a.m until 3 p.m. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says those who drop off unloaded guns will receive a peace lily in return.
The nonpartisan and nonprofit group functions as a forum for people from both religious and secular communities. Evans, who lives in Hollywood-Rose Hill and still works as a pastoral counselor, said he wants to combat gun violence peacefully through education, training and local community activism.
“As a coalition, we want to maintain conversations so people who are gun enthusiasts can come offer a point of view,” Evans said. He hopes open conversation will lead to serious discussions of violence prevention.
But local activism is difficult and not always as successful as many would hope, said Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way – a Washington-based think tank that promotes gun safety and other issues.
“It can be very hard to move gun policies to the federal level with local activism,” Bennett said. “But it can help, and it can certainly be helpful when police get behind it and people call their senators.”
Evans said he struggles with the idea of effectiveness when dealing with an issue that seems to be bogged down in Congress and at the State House. But, he said, a deep compassion for those who have been killed by gun violence and a remembrance of the children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School keep him motivated even in moments of resistance.
“Seeing the pictures of 6-year-olds touched something deeply in me,” Evans said. “To think their lives ended and they didn’t have a chance to even graduate high school.”
Evans said he has encountered some resistance. Churches, for instance, often avoid the issue because they fear getting sucked into something political, he said.
Evans said he discovered gun buyback and giveback programs through extensive research after the Sandy Hook shootings. He said those gave him hope something meaningful could be done locally.
Saturday’s gun giveback day will be in the parking lot of the church, where Evans and some other coalition members are parishioners. People can bring any guns they no longer want, Evans said.
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department will destroy the guns, but Evans wants to take some of the pieces and work with local artists to create an abstract and metaphorical sculpture. The pieces will be stored at the Sheriff’s Department until an artist has been commissioned for the sculpture,” Sgt. Curtis Wilson said.
Evans hopes to see the scupture displayed in a public place like Five Points and include the names of gun-violence victims.
It’s easy to be apathetic, Evans said. But he hopes the sculpture will raise public awareness.
It was on a mission trip to Malawi, Africa, Evans said, that he got the inspiration to transform guns into art as he watched people use metal hoes and shovels – sort of a version of guns into plowshares.
“I like the idea of using something violent to talk about peace,” Evans said.
The coalition began in early 2013 with about a half-dozen people and now has about 60, with word of mouth being the most effective means of recruiting members, he said.
The coalition’s secretary, Sej Harman, said she has come to appreciate Evans’ drive and organization.
“He’s very gung-ho about getting the group gelled and moving us forwards towards this gun turn-in event,” said Harman, who joined the coalition in August. “The giveback event will be a very visible representation of us.”
Kathy Handel, one of those who helped Evans form the coalition, said he is a man with “a passion and a vision.”
He’s been particularly interested in the gun turn-in, but he never becomes too invested in any particular aspect and just lets everything work itself out, she said.
“He’s very Spirit-driven,” she said. “Where there are roadblocks, he just kind of steps back and relaxes into it, and then new possibilities open up.”
Handel, a retired school psychologist, said her interest is primarily in educating children about gun safety and ensuring that parents are not only locking up their personal guns but also learning to ask about other parents’ guns.
Jerry Stoudemire, president of Gun Owners of South Carolina, the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate, agrees with the emphasis on education.
“When kids begin showing an interest in firearms, their education should begin then,” he said. “It should continue completely – starting with gun safety and letting them see what guns can actually do.”
Evans said he worries about the state’s hunting and shooting culture, but Stoudemire said the youth shooting team he works with grows up understanding how guns work and that eventually its members gain discipline from being part of the group.
- Listen to John Evans describe the coalition.
- Statistics on gun violence in South Carolina from the Center for American Progress (PDF)