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Guns and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum complex. A wreath marks the spot where King died.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum complex. A wreath marks the spot where King died.

This was published as an op-ed in the Star-Ledger on April 4, 2018.

Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered with a high-powered rifle. The gun was purchased under a false name at a Birmingham, Alabama gun shop by a petty criminal who was known for his racist rants, and who had been stalking Dr. King for weeks.

Dr. King was no stranger to violence. And for a short while, he had some relationship with guns. After his Montgomery, Alabama home was firebombed in February 1956, Dr. King applied for a gun permit, which was denied by the sheriff’s office. He eventually secured a gun, but after his pilgrimage to India in 1959, he renounced guns and embraced non-violence as a way of life and as a strategy for the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King said that he was much more afraid in Montgomery when he had a gun in his house, so when he decided that he could no longer keep a gun he felt that he could walk into the crucible of violence with more faith and courage. “Our oppressors have used rifles and guns”, he preached. “I’m not going to stoop down to their level.”

While we can only speculate what Dr. King might say today as the epidemic of gun violence continues to sweep across our country, his 9-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, echoed her grandfather’s passion and commitment at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington DC, when she said, “I have a dream – that enough is enough.” Gun rights supporters have challenged the rhetoric from the nearly 800 marches held across the country on March 24 (including nearly a dozen in New Jersey), but the data is hard to ignore. There are a little over 300 million guns in America today, which nearly matches the population – and which is double the number of guns Americans owned in 1968. In 1968, gun violence resulted in about 23,000 deaths per year; in 2016 that number had mushroomed to more than 35,000 (each year includes homicides and suicides by guns). The math is clear – more guns produce more deaths.

Guns rights supporters, egged on by the NRA, continue to bark about how this is a second amendment issue. It isn’t. This is a public health crisis, and until we re-frame the conversation and enact stricter gun laws, which our young people are insisting upon, these senseless tragedies will no doubt continue.

Already a leader in establishing common sense gun laws, this past week the New Jersey State Assembly passed four bills which extend background checks for private gun sales, strengthen requirements to access a permit to carry a concealed weapon, outlaw armor piercing bullets and reduce magazine capacity to ten rounds. New Jersey has the sixth fewest gun deaths per capita in the US; and most of those deaths are from guns purchased elsewhere. These new laws, if confirmed by the state Senate, should make our state even safer from the violence wrought by guns. Conversely, the states with some of the loosest gun laws – Alaska, Mississippi and Louisiana, have gun death rates that are triple that of the Garden State.

In his last Sunday sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968, Dr. King preached that “we must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Fifty years after his death Dr. King continues to be a prophet for our time. He gave his life trying to bring people together, and to rally them to the cause of justice. He was cut down by a gun. Guns are machines designed for separation – life from death. We can honor Dr. King’s legacy by continuing to challenge the availability and capacity of guns – which in some quarters have become the golden calf of our day. We can do better. Our kids demand it.


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