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Faith leaders unite, but are their followers behind them on gun control?

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Earlier this week, a number of faith leaders began a concerted push for gun control in advance of President Barack Obama's news conference on Wednesday calling for legislation that would address gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.

But an informative package of stories in the Washington Post's On Faith section examined whether the religious rank and file are necessarily behind those leaders calling for tighter gun laws.

"The gun-control campaign is a visible effort for progressive faith leaders in particular, who many religious progressives feel haven’t been confrontational enough in recent years and have ceded the public debate square to religious conservatives," wrote Michelle Boorstein in her report on the clergy's effort. "The question is how effective they can be at a time when Americans are moving away from institutional religion, thus lessening the clout of even major groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Islamic Society of North America or the National Association of Evangelicals."

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, explored the rifts between various faith traditions in his Post column, Figuring Faith.

"On one hand, the religiously unaffiliated (60 percent), minority Protestants such as African Americans (69 percent), and Catholics (62 percent) all favor stricter gun-control laws," he wrote, referring to a PRRI poll taken last summer after the Aurora, Colo., mass shootings. "On the other hand, a majority of white mainline Protestants (53 percent) and more than 6 in 10 (61 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose stricter gun-control laws."

Jones wrote that several theological and cultural differences divide Catholics and evangelical Protestants on the issue of gun control: 1) For Catholics, gun control has "pro-life" underpinnings, while the two issues are unrelated for evangelicals; 2) Catholics tend to live in areas where guns and hunting are not the cultural norm, unlike the more rural evangelical populations, and 3) Catholics tend to favor institutional solutions, while evangelicals prefer an individualistic approach to social issues.

A recent Gallup poll suggested the divide could be closing, however. While it didn't offer a breakdown by religion, it did say that "most subgroups are at least slightly more likely this year than last year to say they are dissatisfied with gun laws and want them to be stricter."

In another possible sign the gap may be closing a bit, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land wrote a letter to Obama that supported tougher background-check and gun-trafficking laws. But it also urged the president to let individual states rather than the federal government address gun safety and advocated a comprehensive solution that addresses mental illness and violence in the media.

The letter appears a slight moderation from what Land, a gun owner but not a member of the National Rifle Association, told National Public Radio in December shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings.

"Law-abiding citizens who are armed are the best last-ditch defense against the kind of horror that we've just experienced," he said, according to the Baptist Press. "If there had been teachers who had been trained and knew how to use their weapons, they could have saved a great many lives."

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