Sticking to his guns: Episcopal priest denounces weapons, with Los Angeles Times' help

An Episcopal priest in Oregon inserted himself into a gun controversy -- actually, created one -- and then he acted shocked, shocked at the public blowback.

So did the Los Angeles Times, in an article that could have been written by public-relations professionals working for anti-gun advocates.

Rather than lengthen this intro, let's just load up and chamber the first excerpt:

The Rev. Jeremy Lucas brought an olive branch to a gun fight recently, hoping for a mellow outcome. It began when he won a semi-automatic rifle in a local raffle, then revealed his plan to destroy it and was mostly congratulated for his stand.
But the 44-year-old Episcopal priest’s token attempt to take another gun off the streets did little to keep the peace. In response to his gesture, Lucas got threats and demands for his arrest.
"I’ve come to learn a lot about the nature of social media," Lucas said last week of some of the comments about his one-man, one-gun protest. "The rabid gun activists come out swinging, trying to close down any meaningful conversation and attempting to intimidate people into silence."

But the article has large silences of its own, including many primary sources and a religious "ghost."

The Portland-area priest learned about a local girls’ softball team that was raffling an AR-15 rifle to go to a regional playoff. Lucas says he was concerned about the message that the raffle might convey, considering how often those guns have been used in mass shootings in the U.S.

The priest then offered to pay for the trip himself, but the team had already sold some raffle tickets. He then dipped into his church's discretionary fund (money donated to the parish for the priest's use in ministry, usually for work with the poor) for $3,000 and bought 150 of the 500 raffle tickets. Lucas then bought another 150 tickets -- presumably with another $3,000 from the church till, though the article doesn't say that with certainty -- and won the gun. 

His announced intent to destroy the weapon, as a symbolic protest, brought a crossfire of opinion on Facebook and news websites.

At least, Lucas says that is what happened.

The reactions included "Facebook thank-yous from relatives of some of the Sandy Hook victims and encouragement from hundreds of others," the article says. Any examples? None are provided in the article.

"Then there were the 'critics and trolls' on social media and on news websites, Lucas wrote on his blog, 'lobbing their hate and vitriol'," the Times says, taking Lucas' word for it.

In an interesting twist, the story says a gun-rights advocate blew a whistle on Lucas. The priest left his new weapon with a parishioner who hadn't gotten a background check per Oregon’s new gun law. Oops. Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, says that if Lucas isn’t prosecuted, it will show the law is aimed at the "average gun owner."

The Times should asked Lucas about that: It says he is a "law school graduate who worked as an attorney before turning to the church." And why didn’t it say more about his turn to "the church"? Was there a personal crisis involved, response to some form of evangelism or just a gradual process? And did it have some bearing on his current flamboyant stance against guns? Ghosts aplenty here. Once again (as our own Bobby Ross just stressed), the factual details matter in a religion story.

This article does quote another religious source. Bishop Michael J. Hanley of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon calls Lucas' gesture "a wonderful thing and actually filled me with a certain amount of glee" (at least he said that in a "statement," meaning the reporter didn’t actually interview him). Hanley says more people should do such things, "jumping into the unknown consequences of doing good deeds."  

Oh, and the Times accounts for the cash, kind of. It says that "donors" replaced it and then some. But were they members of Lucas' parish? The wording suggests otherwise. How did the members of Christ Church view their rector's actions? Given the generally liberal nature of the Episcopal Church, many would probably commend Lucas. But you never know until you ask. Asking questions is a good thing, in journalism.

And wouldn't it be a good idea to talk to someone from the softball team? That's what they did at the Williamette Week, where Lucas learned of the raffle:

"This is still America, where I believe we are free to pursue our own joy," writes Georgia Herr, a district manager for the team, in an email. "For those who have the money and resources to shoot rifles, I believe they have as much of a right to do so as those who spend their time chasing invisible Pokémon."

Later in the article, Herr adds that parents were involved in the raffle. "I don't presume to judge what is appropriate for others, but I do believe parents are responsible for teaching their children," she says.

Finally, the story could have offered a sample on the larger religious discussion that we could have about bearing arms. Jesus himself seemed ambivalent toward them. He approved his apostles carrying swords; yet he rebuked Peter for using one.

Some readers might say that such an angle isn’t needed in a mere news story. Perhaps, but the Times got live quotes from an Episcopal priest and his bishop. And it ends with Lucas saying that more coverage could "perhaps keep the dialogue going."

Well, part of that dialogue -- especially when clergy are involved -- would necessarily involve religious and spiritual details. Once again, God is in the details.

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