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Archdiocese’s first gun violence summit prompts urging for a Christian response to the issue

Speakers share firsthand experiences, describe issue as complex problem

On Memorial Day, Kyle Dooley lost his father to suicide.

It was the fifth gun-related suicide death in his family in the past 25 years, beginning with his grandfather, a former law enforcement officer who died six weeks before Dooley graduated from the police academy in 1999.

Speaking before 350 people attending a gun violence summit on July 29 at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury, Dooley said the biggest question people ask when someone dies by suicide is: Why?

“That is something that unfortunately we will never know,” he said. “But can I tell you: What would have prevented every one of these suicides? If they didn’t have a weapon. If my father would have his weapon locked — with a gun lock or locked within a gun cabinet — it very well could have prevented that.” It would have given him that little bit of extra time to consider the consequences, he said.

Dooley, who now trains law enforcement officers how to respond to individuals in a mental health crisis through a program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was one of several speakers who shared their firsthand experiences with gun violence. Others spoke about school shootings, domestic violence and general gun violence in the community and their experiences as pastors, medical and social work professionals and parents.

Through their personal stories, they shared their thoughts on addressing gun violence — from distributing gun locks to advocating for gun safety legislation and promoting mental health services. Workshops were held in the afternoon to dive more deeply into the topics.

Atif Mahr, whose daughter Isis was shot and killed in October 2021 while returning home from work at an elderly care facility, called upon Catholics to put their “feet to the street.” He said his Catholic faith and the support of the Redemptorist priests at his parish, St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church, is what has kept him going since his daughter’s death.

“When you lose a child, you have to find a way to go on,” said Mahr, who started the Isis Aaliyah Mahr Gun Violence Prevention Fund to mentor teens and young adults seeking a future career in nursing, as his daughter was pursuing. “I go on by pushing her name, her legacy. It was time for her rebirth with Christ in heaven. She’s with God and with her rebirth has rebirthed my faith in God. Only through my faith shall I be with my daughter again.”

“As Christians, they’re all our children,” he said. “Yes, gun violence is in the Black community, it’s in all our communities. So if it’s heavy in our community, I must be heavy on the street. Feet to the street. It all leads back to accountability for our loved ones as Christians … and loving each other as Christians.”

SSM Health Chief Community Officer Dr. Alexander Garza shared his firsthand experience with gun violence as a paramedic and later as a doctor. Citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he noted that Missouri ranks eighth in the nation for all firearm-related deaths. Looking at the territory that encompasses the Archdiocese of St. Louis, 57 percent of deaths are from homicide and 40 percent of those deaths are from suicide.

“Unfortunately 30 years have gone by, and I think my story repeats itself over and over again in our communities,” Dr. Garza said. “Gun violence is the epidemic in plain sight. It affects more than just the victims, he said, but also families, neighborhoods, communities and entire generations.

The prevention and treatment don’t rest in one solution, Dr. Garza said. “It’s a complex, it’s a weighted problem that demands and deserves more than just simple thinking or simple solutions.”

The Church has had a longstanding biblical tradition and history of defending the gift of life, which is given to us by God, Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski said in his opening remarks at the summit.

“As a nation, we face numerous instances of gun violence in our families and communities; people who are taken from us so senselessly from young children, teens and adults, innocent and in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “As a Church committed to the value of life, we need to address these issues with our Christian perspective.”

The archbishop also expressed his hope that a task force will be developed in the archdiocese to help parishes, schools and Catholics respond to the “critical issue” of gun violence. “From the knowledge we gain here today and inspired by the teachings of Sacred Scripture and our Church tradition, I am hopeful that we can bring an effective pastoral response to this plague that so devastates our nation,” he said.

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