Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
Last month, Susan and I drove to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to visit friends for an overnight stay at their home fronting one of the tributaries of the Chesapeake. Peaceful and tranquil, it is one of my favorite parts of the country.
We’ve visited these friends a couple of times, but I still get confused when I pull onto the road that leads to their house. It’s a wooded area with several homes set back from the road. I turned into a long driveway that I thought was the right one and pulled up toward the house which seemed somewhat familiar. I got out of the car, went and rang the doorbell, and waited. No response. Susan called our friends on her cell phone. We were at the wrong house, they were next door. We got in the car and drove one driveway over. It was an innocent mistake that could happen to anyone at any time. As news stories of the past couple of weeks have made clear, however, in this country, a mistake like the one I made can be fatal.
On Thursday, April 13, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was sent to pick up his younger twin brothers who were on Northeast 115th Terrace in Kansas City, Missouri. Mistakenly, Carl went to Northeast 115th Street. It’s not clear whether he rang the doorbell, or knocked on the door, but it is clear that he did not enter the home. In response to his appearance at the door, 84-year-old Andrew Leister opened the door and shot the teenager in the head. When he had fallen to ground, he shot him again. Thanks be to God, Yarl, though seriously injured, survived the shooting.
Two days after this shooting, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was in one of two cars with friends attempting to find a friend’s home at 10 o’clock at night in the remote area of Hebron, New York, close to the Vermont border. Like Yarl, they went to the wrong address. As the two cars and one motorcycle were backing out of a driveway, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan stood on his porch and fired his shotgun at the car in which Gillis was a passenger. She died from her injuries. Washington County sheriff, Jeffrey J. Murphy, observed, the shooting was “unprovoked and unexplained.” “There was no threat,” he said, “They were leaving.”
On April 18, Heather Roth, a high-school cheerleader, was with a friend outside of Austin, Texas. She got into a car she mistakenly thought was her own. Both she and cheerleader teammate Payton Washington were shot by 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez, Jr. who had a handgun. While both survived the shooting, Roth’s spleen had to be removed.
Also on Tuesday, April 18, in Gaston County, North Carolina, 24-year-old Robert Louis Singletary lost his temper when a basketball being used by some neighborhood kids rolled into his yard. It is reported he ran down the street and fired a gun at a neighbor. He encountered 6-year-old Kinsley White and shot her in the cheek. Her father ran to protect her and was also shot by Singletary, who also wounded another bystander.
The scourge of gun violence is killing, maiming, or injuring more than 100,000 people a year in this country. According to Statista, between 37 and 47 percent of U.S. households own at least one gun. In 2020, gun violence surpassed automobile accidents as the leading cause of death for children between 1 and 18. From 1999 and Columbine, 2012 and Sandy Hook, 2018 and Stoneman Douglas, 2022 and Uvalde, and 2023 and Nashville, it has been clear that, as a whole, this country values guns more than children.
Although a majority of Americans, including gun-owners, favor common sense gun laws such as universal background checks for all guns sales, “red-flag” laws, banning the sale of high-powered assault weapons, requiring licenses/permits to carry, and requiring safety courses as a part of this, the will of the majority of Americans is continually thwarted by a powerful gun industry, their lobbyists, including the well-funded NRA, and the politicians controlled by these forces and their money, symptomatic of the corruption that has contributed to our national sickness. With the psalmist we should cry, How long, O Lord? (Psalm 13:1).
One of the tropes often employed in the gun debate links the “constitutional right” to bear arms with the concept of “freedom.” The inherent constitutional connection of the “right to bear arms” with the expectation of “a well-regulated militia” makes clear that “guns” and “regulation” cannot be separated from one another, despite the fact that the modern debate has divorced them. This divorce has produced increasing anarchy and enslaved us all to a violent society and a culture of fear.
Susan and I just returned from Florida where Governor Rick DeSantis recently signed a bill that eliminated licensing requirements for Floridians who wish to carry a gun. He did this over the objection of most of the state’s residents. This means that in Florida, as in 25 other states, any encounter one might have with anyone could easily turn into a shooting. Cut off a car on your way to work? You may got shot for it. Ring the wrong doorbell? You may get shot for it. Have a fight with your spouse? You may get shot. Increasingly in this nation, any and every encounter has the very real potential of escalating into a fatal shooting. It is estimated that there are more than 390 million guns in the hand of civilians in this country. Where is the freedom in this kind of living?
New Jersey has among the strictest gun laws in the nation. We also have among the lowest rates of gun violence in the nation. Those two realities are not unrelated. As a matter of fact, the states with the strictest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun violence. The countries of the world with the strictest gun laws, have the lowest rates of gun violence. In the face of the United States Supreme Court decisions expanding gun rights against the objections of the majority of citizens, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation in December to tighten requirements for New Jerseyans to carry. It was an important step in the face of those who are seeking to have New Jersey join the rest of the nation in becoming less safe and increasingly subject to the malevolent disease of gun violence.
Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways, the Book of Proverbs advises (Prov. 3:31). In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15)
Gun idolatry and our culture of gun violence does not free anyone, it enslaves us all. Our faith calls upon us to reject this. As Paul states so clearly, For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
God bless you and keep you free in the love of the risen Christ.
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
 See William Lamb, Sheelagh McNeill, et.al “84-Year-Old Is Charged in Shooting of Black Teenager Who Went to Wrong House” – New York Times on-line, April 17, 2023 found at Ralph Yarl Case: 84-Year-Old Is Charged in Shooting of Black Teenager – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
 See Jesse McKinley, Hurubie Meko and Jay Root “New Details Emerge in Deadly Upstate Shooting of Woman in Wrong Driveway” – New York Times on-line, April 18, 2023 found at New Details Emerge in Deadly Shooting of Kaylin Gillis in Upstate NY – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
 Se Alisha Ebrahimji and Tina Burnside “2 cheerleaders were shot in a Texas supermarket parking lot after one opened the door to the wrong vehicle. A suspect is under arrest” CNN online – April 20, 2023 found at 2 Texas cheerleaders were shot in a Texas supermarket parking lot after one opened the door to the wrong vehicle. A suspect is under arrest | CNN
 See Rachel Treisman “A suspect is wanted in the shooting of a 6-year-old after a ball rolled into his yard” – NPR on-line, April 20, 2023 found at A North Carolina man is wanted in the shooting of a 6-year-old neighbor : NPR
 See, for example, the NRA webpage “Ring of Freedom” which promotes their “Premier Donor Program” and includes the statement, The NRA Ring of Freedom is dedicated to building relationships with patriots who are seeking to secure the future of freedom. Our mission is to gather the resources required to help preserve the uniquely American freedoms set forth by our Founding Fathers in the Second Amendment – found at NRA Ring of Freedom | NRA Ring of Freedom
 See United States Bill of Rights, Second Amendment which can be found at The Bill of Rights: A Transcription | National Archives
 See Daniel Han “New Jersey poised to enact ‘nation’s strongest’ gun law after Supreme Court ruling” – Politico.com – October 13, 2022 found at New Jersey poised to enact ‘nation’s strongest’ gun law after Supreme Court ruling – POLITICO