Every day, Church of the Covenant member Bob Jefferis combs through county coroner records to prep for the week’s update of the stark “gun death sign” located on the lawn of his church. The sign, which can be seen by passersby on Euclid Avenue, notes the number of gun deaths in Cuyahoga County since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. This week, the count was raised from 118 to 120.
Jefferis, a member of the church’s Task Force on Gun Violence, updates the count every Sunday. According to him, after the shooting at Sandy Hook, many members of the congregation noted that gun violence was a problem that could not keep being ignored.
“People are dying and we don’t think they need to die,” he said.
Following the Sandy Hook shooting, the church’s Social Justice and Outreach Committee created the Task Force on Gun Violence to encourage civil dialogue about the issue. Soon after, several members of the task force came up with the idea of the sign.
According to Jefferis, the sign and the Action Against Gun Violence campaign primarily intend to raise awareness and foster discussion about the issues.
“The initial step with the church was just to get people talking,” he said. “The sign was the first step to raise awareness. We aren’t looking to ban weapons or anything like that.”
Jefferis, who checks each county coroner report for gun deaths in accidents, suicides and homicides, emphasized that “there are real people behind this.” He said that the campaign tries to remind people of the local problem and still show that the universality of this issue.
The task force ultimately hopes to reduce gun violence by cultivating a sensible debate, contrasting with the highly hostile and partisan feuds that play out in Congress and the media.
“You need to have the discussion before there is meaningful policy change,” Jefferis said. “We are hearing from both sides. If one less person dies because we talk about it, I see it as a positive step.”
In addition to the sign, the church and task force have arranged other activities to promote conversation, including speakers, discussion groups and book studies about gun violence. They have also encouraged congregation members to sign a petition and write letters to political leaders.
The sign itself seems to have attracted the notice of most students. Freshman Campbell Fitzhugh first saw it during orientation, two months ago. He said that watching the change over time struck him more than the number alone.
“The difference is more important than the absolute number to me,” said Fitzhugh. “I am more struck by the difference since I got here to now. I think it was 92 when I first saw it, and now it is 118. [A difference of] 20 is easier to picture than 90 or 100.”
The Church of the Covenant also belongs to the Multi-Faith Coalition to Reduce Gun Violence, a diverse group of over 40 Cleveland area faith communities. Last Sunday, the coalition hosted a summit which emphasized open, civil communication as the solution to gun violence.
In addition to raising awareness, the church used the summit to find a new home for the sign. On Dec. 15, just after the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, they will pass it on to another faith community in Cleveland. In the meanwhile, the Church of the Covenant will continue updating the sign and spread their message about gun violence through study, prayer and service.