When it comes to reducing gun violence, thoughts and prayers aren’t enough anymore, Cambridge pastor Scott Marrese-Wheeler said Nov. 7 at the state Capitol.
Marrese-Wheeler, the pastor at Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, called on legislators to adopt two gun regulation bills.
“We are tired of your empty, meaningless words and moments of silence after another mass shooting,” Marrese-Wheeler said. “Politicians like Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos have consistently responded to these tragic events saying ‘now is not the time to talk about or take action on gun violence. Instead let us offer our thoughts and prayers.’”
Protesters, he said, were gathered at the Capitol “to show you what real thoughts and prayers look like.”
Protesters took to the Capitol as legislators were convening for a special session that included proposed action on the two gun bills. One would require universal background checks on gun sales, even at gun shows and through private vendors. The other would create a process for law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from people who may be at risk of harming themselves or others, called an executive risk protection order.
Gov. Tony Evers called lawmakers into a special session with an executive order on Oct. 21, in an attempt to pass the two laws.
Legislators ultimately did not take action on Nov. 7. They had initially planned to open and close the session without any discussion.
More than 100 people gathered outside the Capitol on Nov. 7 to hear Marrese-Wheeler and nine other gun regulation advocates speak at an afternoon rally. They stood in hats and mittens, chanting “Allow the vote” and “Whose house? Our house,” while watching their breath cloud in the 20-degree air.
Cambridge has been active recently in the gun violence debate, with an October gun violence forum at Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian and a chapter of March for Our Lives in the process of forming at Cambridge High School.
Cambridge students Ada Gent and Sophia Seamon, the Cambridge March for Our Lives chapter founders, participated in the Nov. 7 afternoon rally. They carried signs that read “No more silence, end gun violence.”
“I think it’s really important for both of us to show our support,” Gent said.
“I hadn’t realized how big of an issue this is and I looked back to middle school when we had all these lockdown drills and I’m like ‘I get it now, this is why we’ve been going through these things’...It’s really interesting to relate some of these things to our own lives,” said Seamon.
Gent and Seamon said they are in the process of finalizing the club’s creation with the school district.
“It’s really inspiring to see all the young people out there...and being part of that is going to be awesome, I can already tell,” Gent said.
Throughout the day, Marrese-Wheeler was joined by Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, as well as advocates from March for Our Lives, The 80% Coalition, Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, Mothers Against Gun Violence and the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
“The legislation has been introduced. But what we have seen from our legislature has been inaction. There has been no vote on common-sense gun safety measures. There’s been no debate,” said Kaul.
“We are here with a very simple message for the members of the legislature. It is time for you to do something. It is time for you to take action. We have waited for months for action, and we have waited long enough,” he continued.
A Marquette Law School poll released on Oct. 23 showed that about 80 percent of households in Wisconsin support universal background checks and 81 percent support executive risk protection orders. Speakers on Nov. 7 cited this poll as a reason for their protests.
“We are the 80 percent, and we have a right to know where our legislators stand. We have a right to know whether they are representing the 80 percent of Wisconsinites, or whether they are representing the gun lobby from Virginia,” said Jeri Bonavia from WIsconsin Anti-Violence Effort.
Speakers also expressed doubt that despite the special session, a vote would happen on the two bills.
Every activist had their own reason for being there — some said they had lost parents to suicide. Some had lost children to shootings. Some were students who had experienced the fear of mass shootings in their schools.
Speaker Heather Driscoll from Moms Demand Action shared through tears the story of her father committing suicide.
“My dad was a fifth-generation farmer, he was an avid hunter and he loved the outdoors,” said Driscoll.
“When I think about that, what killed me was not knowing if he regretted the decision after he pulled the trigger. Because when you have a gun, most of the time there are no second chances.”
Marrese-Wheeler called the two bills “our prayer beads.” He said they would be “like helpful healing prayer ointments for those who grieve for those killed, wounded and emotionally scarred by the epidemic of gun violence.”
Not all people at the rally came to support the bills. Three counter-protesters challenged the idea that 80 percent of Wisconsinites support the legislation.
“385 people is not 80 percent,” they called from the audience, taking issue with the Marquette Law School poll.
They also defended legislators like Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald, saying they “stand up for our rights.”
“I appreciate your passion, gentlemen,” responded Daryl Morin, the founder of the 80 Percent Coalition.
As a faith leader in Cambridge and a McFarland High School substitute teacher, Marrese-Wheeler said he’s been touched by gun violence himself, and has been passionate about this issue for the last 25 years.
“We have preached far too many sermons on gun violence following yet another mass shooting in our nation, and in our houses of worship,” he said. “We have paused on our morning worship services to remember the victims of these senseless, tragic, and far too common shootings.”
Marrese-Wheeler closed his speech with an “Amen.” The audience responded in kind.
While the rally may have been in Madison, Marrese-Wheeler said, Cambridge has a stake in this conversation in more ways than one.
Earlier this week, Marrese-Wheeler shared a story in an interview of a parish member who lost his life to suicide. After officiating countless funerals of gun deaths, he said he saw the value of these laws in small, rural communities like Cambridge.
“I’m pastoring the church in a small town, Cambridge, and we want to be heard too...It still does touch our lives and impact us. So, for me, it’s being representative of our community within the state, and giving a presence and a voice from a faith perspective to this issue,” Marrese-Wheeler said.
Other advocates agreed, citing statistics that 71 percent of all deaths in Wisconsin are suicides, and a majority are committed using firearms. Morin said that older white males are the most common population to commit suicide, and that farmers in rural areas have recently been especially affected.
“We have farmers, we have a lot of farms,” Marrese-Wheeler added. There are a lot of suicides in rural areas with farmers because they feel the stress of farming and downsizing and losing the family farm...This bill would help.”