Guns, Bullets and Mental Health

“Guns, Bullets and Mental Health,” Jim Pruyne

I want to thank Bob and Susan for letting me interrupt what they had planned for this Sunday. What I want to say has it roots in the fight for gun control and the service the Ryders planned for the night of the massacre in Connecticut, then revised and shared with all of us on the following Sunday. Although Gwen and I were not here the next Sunday, I know that those of you who were here had the opportunity to write letters to congresspersons and senators. I celebrate that fact. But there is more. I am passionate about this issue and so here I am.

I know that if you were asked, you would probably say that the Pruyne’s don’t even have a gun. Well, we do have one. I doesn’t work – the firing mechanism has been removed. And if you knew we had one, I hope you would agree that there is no way we would bring it to church. But, we have one and it is here and Bob is going to show it to you. It is a Kentucky Long Rifle, or in Pennsylvania, a Pennsylvania long rifle. I wanted to share it with you because it seems to me that when we talk a about the second amendment to our constitution, we ought to remember what we are talking about. We also need to remember the historical context in which it was written. The Bill of Rights was passed in 1791. The Revolutionary War had ended less than twenty years earlier. When it started, we were not a nation; we were thirteen colonies. The militia consisted of all those men who had guns. It was not an army that challenged the British at Lexington. It was a group of individuals, who together resisted the British. The was these individuals from all across the colonies who became Washington’s “army.”

In 1791 the war was still fresh. The British had sent an army, organized, trained, armed to subdue us and impose on the colonists the laws of England. One had to be ready to resist this aggression which came from the country in which they were raised. They had family there; and friends. They learned that they had to be ready to resist their own government.

And the guns they fought this war with; the guns with which they defeated the British were very like the one Bob is holding. There were no bullets at that time; only musket balls. Before they could be fired, gun powder had to be poured into the muzzle; tamped down; a ball inserted and tamped. Then and only then could the gun be fired. Had someone with this gun showed up in Newtown, I doubt more than one person would have been killed or wounded. After the first shot, I would be willing to bet that the teacher and others would have intervened, and though frightened, those children and their teacher would have lived. In the handout you have you will note a brief history of the gun. You will note that even during the war of 1812, these were the guns that were used. There were no multiple shot guns available in the late 18th century. Only in 1835 did we get the first revolver; the gatling gun came only in 1860.

Our strict constructions in congress and supreme court seem to ignore the historical context and the weapons available when they rule in favor of the ownership of guns.

So much for guns. I also want to talk with you about the mental health concern expressed widely today and reflected in Obama’s executive orders and in the laws proposed to the Congress. In the process of doing this you will likely find out more about me than you have any desire to know. But I going to ask you to do some things, to say some things, and if I don’t share with you, I can’t ask you to share with others.

To do this I want to tell you of three or four events in my life in one case, life itself, and in the other experiences I have had related to mental health.

1. When Gwen and I first came to Normal in 1955, my job was as the assistant pastor at First Presbyterian Church. My job was working with students, high school and junior high you, Christian Education, etc. I had a nice office at the church; bigger than the senior pastors. In the second or third year I was there, the son of a faculty member, part of the junior high youth group I worked with, started dropping into the office after school two or three times a week. Sometimes we talked; sometimes he sat quietly while I kept working. I did wonder what led him to do this. I did not push him to unload in any way. I thought that if there was something that was bothering him it would eventually come out. After three years I moved to full-time campus ministry and worked out of a small duplex across the street from the Alamo bookstore. I didn’t see this young man often. No late afternoon visits. In 1963 Gwen and I took a sabbatical to study at Michigan State University. We were gone for a full year. During that year, while I was gone, this young man shot and killed himself. He was in high school by now, ready for graduation. During that same year, the sons of two other faculty members also shot themselves. They were peers. I don’t know if they were particular friends. I felt then, and still feel now, that somehow I should have picked up on something, that I should have know that there were concerns relayed to me by his presence in my office every week. I believe Dick had to deal with this young man’s death and the grief of his family and friends. I was away.

2. Gwen and I were not so long ago riding in our car with a student in our back seat. We had been close to this young man for a few years and we had many long and serious conversations over that time. In the car he off handedly mentioned that he had to drive to Springfield to get his anti-depression medicine because he did not want anyone in town to know that he took them. Off handedly I replied, “I have been taking one for years, and I know others who take them, too. It is nothing to be ashamed of.” Unintentionally, unexpectedly this brief conversation set him free to deal with his medications and his feelings about himself. He thanked me for telling him – for revealing this information. An unplanned comment had set him free to move forward.

3. At another point I was in a group and somehow in the context of the conversation I indicated that I had spent nine years in therapy – two stints, one of six years and the other of three. Later one of the persons in the group came to me to tell med how freeing my comment had been to him. He could accept his years of therapy and not feel so odd, so different from others.

4. Briefly, a fourth experience. At one point the Wesley Foundation and UCCF held a common midweek nine p.m. communion. We two clergy decided to do a series of meditations on the ten commandments. Among others, I was dealt the one on honoring your father and your mother. In my meditation, I indicated that some time honoring your parents could be difficult to do. I said, I would put this commandment a little differently, I would say, “Honor your mother and your father – when they are honorable, when they deserve to be honored.” I thought nothing of the comment, but my office and that of my colleague were busy all the next week dealing with fall out from that comment.

What do I want all of you to learn from these experiences of mine.

Well, several things.

1. Do not try to be a therapist, if you are not trained to be a therapist. I learned this one early and had an arrangement with the Student Counseling Staff that made it possible for me to refer students to them with a telephone call, often, while the student was present with me. I also always made it a point at least once a year, to say to our students as a group that it was normal to have a period in their life when they needed to reflect on it, on their lives in their families and communities and maybe address some problems with the help of another person. I encouraged them to visit the counseling center where competent help was available free to them as college students.

2. Even the best therapist will miss some people. After that first experience, in another context I learned that we are not
God; that if we missed with someone, there were often others who were able to do what we could not with a particular student.

3. We need to be willing to be vulnerable ourselves in the presence of others. I do not mean, that you should meet every new person who comes to NCC and say to them at the door as they enter, My name is Betty, and I take anti-depressant pills, or I’m in therapy at the moment. If you have had or are in therapy, as you are comfortable with it, acknowledge it with no shame at points when it is relevant. You never need to tell anyone what your therapy involves, only that you are or have been in therapy. If you have never been in therapy, still be willing to champion it. I know others who have been really helped by it. I know a good therapist, etc.

These are maybe the only things we can do, but they are important. Openness about mental health is no less, and no more, something to be ashamed to admit than your last appendectomy, or the flue you are going through right now. Therapy does not mean you are nuts. It means that you have some issues in your mind that you need help in dealing with just as you need help when you break you ankle or come down with pneumonia.

As for the bill before congress. I am glad that thirty or so of you wrote letters a couple of weeks ago. It is great, but that is enough.

More than anytime since the civil rights era, the passage of new laws dealing with guns and all the issues surrounding it, depend on you and me and those like us all across the country.

I am technologically pre-kindergarten when it comes to the social media, but I will promise to write letters and send periodic e-mails to my mailing list on this issue. For those of you who are on face book, linked in, que pasa, for those of you who blog and twitter, whatever that means, please find time in your schedule over the next few months. Put numerous messages out through all these channels. It is the only way we have a chance of reducing the size of magazines, of ridding the market place of multiple shot attack rifles, etc.

And, please as you write and twitter away, remember that all of the senators and congressmen are United States congressmen and U.S. Senators. You can contact any or all of them. These people may be from particular states or districts but they sit in the U.S. congress.


  1. Ronald Bell says

    Thank you Jim for this reflection with such a down-to-earth personal human touch.
    It’s a heartfelt reminder that we -each & all- journey in less-than-perfect boats
    in a sea that’s sometimes turbulent and threatening.

    Personally, it brings to mind a time (about 35 years ago) when I “missed” a sign expressed by a dear friend (a Reformed Church Minister),
    who weeks later was found dead from playing “Russian Roulette” with his loaded revolver.
    Memory of that “miss” still haunts me to this day. …. And I still miss my friend.

    We are surely “earthen vessels”.