Interview with Rev. Dr. Harry Eberts, Co-Recipient of the 2021 Peaceseeker Award
Along with Miranda Viscoli, Harry Eberts is Co-President of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. They work with youth, with art, with their legislature and with thousands of ordinary people to reduce gun violence in their state. The son of a pastor, Harry has spent 38 years as a local pastor in Lake Forest, IL, Lyndhurst, OH and currently at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, NM.
PPF: Harry, Congratulations on receiving the Peaceseeker Award. Why did you become involved in gun violence prevention?
Harry: I was first, somewhat clandestinely, allowing a gun violence prevention group of all women to use our church facilities. It was in the 1990s and I felt was important. “Sure, use our church classroom.” I didn’t realize that it was controversial at the time.
It went a step further when my wife, Jenny, and I went to a weekly lunch program at the Cleveland City Club. The topic that day was all about the Concealed Carry laws in Ohio. They had the concealed carry person there, along with Toby Hoover, who was then head of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. We got there right at noon and there were only two seats left, at a table of all NRA members. In talking with them, Jenny asked, “If you could save one life by giving up your gun, would you do it?” One man chimed in quickly, “No ma’am, I have my Second Amendment rights and I won’t do that.” So Jenny asked, “What about ten lives?” “No ma’am –Second Amendment,” “What about 100 lives?” No ma’am. It got to 10,000 lives that he would not be willing to save by giving up his gun. By that point, we were just appalled by the atmosphere of the room. The last question was posed to both speakers: “If you knew that everyone in this room had a gun, what would you do?” The concealed carry person said, “I would feel that this was the safest room in all of Cleveland.” Toby said, “I would get out here in a second.” Right after that, people were going up to Toby and they were yelling at her, pointing fingers at her, degrading her in all sorts of ways. Jenny and I stood back, with our mouths hanging open, thinking “what in the world is going on?” And so we got in the middle of this, we told Toby who we were and said, “What can we do to help?”
And that’s how we got involved with the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. Our church in Cleveland, Lyndhurst Community Presbyterian Church, became the northeast Ohio location of that group. We became a hub in Cleveland for gun violence prevention gatherings. We saw the impact of a strong statewide organization. Plus, I began this work with a great deal of social justice concern that I had gotten from my Dad, who was a pastor of large churches across the Midwest.
About two years later I was called to the church in Santa Fe. I asked Toby what was going on in New Mexico on gun violence prevention. She just held up her hand with a big zero. I knew it would be a tough road with New Mexico being out west, the Wild West in many ways. The next year, the Sandy Hook shooting happened. That was my way of getting involved. We responded to an invitation from moveon.org to join 17 other people in a prayer vigil. It grew from there to a new small group, working with Miranda and founding New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence.
PPF: How did Guns to Gardens get started?
Harry: In 2016, a woman named Kira Jones called us and asked if we would meet her for a cup of coffee to discuss creating a gun buyback program in New Mexico. We agreed to the coffee, but to be honest, we were not that interested. We, like many, were under the incorrect assumption that gun buybacks were ineffective and just a feel-good effort. We explained to Kira that we do not do gun buy backs. She asked to just show a few pictures. Kira began the meeting by showing us a picture of a gun buyback she had recently helped with in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At this particular buyback, over 400 working guns were taken in. There were piles of semi-automatic handguns, rifles and assault weapons. We laughed and confessed that we came to this meeting with very low expectations as we did not believe that gun buy backs reduced gun violence. We said to her, “we do gun buybacks now.”
We continued the conversation with our group. Someone said that gun buyback programs don’t work. Someone else said, yes, they do work. In the face of a cultural view that gun buybacks don’t work, we decided to give it a try. We were all jammed in my office and we thought of the words from Isaiah: swords into plowshares. Someone asked, how about Guns to Gardens?
That was 2016. We had no clue how to do it, but Miranda knew Mike Martin at RAWtools in Colorado, and he had started doing it. We talked to people in New England who had done it. We felt, in our setting, we had to get police involved. They were very wary of the idea. At first, a lot of law enforcement looked at us as adversaries. We had our first buy back. The police helped us. We built a relationship with the mayor and the police and it grew from there. We have many people in our group who make all this effective and fun. Guns to Gardens is not for the faint of heart. We had ours at the police station and the police kept out the NRA protestors. These folks stood outside with tears in their eyes as guns, one by one, were destroyed. It was a real lesson in how guns are religious idols in our country.
PPF: You said the work was fun. How is Guns to Gardens fun?
Harry: Because of the people involved and the people you meet who come to turn in guns. They are bringing all sorts of memories. They tell their stories. They are so relieved to be rid of the gun. Often it’s the wife who wants nothing to do with guns in the house. People are getting something out of this —relief is what people tell us. The gift cards they we give to thank them are often used for Thanksgiving dinner for these families. You feel good about the event. And you are helping your community. To me, that’s fun.
PPF: On June 11, the first national Guns to Gardens Day, you are planning your first event at a local church rather than at a police station.
Harry: Yes. Guns to Gardens is now starting to happen at local churches across the country. Ours will be hosted by La Mesa Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque. This area of the city sees a lot of gun violence. This is a small congregation doing good work in a place that needs a church. They want to provide this witness. We have safety precautions. We have best practices that we can share with all Guns to Garden groups nationwide. Not everyone uses police. We suggest police presence because the police handle the guns for us. I understand the concern that police may dissuade people in some places from participating. I can see both sides of this. But we are doing this in gun territory in New Mexico. Perhaps eventually we will not feel the need for police, but so far it has worked for us. It could be a regional thing. I don’t think we lose people because of the police presence. It’s all anonymous. In New Mexico, our police do run the serial numbers through the NICS system, the national background check system, to see if each gun was used in a crime. So far, in 13 Guns to Gardens events, not one gun has been used in a crime.
In six years, we have dismantled 1,037 firearms, with 30% of them being semi-automatic or assault weapons. Gun buybacks do work. Guns to Gardens is a great issue to work on. It’s different in each situation. For us, it has forged a relationship with individual police officers. At first they may have been standoffish, but now we have a relationship. And it’s not just with the police chief, but with officers in the community.
PPF: In a “buy back,” you don’t actually buy the gun. The owner stays while it is being destroyed and then you thank them for donating the leftover parts with gift cards. How does New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence raise all the money for this?
Harry: It’s all donations. We have some nice grants. The Santa Fe chapter of a group called One Hundred Women chose to support us. A family foundation is helping us to offer tools so that others across the country can create something in their states like New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. We have a board member who works hard on grants and direct mail letters. For a group our size, we are mostly volunteers. People want to be part of something that’s working. And they give their support.
PPF: You have made great strides in the New Mexico legislature. What is it going to take for the federal government to act?
Harry: We’ve been waiting for a tipping point for a long time. The Parkland school shooting stayed with us longer than others, but none of these mass shootings has moved the needle in Washington. All great movements start from the bottom up – from people saying We Can’t Do This Anymore. I’m hoping that people find the groups like ours that are out there and begin to form a web across the country. There is another voice out there besides the NRA.
PPF: What is the role of the church in gun violence prevention?
Harry: The pandemic has taught us that we need to be outside in the community. Church buildings are fine, but we need to be out there where people are hurting. It’s exciting to be part of a church that is out there now. Our focus for so long has been on church buildings, but the pandemic reminded us that there is a pilgrimage outside of our church doors.
Our tradition goes back to the beginning of Christianity. I was always so impressed to read about the history of the early church and how they met the needs surrounding them. Rodney Stark, who wrote The Rise of Christianity, says that it was a time of “casual cruelty,” but the church provided a kind of community. It provided nursing and health care services. It provided belonging. It provided care for widows and orphans. It provided food for those who were hungry—all of those things. And we are just part of that line. If we forget that this is who we started out as in the Christian movement, then we’re going the wrong direction. So that’s what keeps me excited about the church. I think that it can be a new day, if we seize on the possibilities now and not get too despondent over what is happening. After all this time, I’m still excited about what the church can do and be.
So that’s why this work with the gun violence prevention group is so refreshing to me. It cuts through all the layers that I often live with in the church for 38 years— you know, asking permission to do this or that, having to talk to somebody. We just do it. We do it and, if it doesn’t work, we do something else. And that’s been the fun part. It’s been fun to work with people who are excited and we actually get things done, not just talk about it.
PPF: What would you say to a church that is sitting there saying, we should do something about gun violence, but we’re afraid?
Harry: First of all, I would ask them why they’re afraid. What’s really stopping them? Fear can stop so many things and it has—fear of what other people might think of us, fear of what they might do in response to us. But what is the real fear?
And I would say: start somewhere. If you are interested in gun violence prevention, find out who else in the community is interested and team up with them. And go from there. That’s how we started. Just start somewhere. We just started. And, the more people saw that, the more people they got involved. Just start somewhere. It doesn’t have to be big. We didn’t start big. In the early days, Miranda and I would go around to speak, if we were ever invited. One time we went to a Kiwanis Club down around Albuquerque. It was seven o’clock in the morning and we live a ways away and were up really early. Half the people did not come because they knew we were coming. They did not want to have anybody talk about gun violence prevention. So we talked with the few people who were there. And that’s how we began, little gatherings. And now, people ask us to come. They ask Miranda to come and ask our group to be part of something. It just spreads after that.
PPF: Anything else to say to churches thinking about this work?
Harry: We said early on, we always take the high road. When you’re at committee meetings at the Roundhouse, our statehouse here in Santa Fe—it was kind of rough at times in the early days because everyone seemed to be against what we were trying to propose. There was one bill to get rid of automatic weapons. There were 75 NRA types and five of us in a room. And they could bring their guns in. It got a little touchy, a little scary. We felt there was no protection for us and many people would be upset with what we were doing. But we always said: take the high road. Never go down and be at a level where we are yelling at somebody or upset with somebody. And that has proven, time and again, to be the best advice because people know us now as a group that is not going to engage in all the things you see around us in politics. We’re going to try to get to know each other and deal with some of these grave issues that they are dealing with. It builds trust. That’s how we work. I’m proud of the fact we are known as a group that takes the high road.
Join an action circle to find out how to bring your congregation into the movement and learn how to dismantle a gun with a chopsaw.