The Minister Takes His Stand In The Gun Debate

Apr 30, 2018

The Rev. Martin Woulfe of Springfield has spoken from the pulpit about the need for what he calls saner gun control measures.

His sermons at the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation preaching gun safety have gone back more than a decade. And he’s talked about gun violence as a social justice issue.

“It just seems that if you're going to be a shooting enthusiast, you don't really need an assault weapon,” he said. “And I think that it is a military weapon that properly belongs in the hands of a trained military person and is not designed to be a civilian weapon at all — that if someone seriously has concerns about guarding his or her castle that is not the weapon that a person ought to have at their disposal.”

What may be surprising is that Woulfe is a gun collector who shoots competitively with black powder weapons through the North-South Skirmish Association. The minister's 17-gun collection includes modern and antique weapons. He’s got shotguns, handguns, rifles, carbines, a musket and a pistol.

“I grew up around guns. My dad served in the Marine Corps and some of my earliest memories actually involve him taking out a shotgun and shooting at a rat in the back of the yard,’’ Woulfe said. “But it was just one of those things which is imprinted on some of my earliest memories. What is more impressive, from my point of view, is my dad taking my siblings and I first to shoot a BB gun and teaching us the basics of gun safety with the BB gun to treat it with respect.”

Kim Villanueva is president of Woulfe’s congregation.

“It is intriguing to think about the fact that he is a gun owner, but he's also very responsible gun owner, which is what I think he's portraying with his work on gun safety.”

The Rev. Martin Woulfe demonstrates shooting safety for an NPR Illinois reporter.
Credit Katie Buck / NPR Illinois

Martha Plog is a longtime member of Woulfe’s congregation and is a member of Moms Demand Gun Sense in America.

"When I first found out that he was a gun owner and so forth I did think it was kind of an oxymoron that a Unitarian minister would be interested in guns, but when I found out that his interest is more toward antique guns, particularly black powder shooting, it made a lot more sense.”

He took NPR Illinois with him on a visit to a shooting range, where he demonstrated the safe use of a gun — a reproduction of a Civil War-era weapon. He’s gotten a nickname from other shooters in the NSA: Smoothbore Marty, which pays homage to his skill whether a certain type of gun. A version of that is on his license plate: SMTHBOR.

Essentially, what we have done is to take original weapons that were used to kill each other, and now it's used for a hobby, which keeps us in touch with the history that has passed and reminds us of not just the skills that were involved at that time, but also reminds us of the terrible carnage of that particular time in history,” he said. “The fact that we're able to take something that was used to originally kill a person and now use it in a sporting competition gives me immense satisfaction. I 

The Rev. Martin Woulfe works at this desk at ALUUC.
Credit Katie Buck / NPR Illinois

“If you can imagine a battlefield that might have a thousand people on either side firing and belching thick clouds of smoke, especially if there was no wind, it wouldn’t be too long that you’d have a heavy cloud of smoke hanging over the battlefield, and it would be very difficult to see the enemy on the other side of the field.”

Not every shooting enthusiast is a fan of Woulfe’s approach to guns.

Gun lobbyist Todd Vandermyde and Woulfe have different takes on the modern day meaning of the Second Amendment.

“Okay, so he sounds like one of these individuals who thinks that the Second Amendment should have stopped somewhere around 1787 so we'd have nothing but the printing press, the spoken word and quill pen,” he said.

“I don't think you call yourself pro-gun just because you own guns and you are supporter of the Second Amendment,’’ he said.I'm sure the founding fathers never dreamed of the internet or Facebook, and with that, the Second Amendment should be following right along that modern firearms are incorporated.”

But Woulfe says, “The notion of the militia is obsolete. I think, if we’re going to be honest, that waving the Second Amendment as permission for any individual to carry any type firearm at any time is a gross exaggeration and is contrary to the intent of  the authors of that document.”

The Rev. Martin Woulfe shows one of his guns.
Credit Katie Buck / NPR Illinois

Woulfe says something needs to be done in terms of gun control in this era of school shootings and mass murders.

“We wring our hands and we offer our hopes and prayers for the victims and their families, but we don’t do anything as far as curtailing the availability of certain weapons and certain accessories.

I think it's been demonstrated to horrible effect just how effective it is to upgrade a weapon which is supposed to be fired by single-trigger action into a semi-automatic weapon and a silencer. I cannot see any reason anyone outside of a James Bond movie would need a silencer.”