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Gun Control Finds An Unlikely Ally In The Armor Of Light

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 4, 2015 4:09PM

Rev. Rob Schenck takes target practice in "The Armor of Light." (Photo courtesy of Fork Films.)

With just days separating the senseless mass shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, The Armor of Light could not be timelier. Chi-Raq (also opening this week) may be grabbing the media spotlight, but this thoughtful and moving documentary is the real movie of the moment in addressing our despairing "new normal."

The movie is even more vital in showing two near-extinct qualities in our national discourse: a willingness to listen and to change viewpoints. For The Armor of Light is not about your traditional anti-NRA crusader, but Reverend Rob Schenck—an ultra-conservative, fiercely anti-abortion evangelical minister.

The movie opens recounting anti-abortion protests led by Schenck in Buffalo in the early '90s, where he made headlines carrying a preserved fetus in his hands. He also named specific abortion doctors to protest. That kind of targeting may have led James Kopp, a member of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, to murder New York physician Barnett Slepian in 1998. The murder motivated Schenck's first steps in overcoming what he calls his own inertia concerning connections between his constituency and gun violence.

Subsequent gun tragedies brought the issue closer to home for Schenck, but it was Lucia McBath who finally got him to take action. McBath is the mother of Jordan Davis, a teenager killed by Michael Dunn in 2012 after an altercation over the volume of music played in a van in which Davis was a passenger. Dunn's defense rested on Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, though he was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder in a retrial.

McBath becomes the movie's other central subject and her story provides the most emotional moments. In his first meeting with McBath, who is pro-choice, Schenck says he sees gun control as part of the same pro-life mission that leads him to protest abortion clinics.

Schenck preaching in "Armor of Light." (Photo courtesy of Fork Films.)

But he has difficulty making that case against the burning anger of staunch gun proponents on the religious right. A contentious meeting shown includes current Operation Rescue President Troy Newman, who is hostile as soon as the issue is raised, parroting a favorite NRA simplification: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Schenck responds with common sense eloquence you wish any prominent politician, left or right, would dare to match.

"You're living in a delusional world of men in white hats and black hats, and the white hats know where to fire and when to fire and every time they take out the bad guy," he says. When Newman replies with macho bluster, accusing Schenck of being afraid of guns, the minister's answer is even better: "You know why I'm afraid of them? Because I don't trust myself. In the moment of crisis, when I'm awash in adrenaline, I do not trust my judgment. And I'm amazed at how much you trust yours."

Directors Abigail Disney (yes, part of that Disney family) and Kathleen Hughes bring an admirable sensitivity to this material, avoiding both agitprop techniques and the illusion of total journalistic objectivity. They have a point of view here, but they focus on their subjects, giving them respect in their personal struggles and contemplations.

The no-compromise nature of the NRA and Tea Party-infected vitriol are driving forces in our dead-end political climate, but The Armor of Light also challenges liberals on their preconceived notions and defensiveness. Could the majority on the left do as McBath has done, and partner with someone whose words may have incited violence against abortion providers, in order to possibly advance gun control?

The movie doesn't paint Schenck as a hero. It shows the career-driven pragmatism that made him a leading theological figure on the right, and he admits to being wary of losing that stature and financial support. But his decision to finally speak out is a brave one...even if it shouldn't be.

That's the real message of The Armor of Light: not so much that we are failing in addressing gun violence, but that we are losing our collective ability to talk, listen and think outside of ideological straitjackets. Schenck is no hero, but his story does show the absolute necessity of reconsideration, as well as its promise.

The Armor of Light. Directed by Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes. 87 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, Dec. 4 at Facets Cinémathèque.