Franklin Graham Backs Universal Background Checks

The son of evangelist Billy Graham tells TIME why he has agreed to support President Obama in passing universal background check legislation.

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Cliff Owen / AP

Rev. Franklin Graham prepares to leave the Pentagon, May 6, 2010.

Rev. Franklin Graham and other leading evangelical figures are publicly backing efforts to require background checks for all gun purchases, providing a shot in the arm to stalled congressional efforts to enact elements of President Barack Obama’s gun control plan.

Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and the president of Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told TIME they have agreed to back universal background check legislation put forward by the administration in the wake of last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“As ministers, we agreed together that we could stand on a united front for universal background checks,” Graham told TIME, noting he had many conversations with civil rights leader Rev. Amos Brown on the subject. “We think that’s reasonable and responsible.”

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Land wrote a letter to Obama in January on behalf of his organization pledging support to background check legislation, but his organization opposes the Assault Weapons Ban.

The vocal support of the largely-Republican evangelical community could represent a watershed moment for universal background checks, a modest plank, yet the most likely to pass, of the administration’s expansive gun control proposals. But their support may come at a cost for the White House — a commitment to taking on its political base in Hollywood over violence on the screen and in video games.

“There needs to be an all out effort to curtail the culture of violence that effects all of us,” Graham said. In an interview with TIME, Land called for “a Sister Souljah moment” from Obama for the entertainment industry. “You could tax violence and that money can be used for a special fund to help people who are victims of gun violence.”

And Land said the evangelical support for the background checks alone was tepid, and that to earn their help Obama would have to strengthen the mental health system and go after the entertainment industry.

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“We’re not going to oppose universal background checks —it’s a nice idea but only law-abiding citizens follow that,” he said. “The more the president can make this a multi-pronged the more support he’s going to receive from evangelicals.”

The evangelical support comes outside the legislative controversy surrounding a background check bill, which has hit a stalemate over record-keeping requirements. Democrats are calling for private sellers, who are currently not required to conduct background checks, to maintain records of the guns they sell — a sticking point that has caused Sen. Tom Coburn to walk away from talks with Sen. Chuck Schumer over concerns that it would never pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Graham said he and Brown are hoping the White House will combine the two issues together by April 4, the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There are millions of people that we can mobilize behind something like this, but it takes leadership from the White House,” Graham said.

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