I was speaking to a dear friend of mine some time ago when she suddenly told me she had to get off the phone and run the .30 odd .30 rifle down to her husband Kevin.
Now I suspect that for many of you that might seem rather strange. It actually wasn’t. You see, my friends Judie and Kevin are ranchers in Texas. They have all kinds of wildlife that appears on the ranch from time to time including the huge rattlesnake that took up residence on their front porch at one point. On this occasion the culprit was a 400 pound feral hog that was posing a threat to both their livestock and themselves. As someone born and raised in suburban New Jersey I’m not an expert on feral hogs but I hear they are pretty nasty.
A short time later, Judie came back, told me that they had “addressed the issue”and we continued the conversation.
That was the beginning of a sermon I gave in December 2012 shortly after the horrors of the Newton massacre. The sermon went on to address the issue of gun violence and, as I see it, our moral obligation to finally take the steps that will save countless lives.
That was the beginning of a sermon I gave in October 2017 shortly after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Once again, the sermon went on to address the issue of gun violence and, as I see it, our moral obligation to finally take the steps that will save countless lives. Five years and countless murders later and nothing had changed.
It was the only time in my rabbinate that I have reused a sermon. And the point of delivering it a second time was to drive home the point that nothing had changed. Five years and countless mass shootings later and… nothing had changed.
After five years, all I had to do was remove a reference to legislation that had been pending in 2012 (it failed to pass) and change the place name of the location where the massacre had taken place.
And now, three and a half years later, I could give this exact same sermon YET AGAIN.
In January 2021 there were 35 mass shootings in the United States.
In February 2021 there were 43 mass shootings.
In March 2021 there were 48 mass shootings.
The list goes on. It is so long, in fact, that most of the mass shootings taking place right now don’t even merit a mention on the news.
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.
In this case, I would call that the definition of callous inaction bordering on the criminal. Those who CAN do something to address this but HAVE NOT are culpable.
Today is Gun Violence Prevention Day.
On this day, I cannot help but think of the time we spent with Fred Guttenberg last year. Fred’s daughter Jaime was one of the victims murdered in the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. His pain, when speaking about Jaime’s murder, was palpable. And his commitment to channeling his grief into action in order to try to finally push our elected officials to do something is admirable.
And I cannot help but think about the more than 19,000 Americans whose lives were cut short due to gun violence in 2020. During a year when most schools were virtual and other than first responders, many of us were in lockdown, there were STILL almost 20,000 Americans shot to death and almost 40,000 injured by gun violence. As the Washington Post noted,
“The vast majority of these tragedies happen far from the glare of the national spotlight, unfolding instead in homes or on city streets and — like the covid-19 crisis — disproportionately affecting communities of color.” (Washington Post)
It is long past time for our nation to address the epidemic of gun violence with the same effort and commitment shown in recent months that has led to the rapid decline in both infection and deaths due to COVID-19. I would argue that there is a religious and moral mandate that we do. We see it when our tradition teaches:
One who saves a single life, it is as if she has saved the entire world.
Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed. (Numbers 35:12)
And we see it in the Biblical teachings that require a parapet around a roof and a cover on an open pit. In both cases our tradition teaches that, when there is a clear and present danger, steps MUST be taken to mitigate the potential for harm or death.
It isn’t complicated.
90% of Americans support reforming our gun laws. Few, if any of us, want to outright ban guns. That’s simply a talking point from those who want to maintain the status quo. We do, however, want to see serious steps toward reducing the gun violence that plagues our nation. Sadly, not a week goes by when that sermon about my friends Judie and Kevin isn’t relevant. That isn’t simply sad. It is a shonda.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has an entire section on their website dedicated to the religious mandate to curb gun violence and some of the steps we can take. Before Shabbat arrives, I encourage you to spend a few minutes visiting that page.
As I said at the end of that sermon,
“Some might call this Political. We call it pikuach nefesh — saving a life. And in Judaism, it is a mitzvah and a major mitzvah at that.”
On Gun Violence Prevention Day speaking out is the least we can do.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen