Gun Violence Is a Moral Problem

bullets on ground
bullets on ground

Here's some scarcely-reported news from this past week. There was a shooting at a synagogue in Nashville, Tennessee, where the National Rifle Association held its annual convention the previous week. There was a shooting (with one casualty) at Wayne Community College in North Carolina; the suspect remains at large. There was a shooting in my hometown of Berkeley, CA that injured two, and a shooting standoff in Ohio that left one person critically wounded and seven in custody. All this occurred in one day.

As a rabbi, I cry at the erasure of so much life. I have organized for, marched with, and amplified Everytown for Gun Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. And yet, as a rabbi, I am enraged not at guns but at the casual violence afflicting our country, and the way we have grown immune to it. I do not accept the NRA's claim that "guns are not the problem," but I do agree that guns are not the main problem.

Yet this is an epidemic Americans barely notice anymore.

The torrent of gun violence headlines and statistics has led many to simply stop seeing them. I believe we are, as a nation, weary to our bones from all this death. We have, as a society, become victims of what Malcolm Gladwell famously called "the problem of immunity", in which being overwhelmed by massive amounts of information leads one or more people to be unable to process it, rendering it functionally invisible. It is, perhaps understandable. We have become, to borrow a phrase from Pink Floyd, "comfortably numb."

Once in a while, national attention is provoked by either a slow media cycle or a large number of casualties. But in the aftermaths of even these tragedies, despite overwhelming support for universal background checks for gun sales (even among NRA members), there has been no significant and lasting national response. Legislators seem incapable of compromise, and the frontlines of the culture war are bombarded by extremists who alternatively demonize gun owners and gun reform advocates alike.

Is there anything to be done? Is there no way to make any change in a system of sustained violence that costs upwards of 30,000 lives every year?

My claim is that my fellow faith leaders can bridge the divide between gun owners and gun reform advocates. This is a moral crisis, and it requires a moral response.

Whereas elected officials and those employed to sway their decisions are driven by the market, faith communities of all stripes are driven to maintain the dignity of the Divine Image in every human life. Faith reminds us of our common humanity, can provoke that most human of responses to the needless deaths of our fellow citizens: compassion. Americans of all political leanings -- gun owners, gun law reformers, mental health advocates -- wish for the fulfillment of American Scripture, which includes in its promises a basic right: life.

The great civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once claimed that, when confronting great societal rupture, there is "no time for neutrality," that: of the lessons we have derived from the events of our time is that we cannot dwell at ease under the sun of our civilization, that man is the least harmless of beings.

We know this is true. We must allow our numbed hearts to be shaken from a false sense of security and reclaim our roles as partners in a noble American impulse, based in the very basic societal value of mutual obligation. And, if we need more motivation than our national prophetic values, we might do well to consider the statistical reality -- if we do nothing -- that our streets, our churches, our children are all on the line.

My faith tradition promises that, one day, there will be a day on which "you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you." (Leviticus 26:6) That day feels woefully far from now. The only way forward, out of the sinful trap of passive acceptance, is a basic tenet of our common faith: the mandate to serve as our brothers' and sisters' keepers. The way forward is faith's call to remember that we are each other's best hope.