This month, voters in Washington State will vote on two contradictory ballot initiatives related to gun violence. Ballot initiative I-594 would require universal background checks for all gun purchases, including private sales. Laws similar to this have been passed elsewhere, including Maryland where the law has already led to a significant drop in gun deaths. Confusingly, an alternative ballot initiative, I-591 would prevent state background checks unless a corresponding federal law was established. I-591 relies on the fact that a bipartisan federal background check law failed last year.
While one initiative could reduce the number of gun deaths in Washington State, the other would preclude the state from enacting comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation for the foreseeable future.
More than 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year in this country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In Washington State, studies show that death by gun violence has consistently exceeded motor vehicle crash deaths.
Each of us - gun owner or not- has an obligation to combat this national epidemic. As Reform Jews, we feel a particular responsibility. We take to heart the words we read in the book of Exodus that command: "Thou shalt not kill." And in the book of Leviticus we are told: "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." These texts collectively teach us that it is not enough to refrain personally from killing or using guns for violent purposes; we must also not be complicit in ongoing gun violence.
In line with these principles, the Reform Movement has a long history of involvement in efforts to curb gun violence. We helped to pass the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 and were a major presence at the Million Mom March in the year 2000. More recently we advocated on behalf of a bipartisan U.S. Senate bill known by the name of its sponsors, Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Toomey (R-PA), that would have strengthened the national background check system to keep guns out of the hands of those whose criminal and mental health records make clear that they should not be able to purchase guns.
Making our congregations, communities and country safer isn't just a priority for Reform Jews. Clergy and congregants across the full spectrum of faiths are working to address and remedy the gun violence epidemic that takes so many lives each year. "Faiths Calling," an interfaith national call-in initiative the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism introduced shortly after the tragedy in Newtown, involved people from the range of faith traditions found in our nation calling in one voice on the Senate to pass the Manchin-Toomey background check bill. Faiths Calling attracted nearly 60 faith partners, including the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, the Islamic Society of North America, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and many more.
Though congressional inaction has left Americans less safe, states are taking the lead on protecting communities from gun violence. Already our members and congregations have helped Maryland and Massachusetts to pass critical gun violence prevention legislation that has proven to decrease gun deaths in those states.
Now, Washington State has an opportunity to act to protect its residents from gun violence. Those in Washington can each vote to pass Ballot Initiative I-594 and we can all urge our family and friends in Washington to do the same. Just this past Sunday in Seattle, members of Reform Movement congregations and people from many other faith denominations joined together in an Interfaith March to support Ballot Initiative I-594 and gun violence prevention legislation, delivering their ballots to the Kings County Administration Building.
The Talmud tells us: "He who takes a life, it is as though he has destroyed the universe, and he who saves one life, it is as though he has saved the universe." Each of us has the power to make a difference on this life and death issue. Join us, one vote, one sermon, one march, at a time and make Washington -- and the rest of the country -- safer for all.