By Burt Siegel
After each incident in which someone takes the lives of numerous others — typically strangers — with military-style weapons, our nation embroils itself once again in the gun debate. This debate generates much heat, anger and finger pointing but rarely any long-term substantial change.
People on the right will claim that those of us who advocate for greater restrictions on guns contribute to the carnage of the young by refusing to arm classroom teachers. Somehow, the National Rifle Association has convinced nearly all Republican members of Congress that a fourth-grade teacher will be able to win a shootout with an enraged teenager carrying an AR-15 rifle.
The fact that in nearly all of these violent incidents armed security was soon present but hasn’t prevented any of these has had little, if any, impact. As disturbing as it is, no facts have changed the minds of those who seem willing to lose children rather than lose their so-called gun rights. Does anyone who reads this doubt that armed elementary school teachers will be effective where trained law enforcement professionals have frequently failed? There are slightly more than 3 million teachers in approximately 131,000 public, private and charter K-12 schools in the U.S. Even if only half of the teaching population was armed that would mean a very lucrative bonanza for the firearms industry. We can assume that many administrators would wish to be armed as well. Not that these companies would ever put profits ahead of public safety, of course.
There is an interesting phenomenon associated with the three-year-old pandemic. According to the collective tax filings of both gun and ammunition makers, their profits have been the highest in history. No one is sure why this is so. Perhaps Smith and Wesson has been working on a gun that can kill the COVID virus?
Many of us assert that white racism is a major contributing factor in the upswing in multiple shootings. And unquestionably there has been a marked increase in the profound anger expressed by white men toward anyone they consider to be the “other,” including Jews. Nearly all of the shooters have been white male adolescents, but the vast majority of the victims have also been white. And those responsible for these deaths have included a small number of African Americans and Latinos.
For some reason, the racial identity of the gunmen in Columbine, Newtown and recently Buffalo is often identified in the media but not so in the recent multiple deaths on South Street in Philadelphia and in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While mass shootings are much more common within the white population, racial minorities are more likely to be shot by members of their own cohort, although rarely in large-scale violence. It would seem obvious that the major contributing factor in these deaths is not only the hatred of the other but also the love of guns.
We should be proud of the Jewish public policy advocacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the synagogue movements for their support of those measures that will make it harder for individuals to get guns designed for the sole purpose of killing others.
Some few critics within the Jewish community assert that those who believe that 18-year-olds should not be able to purchase military-style weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition are merely “virtue signaling” and posturing. These people claim that those who advocate for reducing access to such weapons are naïve, but all evidence shows that where it is harder to get such weapons, fewer people are killed by them.
To argue otherwise is like arguing that speed limits don’t reduce vehicular deaths and injuries. It will come as no surprise that a waiting period and limiting the number of bullets that can be purchased at once in some jurisdictions also contributes to fewer gun deaths.
It is worth keeping in mind that the language of the Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The NRA, extreme conservative jurists and too many gun owners claim that this amendment guarantees the right of Americans to own guns. They also insist that this ‘”right” was not intended to be solely in the context of a “well-regulated militia.”
We can and will continue to debate exactly what the authors of this amendment had in mind over two hundred years ago. However, members of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have not been of one mind in holding that this amendment provides a right to all and every individual to own any firearm they so wish.
In fact, from 1994 until 2004 the individual possession of what is commonly referred to as an assault weapon was banned under federal law. Unfortunately, the legislation outlawing such private ownership expired in 2004. Not surprisingly mass murders then increased as well.
The Second Amendment was written in 1791, a time when fighting another war with England was certainly a possibility. And, war was again fought with Great Britain some 20 years later. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Founding Fathers felt that it was necessary for our nation to have the ability to defend itself.
But it is preposterous to believe that the drafters ever imagined weapons that could discharge 40 rounds per minute. Nor is it likely that they envisioned shootouts in classrooms between a third-grade teacher and an irate teenage boy. Gun advocates also seem to forget that in 1791 conditions in America, a significantly rural nation, people depended upon guns to provide food for their families, provide protection from unhappy native people who objected to foreigners taking their land and to create a relatively peaceful environment in an often hostile land.
Opponents of laws designed to reduce deaths from firearms accuse us of being naïve and that “bad guys” will always get guns and use them, and this is obviously so. But it is also so that fewer guns will lead to fewer deaths by guns.
We are taught in the Talmud that saving even one life is as though the whole world was saved. I’d like to suggest that lawmakers who think that saving even one life is pointless should look at the faces of the mothers and fathers who stood outside their children’s classroom in Uvalde, Texas, listening to their children being shot and tell them that preventing Salvador Ramos from buying two semiautomatic weapons would have been pointless. Or perhaps go to a funeral with parents whose sons and daughters were so badly maimed that they needed DNA matches to prove that a small cadaver was their child’s.
Until then, all we can do is elect men and women who understand that fewer guns, in the hands of fewer people, will mean fewer deaths.
Burt Siegel is the retired executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He served on the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for 18 years, including serving as vice chair.