‘It’s a Puzzle’: Jewish Leaders Tackle Complications of Gun Violence

Tom Wolf is a white man with a thin white beard wearing a suit. He is standing next to a Black woman wearing a t-shirt of a deceased loved on.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (left) at the Uvalde to PA End Gun Violence Rally on May 27 | Photo by Julia Louisa Hagenbuch

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, feels like it happened long ago, with May 24 a date in ancient history.

In its place have been headlines of mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and more recently, on South Street in Philadelphia on June 4, where three were killed and 11 injured — each event replacing the previous one as front-page news.

These events are more than just a drop in the bucket of statistics used to make an argument for or against access to guns. Their impact remains visceral to those personally touched by gun violence.

“You can’t go outside no more; you’re scared to turn the corner; you don’t want to go anywhere,” said Oronde McClain, a Philadelphia resident who was shot at age 10. “And it is a burden to the family. You can have a beautiful day; you could have went to a cookout. Now, you have to take medicine; you’re scared because you could have a seizure. There’s a lot of things that one bullet could do to a family.”

McClain was a speaker on a June 3 Philadelphia Jewish Family and Children’s Service panel discussing the impact of gun violence on the community, the individual and policy.

Jewish leaders around the country, like many others, have expressed their distress about continued gun violence in the United States.

“For thousands of years, we, as a Jewish people have discussed the epidemic of violence towards other people,” said Rabbi Kelly Levy of Austin, Texas, which is about 160 miles from Uvalde. “It comes all the way from the Talmud, when we are taught that to destroy one life is as though you have destroyed the entire world, and to save one life is as though you have saved the world.”

Though Jewish thought takes a clear stance against violence, with a mounting death count and growing frustration with political gridlock, addressing gun violence is both urgent and vexing.

“I am never surprised anymore, but I am just waiting for, frankly, the next mass shooting because what we know is that our society refuses to deal with this crisis,” said Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFirePA, an interfaith and interdisciplinary coalition of leaders against gun violence.

There are already more than 200 homicides in 2022 in Philadelphia, according to Garber, putting the year on pace to be one of the most violent recorded. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 45,222 firearm-related deaths in 2020, making it among the top five causes of death for those 1-44 years old.

The COVID era is associated with an increase in gun violence prevalence. Firearms sales skyrocketed, increasing 49% from 2019 to 2020, a Pennsylvania State Police report said. Pandemic restrictions and economic disruptions meant that fewer social services, such as recreation centers, were accessible to people.

Joshua Horwitz, co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who also spoke on the JFCS panel, suggested a multifaceted approach to addressing gun violence: “It’s a puzzle, which means that to solve it, you need a puzzle as well, different types of solutions.”

Oronde McClain is a Black man with short, balding hair. He is wearing a pink dress shirt and speaking into a microphone, gesturing with his other hand.
Oronde McClain at the June 3 Jewish Family and Children’s Service panel on the implications of gun violence | Photo by Heather Ross

Beefing up firearm purchase licensing laws, limiting magazines to fewer than 10 rounds and appropriately enforcing red flag laws — which allow for the temporary confiscation of firearms from someone who may pose a risk to themselves or others — are all parts of the puzzle, Horwitz said.

Through a public health approach to mitigating gun violence, the social variables that drive gun violence must also be addressed, which include exposure to domestic violence, guns and drugs. Providing additional support to those at high rates of exposure to these risk factors can help decrease the likelihood of those people acquiring and using a gun.

For gun owners and advocates for easier gun access, mass shootings are no less of a tragedy.

But guns aren’t the problem, Jewish armed security guard Grant Schmidt argues. A combination of low police morale and lax background checks are responsible for mass shootings at schools, he said. The Police Executive Research Forum, in a survey of more than 200 departments, found a 45% increase in retirements and a 20% increase in resignations in 2020-2021.

“A lot of my clients have told me stories that they called the police when something violent was happening, and the police never showed,” Schmidt said.

In the case of Uvalde, Schmidt said, the shooter should never have been allowed to own a gun, per his background of violence towards animals and family members.

“He should have been 302-ed (involuntarily committed to a hospital, crisis center or psychiatric institution), adjudicated mentally defective and never been able to pass a background check, but that law was not enforced,” Schmidt said.

Instead, in addition to greater enforcement of background checks (which, if they are enforced, are already strict enough, Schmidt said), Schmidt advocates for the elimination of gun-free zones, which, per a 1990 law, prohibit the use of loaded and unconcealed firearms in or near public elementary and high schools.

On the steps of the general assembly building, dozens of people stand or sit with signs of victims of gun violence.
Gun control activists rally in Harrisburg at the general assembly building. | Courtesy of Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Office

“It’s so frustrating to me that we’re still treating police officers like first responders,” Schmidt said. “They’re second responders. The targets of attacks  — we are the first responders.” 

Levy, whose synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, experienced an antisemitic arson attack in October, is asking questions about how to move forward after shootings and violent attacks, examining the role in on-campus security at her synagogue, which increased after the arson.

“This goes towards that culture shift in what would eventually and hopefully become a society where we don’t need to protect … we don’t require our security guards at every Shabbat service, or even on a daily basis, because there wouldn’t be people out there who could come in and inflict harm on the people who are in our building,” Levy said. “The reality is, that until that day comes, we need to do what we can to protect our children and keep them safe.” 

Horwitz believes that providing additional security to a place of worship while advocating for gun control are not mutually exclusive: “That’s not dissonant; that’s the reality. The problem is that our security, unfortunately, only takes us so far.”

Uvalde, like other schools and synagogues, had armed security that did not prevent attacks with assault weapons. They do, however, create a feeling of safety that is welcome in times of profound uncertainty, Levy said. 

To other gun control advocates like Garber and Horwitz, increased security, particularly increased gun accessibility for citizens, is a false solution.  

“How many guns are going to make us safe? There are more guns than there are people in this country — what point is that? Is it 400 million? 500 million guns? Is it a billion guns?” Garber said. “At some point, we just have to decide this path we’re on is not really doing anything but killing our children.” JE

[email protected]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here