Gun Violence: A Personal Reflection
As I write this, our nation is embroiled in a heated debate over whether or not to limit the Second Amendment rights regarding gun ownership. This is a debate far too long delayed in our land. Every year has brought new tragedies born out of the barrels of guns while our legislators have waffled and buckled under the tremendous pressure placed upon them by the gun lobby. This failure to act sadly has been reinforced by the toxicity of the temporary attention span of the American public as the outrage over each and every mass murder has too quickly faded from memory and has morphed into renewed apathy while we have redirected the focus of our attentions to the latest drama reported and exploited by the news media. In fact, just the other day, I mentioned to someone the movie “Bowling for Columbine,” only to receive the response, “Columbine? What is Columbine?” However, now that the American people have suffered such a trauma and are feeling so outraged by the slaughter of so many little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it would appear that finally those in favor of some form of gun control may have gained some traction. Maybe, but I am a pessimist. I have to wonder how concerned about this issue people will be a month from now; in six months from now.
It is no secret where I stand on this question. Of course, I could take this opportunity to regale you with all the argumentation offered by those who share my views on gun violence but I suspect that in so doing, I would be offering very little information that you have not heard before. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to share with you something a bit different. I want to share with you why for me this is such a personal issue and not just another topic for debate. I wish to share with you a painful story from my past.
From 1977 to 1982 I served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Lincoln, Nebraska. I was a young rabbi, filled with enthusiasm and idealism. I threw myself completely into everything I did and the congregation just ate it up. One of my projects was running a one-man Jewish Studies Academy (that is what I called our adult education program). One night a week, every week, I taught two different mini courses of 4 to 5 sessions duration, maybe offering 10 courses in a year. It was fairly popular, attracting non-Jews as well as members of the congregation.
One such non-Jewish student was a young divorcee who, while never broaching the subject of conversion, attended every class and most services. She quickly became an “unofficial” member of our congregational family, surrounded by a growing group of Jewish friends, my wife and I included.
This woman had two sons, both teenagers; one was around 13 years old and the other 15. They were nice boys but understandably troubled by the breakup of their family. Then one day tragedy struck. After school the two boys brought two girls to the home of their father while their father was at work. Both boys were trying hard to impress the girls. So the older brother ordered the younger one to do some menial household chore. Not to be shamed in front of the girls, the younger brother refused. The older brother insisted. The younger one continued to refuse. Then the older one went to a closet and pulled out a rifle. He pointed it at his brother’s head and said something to the effect of “Do what I say or I’ll blow your head off!” Not to be intimidated, the younger brother continued to refuse. So the older brother pulled the trigger and did just what he said he would do, shooting his brother in the head at close range and killing him. A 20th century reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel.
Here I was, a young, inexperienced rabbi, feeling as though I was expected to offer sage counsel and support to a women who had one son lying dead and the other in jail, guilty of the murder of his brother. All because their foolish father kept a loaded rifle unlocked in his house. But what could I say, what could I do in the face of such profound tragedy? There are no words that could even begin to take away that mother’s pain. There is no wisdom that could even begin to make sense of that horror. All that I could do was to be a presence. Obviously, those events continue to haunt me to this day. God seemed absent from the world at that moment. Today I understand that God was not so much absent but rather exiled from the world at that moment; exiled not just by the act of violence itself but also by the various human choices which ultimately contributed to that act of violence, including the legislative choice to allow that young man access to the gun with which he slew his brother.
Limiting access to guns won’t eliminate the problem, for the problem is a complex web of contributing factors, but, God willing, it will reduce the number of victims.
A personal confession. Prior to these events, I was one of those Americans who shared our apparently national love affair with guns. Being raised in the ’50’s & ’60’s, how could it be otherwise? The heroes of my childhood were the cowboys and the frontiersmen who constantly flashed across both the silver and the TV screens of that day; Davey Crockett, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, Paladin, and of course John Wayne, just to mention a few. As a child, I was the owner of a veritable arsenal of toy guns. While never a hunter, even into my college years, I loved to target shoot in my back yard with a variety of BB pistols and rifles. But having witnessed up close this parent’s nightmare, from that day to this, I have never again fired one of my weapons.