Gun Violence is a Social Justice Issue

Gun Violence is a Social Justice Issue

August 16, 2019

By Frank Goldsmith, CJJ-West

Let’s talk about gun violence.

Admittedly, curbing the epidemic of firearms fatalities has not been at the forefront of Carolina Jews for Justice’s concerns.  But how can an organization committed to social justice abstain from commenting on this tragic, and largely preventable, loss of life?  

The Torah teaches that we are not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor:  lo ta-amod al-dam re’ekha (Lev. 19:16).  The blood of our neighbors is flowing all too freely as the result of gun violence, and we must not be indifferent.  Why should American blood flow more freely than that of any other civilized nation?  

Consider the appalling facts:

  • Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun violence than residents of peer nations;

  • On average, 100 Americans are killed by guns every day;

  • Another 100,000 Americans are wounded with guns each year, often with life-altering consequences;

  • 4.6 million children live in homes where guns are unlocked and loaded;

  • Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to be murdered with a gun; 

  • Unarmed black civilians are 5 times more likely than unarmed white civilians to be shot and killed by the police;

  • The 10 states with the highest gun death rates have some of the weakest gun laws in the nation;

  • Gun homicides have increased by over 30% since 2014; mass shootings occur with increasing frequency and higher casualty rates;

  • Seven of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the past 6 years.  In this year alone, there have been 254 multiple-victim shootings, killing 246 people and wounding 979.  

Here in North Carolina, gun violence disproportionately impacts underserved communities in urban areas, with young men of color being particularly vulnerable. For example, in 2016, over 70% of total gun homicide victims in the state were Black or Latino. In fact, Black men are more than eight times as likely as white men to be the victim of a gun homicide in North Carolina.  Moreover, in recent years, North Carolina has seen a sustained increase in gun violence overall; from 2014 to 2016, gun homicides increased by over 40% across the state. 

Despite the large place they occupy in our public consciousness, mass shootings comprise a small fraction of all gun violence.  Deaths from mass shootings constitute less than 1% of all gun deaths – but the number is still far too high. We must ban civilian ownership of military-style rifles and, perhaps more importantly, high-capacity magazines for all types of weapons.  Weapons of war do not belong in civilian hands. Adopting such common-sense measures would likely save hundreds of lives each year.  

But we have to expand our common sense and consider measures to restrict the availability of all firearms.  Is it too much to require a permit, a waiting period, and an extensive background check before one can acquire a semi-automatic pistol?  Or to require a minimum age, or to limit multiple purchases of guns and ammunition? We regulate any number of things that can cause harm to people, including cars, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and exotic animals – why not guns?  In fact, why not require a license to possess a firearm of any kind, as a number of countries do? The 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Heller v. District of Columbia may have determined that the Second Amendment applies to individuals, not militias, but it also left open the reasonable regulation of that right, explicitly including banning possession of military weapons, as well as regulating the “the commercial sale of arms.” 

As Jews, we should support such restrictions.  A number of rabbinic sources prohibit the sale of things that may cause harm to the public.  Selling items to persons who may use them to do harm is, according to Rambam, akin to placing a stumbling block before the blind; one who does so “strengthens the hand of sinners who cannot see the way of truth because of the passions of their hearts.”   

Some claim that the issue is one of mental health.  Such an assertion is an insult to Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, “People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness.” And how are we supposed to predict future violent behavior, a challenging task even for the most highly skilled therapists?  Moreover, the rate of mental illness in America is about the same as in other countries, yet our gun violence rates are exponentially higher. Mental illness is not the answer to the problem of American gun violence; it is a convenient excuse for inaction.  

Since 2004, over 400,000 people have died by firearms on American soil.  We have lost many more people to gun violence in this country than we lost in all of the Vietnam War.  Our horrific reality is that it is safer to send our children into war than to school or the store.  

We must act to reverse this self-destruction of our society.  Do your part by assessing the positions on gun control of candidates for public office.  Write to your current representatives and express your concerns. Consider donating to organizations such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun ViolenceAmericans for Responsible Solutions, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.  Affiliate with groups such as Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

Just do not stand idly by.