October 22, 2019

Make it happen: Stop the gun violence

Jeb Bush, meet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

In the immediate aftermath of the Umpqua Community College mass shooting that left 10 people dead, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said something pretty dumb.

“We’re in a difficult time in our country, and I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this,” the Republican presidential candidate told the Conservative Leadership Project Presidential Forum in Greenville, S.C. “I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. I had this challenge as governor. Look, stuff happens. There’s always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something, and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

“Stuff happens” stuck. Bush meant to say that, in addressing society’s deepest problems, we shouldn’t simply be reactive, but think carefully and act judiciously. But in the wake of a brutal human tragedy, his words came off as a verbal shrug.

Taking time to act deliberately is a sensible position — if we are talking about anything other than mass shootings. The reason Twitter and the media creamed Bush isn’t because we’re all opposed to thinking before we act, but because one more incidence of gun violence in America cannot possibly have come as a surprise.

Guns kill 12,612 people each year in this country — through homicides, suicides and accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns claim 35 lives each day in this country. Guns kill Americans at rates far above those in every other developed country. Stuff happens? It happens, it’s been happening, and it will continue to happen day after day, week after week, to our loved ones and our neighbors.

Bush’s response put him in the same category as the Saudi officials who dismissed the stampede deaths of more than 800 pilgrims at the hajj in Mecca as inshallah — “God’s will.”

But if you crowd millions of people in a narrow space without adequate safety regulations, you can expect someone to get trampled. And if you continue to do nothing about guns in America, guess what? Count on more pain, more suffering and more deaths. It’s not in-shallah, it’s in-evitable.

Acting to stop gun violence would be about the least impulsive thing our Congress could do to take on a problem that has festered for decades. But even if officials did act precipitously, that would be an improvement.

In 1996, in the aftermath of Australia’s worst mass shooting, the country’s Conservative Party Prime Minister John Howard pushed through a series of gun laws that critics called draconian, but which had wide popular support. 

A buyback program took 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles off the streets — about one-fifth of all firearms in circulation. New gun laws prohibited person-to-person sales, all weapons had to be registered to their owners and gun buyers needed a “genuine reason” beyond self-defense to own a gun. (In the U.S., self-defense accounts for 259 justifiable shootings each year — in a country of 300 million guns.)

The result? Australia’s homicide rates declined more than 50 percent, according to the Washington Post, and suicides by guns dropped 65 percent.

For a column I wrote after an earlier mass shooting (this is my third such column), I interviewed Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA and an expert on the Second Amendment. Through sensible gun laws, new technology and other long-proposed measures, he said, we could cut the gun death rate by thousands each year, saving tens of thousands of lives over time.

“You could say you’re just addressing the margins,” Winkler told me, “but those margins are human lives.”

Bush cares as deeply about those lives as you and I do. But he won’t walk back his statement for two reasons: the NRA and Donald Trump. In Election 2016, apologies are for losers.

When I heard Bush’s “stuff happens,” my mind immediately went to Rabbi Heschel. The great theologian’s entire life was a rebuke to the idea that we humans should remain silent in the face of injustice or immobile in the face of suffering. If a single phrase could sum up the opposite of Heschel’s view of our role in this world, it is, “Stuff happens.”

“Who is a Jew?” Rabbi Heschel once asked. “A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.” 

Guns are not in themselves wrong, but our policies surrounding them surely are. We need to treat them as we would any other threat to public health and safety. Every day that we don’t act, precipitously or otherwise, we are countenancing a great wrong and ensuring immeasurable pain.

“We have to be able to surpass ourselves,” Heschel wrote, “to outdo the low expectations we have for society, for reality.”

Our Republican and Democratic representatives have sold off their integrity to the gun lobby. We live with low expectations for their ability to change the reality. Isn’t it time we teach them to surpass themselves?

This is not Syria, where there are no good solutions, or climate change, where there are only expensive and uncertain ones. We understand gun control. Australia did it. States with stricter gun laws have fewer gun deaths.

What’s complicated is getting people like me and you off our butts and into the faces of politicians and gun makers, so that we can finally stop this madness. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of Tribe Media Corp./Jewish Journal.