November 19, 2018

When candidates cry

On the presidential campaign trail this month, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie shed real tears and moved millions speaking personally about loved ones  who have struggled with drug addiction. Former Florida Gov. Bush spoke about how he never expected to see his beautiful daughter in jail.  Fiorina spoke of living with the enduring pain of her daughter’s death by overdose at age 34.   And Christie’s video story about his close friend’s death from a prescription drug overdose overwhelmed him, and the millions who watched it virally.

“When I sat there as the governor of New Jersey at his funeral, and looked across the pew at [my friend’s] three daughters, sobbing because their dad is gone—there but for the grace of God go I,” Christie said. “It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them.”

The candidates said the answer to drugs is treatment, not jail. 

Which, you’ll recall, is very, very different from what most Republicans and many Democrats have been saying for years.   Despite evidence that treatment works far better, despite repeated calls for a saner drug policy, lawmakers have long held firm to their misguided, moralistic beliefs that addicts belonged behind bars. 

What changed are not the facts. For years there has been plenty of evidence that our drug laws weren’t working.  What changed, it seems, is this: The abstract became personal.

Before that, they resisted pushing for more effective policies either because it was too politically risky, or because they simply lacked the imagination that would enable them to see the suffering around them and say, “What if that were me?”  

It is a shame, if not a tragedy, that it took the flat back hand of direct experience to slap these men and women across the face before they could hear what so many others had been trying to say, before they stopped reciting “Just Say No” and started saying, “Hey, what actually works?” Reality flipped their empathy switch.  

So my question is this: Why won’t they turn on the same empathy when it comes to gun control?

This week, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions he is taking in hopes of reducing the scourge of gun violence in this country. These are sober and sensible measures, the most he could do without Congressional cooperation, which, because of the gun lobby, isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Obama cried, too, as he spoke at a public forum announcing his actions, where he was introduced by Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said, pausing to wipe away tears.

I don’t know whether Obama has lost anyone close to him due to gun violence, but as president, he has met with and spoken to hundreds of victims of the mass shootings that have taken place during his time in office.  It can’t not get to you.

Unless, of course, you don’t let it.

Republicans condemned Obama’s executive actions even before they were announced.  Jeb Bush said Obama’s “first impulse is always to take rights away from law abiding citizens.”  And Gov.Christie, speaking two days before on “Fox News Sunday,” dismissed the coming orders as “illegal,” calling Obama a “petulant child.”

The two candidates are wrong on the facts. Nothing in what Obama proposed does more than strengthen existing laws, which are designed to keep guns away from criminals and improve mental health treatment, something Republicans have said should be done to limit gun violence.  These are good things, but what really needs to be done are universal background checks, mandatory gun training such as is required in Israel and, I believe, a law that demands gun owners to get liability insurance, as is required of people who drive cars.  Put insurance companies on the hook for damages and you will see guns get safer faster than you can say AR-15.

Those very modest measures, which do not in any way take away the lawful right to bear arms – which I support — require an act of Congress. That means at least some Republicans must support them. That means Republican leaders, like the men and women running for president, must be able to empathize with the current and future victims of guns. 

After all, the numbers of people affected each year by dugs and guns aren’t very far apart.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40,393 people died of drug-induced causes in 2010, the latest year for which data are available.  That same year, 31,000 died from gun injuries, through suicides, homicides and accidents. In  2013, firearms caused 33,000 deaths– and 84,000 injuries.

So Bush needs to imagine himself as personally affected by gun violence as he is by drugs. Christie should think how’d he feel if someone he loved lost a child to a gun accident. Fiorina ought to meditate for a second on whether she’d feel any differently if her beloved daughter had died of a gun-inflicted suicide instead of an overdose.   

In short, I would ask the candidates to apply the same minimal level of empathy they now have for drug addicts to victims of gun violence.  

And I have to wonder: Is that asking too much?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal.  Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism. To support sensible gun control, go to