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Behukotai 5782 - A Jewish Call for Gun Control and Safety

May 28, 2022 - Iyar 27, 5782

When I moved to Shreveport three years ago and learned about local culture, I promised myself that I would not speak about guns on the bimah. Today, I’m breaking my promise. In the wake of this week’s shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvale, TX, and last week’s shooting in Buffalo, NY, I do not believe that talking about anything else today would be appropriate. If you are triggered by the topics of gun violence or gun safety, you are welcome to step out of the room for the next few minutes. 

In Shreveport, people are proud to hunt for their own dinner, and people are proud to know how to defend themselves. While hunted meat is not kosher, I can respect the mindset of gun ownership and use in our particular local culture. However, I also strongly believe that we can no longer violate the commandment God gives us in Leviticus 19:16, not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. We can no longer pretend that the only solutions to our country’s rampant mass shootings and our city’s alarming rates of violence are more guns, higher fines, longer prison sentences, and thoughts and prayers. Here in Shreveport, our wider region, and our country, we need the establishment and enforcement of greater gun control and efforts towards gun safety. With such laws and programs in place, we can protect both the rights of responsible gun owners and much more importantly, the lives of our children, our neighbors, and frankly, ourselves.

This week, as I tried to juggle despair and anger with a focused reading of Parashat Behukotai, I was struck by the juxtaposition of one particular blessing and one particular curse. Even though we will not hear Rabbi Feivel read much of this today, the bulk of our Parashah outlines the blessings we will receive if we follow God’s words and the much longer list of curses we will receive if we do not follow God’s words. In the list of blessings, we hear, And I will place peace upon the land, and you shall dwell with no fearful trembling; I will remove the evil beast from the land, and a sword will not pass over your land…(Lev. 26:6). As much as I want to visualize this image of peace, right now, a world without fear of violence seems unfathomable. The places we and our children once considered safe - home, synagogue, grocery store, schoolyard - are now places we arm with alarm systems, with guards, and with comprehensive active shooter training for children and adults of all ages. Instead of peace, we experience a state of being more similar to that described succinctly in the list of curses a few verses later: …You shall flee, [even] when no one pursues you (Lev. 26:17). More and more, we find ourselves unsure of where we can be without fear, where we can drop our defenses and live our fullest lives. But what if - what if we were able to transcend that fear for long enough to see the potential of peace, the potential of a world without a need for the high alert so many of us have been trained to bring with us wherever we go?

 Right now, our trembling is not without reason. In a country that already boasts more gun-related homicides than any other high-income nation, Louisiana is the state with the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd highest rate of gun-related deaths, depending on the report. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, gun violence - not auto accidents, not illness - is the leading cause of death among children in Louisiana. Of course, we are also lucky enough to live in the congressional district with the highest average rate of gun-related deaths per year (that’s 87) and the parish with the highest number of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people within a four year period of time (that’s 32.1 people for every 100,000). When we speak about practicing gun safety and implementing measures towards gun control, we acknowledge that we do not live in an every-man-for-himself society. The right kind of change will directly affect the people and communities we know and love.

As I have repeated on the bimah an innumerable amount of times in the past three years, Mishnah Sanhedrin teaches that when we work towards saving even one life, we save a whole world. When one life is lost, an entire world is lost. Just in one elementary school last week, we lost 21 individual worlds; imagine what 19 fourth graders and their teachers could have brought to the world with even a few more days of life.

While this repetitive drone of shootings and its related political debate can easily inspire despair, there are small actions that can lead towards that world of peace, the fear-free world that God promises to those who listen. As a start, we can require wider implementation of background checks and waiting periods before gun and ammunition purchases. Right now, in Louisiana, only those operating certain stores are required to run background checks. Even then, our law provides loopholes for sellers to declare themselves as private. When someone in the state of Louisiana sells a gun illegally, they are not liable for any damage caused by that gun, and their maximum penalty is only $300 or 6 months in prison. While greater penalties probably will not detain someone who carries a semi-automatic into an elementary school, such penalties will change the game for a seller for whom a $300 fine would not otherwise make a dent in their year’s worth of gun sales. 

With red-flag laws, police and family members can petition a state court to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms because of their risk of danger to self and others. Just those convicted of a violent misdemeanor or any felony in Louisiana are not permitted to own or operate a gun, we can expand that restriction in a way that prevents violence rather than simply punishes after the fact. Further, we can maintain our current requirements for training before a person can receive a concealed carry permit, perhaps even expanding requirements to include training for open carry permits as well. Such restrictions do not violate the rights of anyone to own or operate a gun; rather, they assure that the people who are owning and operating deadly weapons are doing so with a knowledge and responsibility that protects them and those in their presence. Through red-flag laws, background checks, required training, thus lengthening the process required for possessing a firearm, we lessen the danger of crimes committed in the heat of passion and crimes committed by those who are already legally barred from purchasing a weapon. 

For those here who own and use guns, your voice and actions are particularly important in promoting the safety of our community and world. You can and should buy only from those who are properly licensed and certified, who require background checks before purchase. You can and should keep your firearms locked up in a way that only you can access. And you can and should go through extensive training, both for your safety and as a model to others who may choose to own firearms

Of course, we know that straightforward gun safety laws will never be enough to ensure our safety and security. Our region does not top the charts in violent crime because of the presence of firearms alone. With the proper support given to education and social services, fewer of our neighbors will be compelled to pursue violence in frustration or hunger. With public recognition of the importance of mental health, our community will know how to identify someone who needs help before they become a danger to themselves and others. With affordable and accessible psychiatric care, we can reduce the stigma of counseling and of admitting oneself into a treatment facility. None of these solutions are absolute - people will always fall through the cracks; and yet, the fewer people who have access to or motive for gun violence, the more we can dedicate our resources to picking up the pieces and moving forward when tragedy inevitably strikes. 

Among the flood of outrage and grief shared on social media the past few days, one of you sent me the words of Rabbi Mark Goodman:

In Judaism, if you say a prayer over something, then fail to do the requisite action that follows, like blessing bread and not eating it, it’s a brakhah l’vatalah (a blessing in vain) - which is a sinful act. If you pray for victims of gun violence but do nothing, it is a sinful act. At this moment in time, we are situated in a house of prayer and study; by reciting the prayers for peace, for our country, and for healing, we obligate ourselves towards action. 

As someone who has only been here a few years, I have limited knowledge of how to move the conversations of gun safety and crime prevention forward in this particular area. Fortunately, the small crowd in this vast room contains quite a few of Shreveport’s influential movers and shakers. You are Rotary Club members, active participants in city government, election volunteers, and board members of almost every non-profit in this city. You work in universities, businesses, schools, grocery stores, government institutions, and every other possible place where you can speak about solutions to the fears we face. Together, inspired by our words of Torah, we can brainstorm where to go next, even if it means starting out with the smallest steps of writing paper mail to and calling our legislators. At this moment in time, we already have two bills against which we must argue. HB37 threatens the removal of any barrier to concealed carry, while HB43 threatens to limit the enforcement of the few gun control laws we do have. 

Today, at Kiddush lunch, I ask you to share with the people at your table what you know can be done this week to bring greater safety to our city, our state, and our nation. After Shabbat, please text or email me and those at your table any organizations or individuals you know are involved in the local work of pursuing that community of peace our Torah holds as ideal. Here in this room, between each of us in this small yet diverse community, we have the compassion and wisdom to find the places where we can agree and progress across the social and political spectrum. Shabbat Shalom. 

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784