It has been a bit more than one month since the Newtown tragedy, where 26 people, including 20 children, were killed. It has been a bit more than two years since the tragic shooting here in Tucson. The sad reality is that the amount of violence involving guns in the United States is atrociously high. On an annual basis, there are 11,000 murders and 19,000 suicides using a firearm.¹,² Of the 11,000 murders, almost 3,000 of them are children — children!³ If these statistics do not shake us to our core, consider that more than twice as many preschool age children are killed on an annual basis by guns than American soldiers are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.(4,5) Every day there is the equivalent of more than three Newtown massacres in the United States. The average day sees more than 80 people killed and 270 injured by a firearm.(6) The mass shootings that we have witnessed in Newtown, in Aurora and here in Tucson are all tragic, but they are pointing to an even larger problem.
Based on the statistics, here are the conclusions drawn by the Harvard University School of Public Health:
1. “Where there are more guns there are more homicides.” As their review of studies states, “in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”
2. Across high income nations, both including and excluding the United States, when there are more guns, there are more homicides.
3. Within the United States, the states that have the most guns have the highest homicide rates. States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide. This relationship held for both genders and all age groups, after accounting for rates of aggravated assault, robbery, unemployment, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and resource deprivation (e.g., poverty).(7)
Dr. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University, summarized the risks and benefits of keeping a gun in the home. He wrote, “The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes. On the benefit side, there are fewer studies, and there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.”(8)
Our country needs to reform its policies and laws surrounding guns. In particular, every single person who wants to own a gun ought to be licensed. Yes, there are others aspects that we need to address — access and funding for mental health care, for example — but guns are a part of it, perhaps the biggest part. No law is going to solve everything, yet that doesn’t mean we can do nothing. The Talmud states that whoever saves a single life, it is as though they have saved an entire world. Among the most important mitzvot in Judaism is pikuach nefesh, saving a life. It trumps nearly everything else.
The members of the Tucson Board of Rabbis, including Helen Cohn, Robert Eisen, Ben Herman, Richard Safran, Sanford Seltzer, Joseph Weizenbaum and myself, recently joined with the Phoenix Board of Rabbis in issuing a resolution in support of reforming our gun laws, stating:
“As religious leaders and American citizens, we call upon our elected State and Federal officials to listen to the will of the people, and hear the voice of our children [and take] the life-saving steps to reform our gun laws.”
I urge all of you to make your voices heard on this important issue. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has made it incredibly easy to do so. All you need to do is go to www.rac.org and follow the link that says, “Support Sensible Gun Control” to contact our leaders with just a few clicks.
Before the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land, Moses tells them, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” May we all choose life for our children and ourselves.
Jason Holtz is the assistant rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and the president of the Tucson Board of Rabbis.