Gun violence: The real tragedy

What happened in Las Vegas last Sunday evening was a tragedy of monumental proportions.

Our politicians immediately jumped on it in predictable ways. Republicans and Democrats expressed sympathy and bemoaned the horrific act that took nearly 60 lives and injured over 500 people — all within 15 minutes — but no Republicans and too few Democrats showed any desire to do anything positive to keep such tragedies from recurring.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, made that sad point on Monday morning. “It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic,” he said in a statement, adding, “It’s time for Congress to get off its [seat] and do something.”

After lamenting the “cowardice to act” among his colleagues, Murphy listed a number of things he has been pushing Congress to do for several years now, including closing loopholes in the background-check system and limiting access to high-capacity magazines and assault weapons.

For his part, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Seth Moulton said he would refuse to take part in a moment of silence on the House floor as long as Congress did not act on gun control, because that would be hypocritical of our national legislators.

The scenes out of Las Vegas were horrifying, but even more horrifying was the response by too many legislators of either party on every governmental level.

There is a greater tragedy, however, that does not get wall-to-wall media treatment, and almost never garners comments of any kind on Capitol Hill or in any other legislature — and it should trouble us the most. That tragedy is the number of people who are killed each year in the United States because of gun violence, and especially the number of children who die by the gun.

Earlier on Sunday, three people were killed and two were injured in a mass shooting in Lawrence, Kansas. Between September 23 and September 30, eight people were killed and 39 injured in 10 separate mass shooting incidents in New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Since the start of the year, there have been 273 mass shooting incidents. Most of us heard nothing about any of these tragedies.

There have been 46,595 cases of gun violence of all sorts reported since January 1. In all, 11,652 people died in those incidents so far this year, while 23,516 people were injured. Among children up to 11 years old, 545 were either injured or killed so far in 2017; among teenagers from 12 to 17, that number is a staggering 2,433.

According to a Centers for Disease Control study published in early June in the journal Pediatrics, “Firearm-related deaths are the third leading cause of death overall among U.S. children aged 1 to 17 years, surpassing the number of deaths from pediatric congenital anomalies, heart disease, influenza and/or pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory disease, and cerebrovascular causes. They are the second leading cause of injury-related death in this age group, surpassed only by motor vehicle injury deaths.”

The CDC study found that nearly 1,300 children die annually in the United States from gun-related injuries, while another 5,790 children are treated for gunshot wounds. That averages out to 3.6 children dying from gun violence every day, and nearly 16 children injured.

These are facts — but they do not get wall-to-wall media coverage, and our legislators on all levels seem unconcerned about them.

This is not about the Second Amendment. This is not about the right to bear arms. To use a favorite argument of the strict constructionists on the political right, it is about what our founding fathers meant when they wrote the Second Amendment. They had single-shot rifles and guns in mind. They could not even have conceived of an automatic weapon that can shoot 800 rounds per minute, over 13 rounds per second, as the AR-15 can do, for example.

Does anyone seriously think they would have written the Second Amendment the way they did if they could have conceived of such weapons?

Besides, does anyone really need to shoot 800 rounds to down a quail? Does anyone really need to shoot 800 rounds to shoot cans off a fence in target practice?

Obviously, the National Rifle Association thinks people do. Obviously, so do many members of Congress, including some Democrats and just about every Republican.

So do the gun manufacturers. Just look at the ads they run to promote their assault weapons — and that is what they are, ASSAULT weapons. The gun companies do not hide the fact, even if the NRA loves to do so.

In one full-page ad, Bushmaster, which makes the AR-15, had almost nothing written on the page. The ad had a white background, with a photo of an AR-15 on the right top third of the page, and just five words beside it to the left: “Consider your man card reissued.” Imagine; we need a weapon that shoots 800 rounds a minute to establish our manhood credentials.

Bushmaster has other ads, one of which is for something called an ACR, which should be a strictly military product for military use—the letters ACR stand for Adaptive Combat Rifle. Remington claims  its ACR is manufactured for military use in its advertisements. Bushmaster does not even bother to hide its intended audience. Its ACR ad carries this line: “In a world where survival of the fittest can mean survival at all, no rifle is a better fit than the one of-a-kind, all-new Bushmaster ACR.”

Ask yourselves what “survival of the fittest” is supposed to mean. You may be even more horrified if you do.

Most of the deaths of children, and many other deaths related to guns, could be avoided with proper safety built into those guns. Is it so terrible that a gun needs fingerprint verification to fire? How many children would be protected by that simple safety device that even iPhones have built them in?

Jewish law, as this column has noted too often in the past following similar tragedies, would seem to require such devices. The so-called “law of the parapet” (Deuteronomy 22:8) does not even allow us to have broken stepladders in our homes, much less weapons that are easily accessible and instantly usable.

Guns kill more children in the United States every year than most diseases. Over 11,600 people have died so far by gunshots. These are the facts we should concentrate on. These are the facts that should horrify us.

So why are we not horrified enough yet to act?

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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