Photo courtesy of NPR

After the Tree of Life shooting, we must mourn, reflect, and vote

On Saturday morning, the horrific news flashed across our phone screens and televisions. A shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. Multiple fatalities. Numerous injuries. Law enforcement among the injured. Almost immediately, the shooting was identified as an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant attack on the Jewish community — the deadliest such attack in American history.

The murder of those eleven people who were involved in the sacred rituals of Jewish life is incredibly painful for the entire country, but especially for those in the Jewish community. We know the intimacy of a small Shabbat service, the feeling of dropping your kids off for Hebrew school, the indescribable joy of a baby naming or of celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We can put ourselves in the shoes of the victims just prior to the shooting. We have been where they were, doing exactly what they were doing when they were gunned down in a senseless act of violence.

As the families affected by this latest mass murder bury their dead and engage in the ancient process of sitting shiva, a seven day period of mourning during which people offer condolences and visit with those families, we must take the time to consider the underlying causes of this massacre, reflect on our priorities, and then act on them.

Here are the concepts we, as a nation, must consider as we grieve:

Guns, especially assault weapons, make hate and violence fatal. As we saw on Saturday and have seen countless times before, guns and hate are a lethal combination. Yes, fists and knives can kill people too, but not nearly as efficiently as assault weapons — like semi-automatic AR-15s — combined with high capacity magazines. There is a reason these are the weapons of choice for mass shooters — they maximize lethality in a short period of time. It is unacceptable that someone as hateful and dangerous as the Tree of Life shooter was able to obtain these weapons of war. Every day that we allow the sale of these weapons provides another opportunity for someone hellbent on violence to expand the number of people they can easily kill.

We must take threats of political violence seriously. Political violence is an idea that has been advocated and legitimized by the gun lobby and others as part of the political process. You can’t advocate for “Second Amendment remedies” or for unlimited access to firearms to fight “government tyranny” without stoking the fires of political violence. The legitimization of political violence allows hate to have an outlet. Our Constitution protects free speech, even if it is offensive, but it does not condone the use of violence for political ends. So while we can and should counter hate with reason, love, and enlightenment, we must also maximize the power of our legal system to stop legitimate threats of violence. To this end, a number of states have adopted Extreme Risk Laws to remove firearms from those posing a credible risk of violence. We might not be able to stop hate entirely, but we can surely prevent it from becoming lethal in cases where there are clear indicators of dangerousness.

We must stop blaming victims for not being armed. Time and time again, after a mass shooting, there are voices saying, “If only the victims had been armed.” President Trump repeated this trope on Saturday before all the facts of the shooting had come to light. In fact, four brave, well-trained law enforcement officers who already knew that there was a shooter in the building were injured despite being armed. This puts to rest the idea that untrained citizens with weapons concealed under their prayer shawls should be part of an active shooter safety plan. Despite what the gun lobby says, a civilian “good guy with a gun” rarely stops a “bad guy with a gun.”

We must reject divisive leadership. It is not a coincidence that political violence is on the rise. Charlottesville, last week’s pipe bombs, and now the Tree of Life shooting are all symptoms of a president who has made division central to his operational principles. Those in Congress who have enabled Trump and endorsed his behavior — whether explicitly or tacitly — are also part of the problem. We need our leaders to stand up and reject hatred and division unequivocally.

As a nation, we will continue to reflect as we mourn the victims of this horrendous hate crime. The families of those killed will sit shiva for seven days. And then, we will all have the opportunity to vote. We will have the chance to voice our distaste for the lax gun laws in this country and the armed hatred enabled by the current administration, the gun lobby, and their allies in Congress. We will have the chance to change the direction of our country, to elect new leaders who will do more to protect us from hate and gun violence in all its forms. We will have the chance to cast our ballots in honor of those we lost, to turn our grief and anger into change. American lives and the well-being of our democracy are on the line. We cannot waste the opportunity.


Josh Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Shira Goodman is the executive director of CeaseFire Pennsylvania.