Mark Barden held aloft a photo of his seven-year-old son and haltingly told an audience in South Orange that on Dec. 14, 2012, “We got the news that six educators had been shot to death and 20 first-graders, and one of them was my little Daniel.”
Daniel and the other 25 victims were murdered by 20-year-old Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before the shooter took his own life. Barden was addressing a gathering of National Council of Jewish Women/Essex County Section on Oct. 20 at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.
“I don’t want you to think of me as horrible, sad, broken,” he told the approximately 175 audience members. Instead, he urged the attendees to use the haunting photo of Daniel as motivation to push law-makers to impose tougher restrictions on gun ownership. “Take this tragedy and make it a transformation and look at me as a symbol of hope and not as a tragic victim.”
The hot-button issue has returned to the forefront of the national conversation as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has asserted repeatedly that if Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is elected she will appoint Supreme Court judges who will revoke the Second Amendment (at a rally in North Carolina on Aug. 9, he appeared to suggest that gun rights supporters might take matters into their own hands should Clinton win the presidency on Nov. 8). Polls have shown that 93 percent of Americans, including 74 percent of National Rifle Association members, favor background checks for prospective gun buyers. And yet, despite a full-court press by President Barack Obama, Congress has failed to pass gun control legislation in recent years, having come under extreme pressure from the powerful gun lobby.
Since his son’s murder, Barden has devoted much of his life to speaking out and organizing against gun violence through Sandy Hook Promise, a group he helped found. Another group formed by his community, Know the Signs, provides guidelines to parents, teachers, and students to recognize indicators in people who may be inclined to hurt themselves or others. Such tools provide a means to identify someone who “may be suffering from an emerging mental health crisis and stop a tragedy before it ever happens.”
“We learned this guy was planning this for over a year,” Barden said. “Where was everybody? Where was his mother? Where was his father? Where were his neighbors? Where was the school? Where was the community when this guy was planning to hurt my child?”
Barden said his group had meetings with half the members of Congress in vain pursuit of gun control legislation. “We are being outshouted…,” he said, “but we have the numbers and we need to activate them.”
He advised gun control advocates to “reframe the conversation” to focus on the message, We need to protect our children. “That is something we can all agree on,” he said.
Asked why, despite strong public support, Congress hasn’t passedany gun regulations, Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and an expert on American government, told NJJN that many members of Congress represent “Second Amendment literalists,” often single-issue voters who oppose any measures to strengthen gun control. On the other hand, voters who favor such regulations, “have other issues they are concerned about,” said Baker.
To the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, legislation is long overdue.
“It increasingly seems that no community is safe anymore from the scourge of mass shootings,” said JCPA communications director Jonathan Levine in an Oct. 26 statement e-mailed to NJJN. JCPA, the umbrella organization for Jewish community relations councils, advocates “common-sense gun laws” that respect the Second Amendment but seek to keep firearms away from criminals and terrorists.
However, Chris Beglin, webmaster of Jews for the Protection of Gun Ownership, which describes itself as “dedicated to the preservation of gun rights,” opposes regulatory legislation. Beglin argued that the gun-show loophole is “radically overplayed” and that background checks will result in gun confiscation but will prove ineffective in reducing gun violence.
“No amount of legislation and bans will affect the criminal and gangster communities,” Beglin wrote in an e-mail. Such laws “can only serve to penalize the law-abiding people, who have the right to self-defense.”
Joining Barden in the Oct. 20 discussion, moderated by TSTI’s Rabbi Daniel Cohen, was Kim Russell, who in 1999 was shot and wounded by an Atlanta gunman who killed her male companion. Russell is the national director of outreach for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and an organizer for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Calling the day of the Sandy Hook massacre “my own personal 9/11,” Russell said when she heard the news of the school shooting she had a moment of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I felt the need to run and hide but I couldn’t move my arms.” The difference was, she said, “instead of reliving what had happened to me, now that gun was at my children’s heads.” From a graphic designer and stay-at-home mom she became, she said, “a beast. I turned into a mother bear.”
So Russell logged onto Facebook to share her story and connect with other women, forming Moms Demand Action. She called for community action to press for punishment of “bad gun dealers,” whose weapons wind up in the hands of criminals. Laws must be enacted to close loopholes in the laws regulating gun sales, Russell said, and asked the NJ audience to volunteer to make phone calls to voters in Maine and Nevada, where referendums to require background checks are on the November ballot.
“We know our legislators are not doing anything,” Russell said.
She also instructed parents in attendance to question the mothers and fathers of their children’s friends as to whether they keep firearms in their homes, and whether those firearms are under lock and key.
“Unintentional shootings of children have happened 201 times this year,” Russell said. “They are 100 percent preventable.”
Interjecting a reference from Jewish text, Cohen said the Torah does not prohibit safety hazards but it does require “steps be taken to mitigate the harm to the greatest potential possible.”
Citing statistics, Cohen said there have already been 45,000 instances of gun violence in America, with 12,000 of them deaths. Some 3,000 of the victims have been children and teenagers. This year alone there have been 306 mass shootings in the United States, he added. “We all know that gun violence is a national disgrace.”