In My Own Words: Gun violence and free speech

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Gun violence

Is it possible to say anything new about gun violence? In April, before the killings in Buffalo and Uvalde, TX, I’d thought about doing a column after reading this in The New York Times’ daily e-mail: “Murders have spiked nearly 40 percent since 2019, and violent crimes, including shootings and other assaults, have increased overall. More tragedies, from mass shootings to smaller acts of violence, are likely to make headlines as long as higher levels of violent crime persist.” Talk about an accurate, but incredibly sad, prediction.

In order to deal with gun violence, we need to talk about at least three things:

  1. Realistic gun control: There is no way to stop Americans from owning guns. In fact, I’m not advocating restricting access to all guns. But there is no need for citizens to own assault rifles. Those are not hunting guns: they are only used to kill people. If gun licenses were more like driver’s licenses with tests and restrictions, we might be better off. But this isn’t an easy issue to discuss because many people believe gun control = no guns. I know some people want that to happen, but it’s just not realistic.
  2. Mental health awareness: We need to increase mental health services and find better methods of intervention to stop attacks before they happen. But we also have to realize that some attacks are more about hate than mental illness. How we can stop the isolation and radicalization that leads to those attacks? Unfortunately, I have no idea, but we need to talk about the issue because some people do have ideas about what can be done.
  3. American culture: An underlying problem is our culture. Even though we are no longer pioneers, the pioneer image underlies much of the pro-gun movement. The need to protect our homesteads and the idea that we are under threat from our neighbors underlies the desire for guns. In addition, people see anyone who has different ideals about America as undermining our country. Change is seen as the enemy, rather than a path to improvement. 

How do we change American culture? With the continuing polarization in our country, I don’t know if that’s possible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We must also call out those politicians who refuse to protect us, to take a stand against violence. The fact is that some of them fear that violence will be turned on them if they do. If so, then they either need to overcome that fear or resign. We must change America’s culture because right now no one and nowhere is safe. If we don’t and gun violence continues, we’ve lost the right to call ourselves a civilized nation.


Free speech

A recent “Pearls Before Swine” comic strip mentioned something interesting about the state of American society: One character wakes up from a nightmare, saying that he dreamed that if you said one wrong thing, then your career would be over and you would be ostracized by your friends. The second character notes that’s not a dream and disavows their friendship. The strip is partly correct: On the left, if you say something that is not politically correct, you will be condemned and your career will be in tatters. People are expected to agree on everything and if someone dares to question whether a path is correct, they are condemned. They refuse to listen to anyone who disagrees with them and, on some college campuses, protest speakers who offer a different side of an issue. That’s a sad commentary on the state of higher education. 

However, that is not true everywhere and for everyone. When the left condemns a statement by someone on the right, those same statements are cheered by supporters from the right. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Lauren Boebert and Sen. Bill Cassidy have all made outrageous statements lately and, while those on the left have condemned them, their popularity with supporters have not dropped one bit. Wonder what they said?

  • Newsweek reports that “Republican U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has promoted a conspiracy theory that claims billionaire Bill Gates is hoping to ‘make a lot of money’ from an outbreak of monkeypox.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stated that “one of the big problems around mass shootings is that there are just too many doors in buildings,” according to HuffPost. People have noted that one reason for having more than one door to a building is to help people escape in case there is a fire or gunman.
  • Rep. Lauren Boebert has compared guns to airplanes, noting planes weren’t banned because they were used in 9/11. That may be true, but automatic rifles have little purpose except for killing as many people in as short a time as possible, something not true of airplanes. 
  • Sen. Bill Cassidy believes the people of his state, Louisiana, need assault rifles to kill feral pigs. Hmm, that’s kind of insulting to the hunters in his state, in addition to the fact that there are other ways of keeping that population under control.

Does anyone seriously think these statements are going to prevent these folks from being re-elected? I wish they would, but let’s be honest: for every person who thinks what they said are nonsense, there is at least one, if not more, who agree with them. How do you think they got elected in the first place? Do I want to silence these folks? No, because I do believe in free speech, but I also believe there should be repercussions if someone shouts “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. I’m also not sure, though, that every word they say needs to be reported in newspapers and website, because that reportage only gets them more followers. However, incorrect facts on both sides – right, left and anywhere in-between – need to be corrected, but we are so polarized that one side sees as an opinion, the other side sees as a fact. That is profoundly sad and does not bode well for our country.