Anyone who has traveled in or out of Boston on the Pike has undoubtedly seen the Stop Handgun Violence billboard near Fenway Park that records and tallies daily American gun deaths since the 2012 Newtown shootings.
Earlier this week, the number on the iconic billboard surpassed 75,000 (an estimate based on an average 83 gun deaths per day). That is 75,000 Americans killed by guns in just 29 months.
As I reflected on the severity of this horrible ‘milestone,’ my thoughts led me to the work that we have done at JCRC to end gun violence, and the knowledge that we still have much more to do.
Immediately following the Newtown shooting JCRC helped organize synagogues to address this issue, connecting synagogues with other communities, churches, and advocacy groups. An interfaith, intercommunity organization was formed —the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. The current issue of The Jewish Advocate highlights our efforts on the matter, with specific attention in a front-page story to our contributions to the passage of the Gun Violence Prevention bill. (The entire article can be found below.)
Efforts to pass this bill succeeded only through the collective power of our community and the leadership of our synagogue partners, particularly Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Temple Israel in Boston, and Temples Isaiah and Emunah in Lexington.
Implementation of the Gun Violence Prevention Law is not yet complete and we, along with our partners, are remaining vigilant in ensuring that every provision of this law is fully enacted.
As is true of so much of our community organizing work, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) has been a key partner in this area. The broad based, multi issue organization will be hosting a Rededication Assembly & Action this Tuesday night at Trinity Church in Copley Square. The purpose of the event is for GBIO to build relationships with our public officials (Governor Baker, Speaker DeLeo, Attorney General Healey & Mayor Walsh will all be in attendance) and ask for their commitment on issues emerging from GBIO's priorities, including gun violence prevention.
Janet Goldenberg, a member of JCRC’s Council and a primary leader at Temple Beth Elohim and the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, will play a prominent role at the gathering. I hope that you will join me on Tuesday night at Trinity Church as Janet will publicly ask Governor Baker to fully implement critical provisions of the new gun violence prevention bill and pursue other non-legislative strategies to curb gun violence. (To attend, RSVP to Talia Laster, gro.n1571583351otsob1571583351crcj@1571583351retsa1571583351lt1571583351)
By Alexandra Lapkin
In December of 2012, after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, Jewish synagogue leaders came together in an effort to put a stop to gun violence. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), helped organize synagogues around this issue, connecting temples with other communities, churches, and advocacy groups. An interfaith, intercommunity organization was formed, the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. The coalition advocates on Beacon Hill for sensible, effective gun legislation. Despite the Newtown tragedy, legislation limiting gun use remains controversial. Two years of advocacy led to the Gun Violence Prevention bill, which then-Governor Deval Patrick signed into law in 2014. JCRC played a key role in helping pass this bill that requires universal background checks and tracing all recovered crime guns to better understand where guns are coming from. “We want to make sure our suburban schools are safe, but we also want to address the underlying issues that made gun violence such a plague in inner cities and in communities of color,” said Rachie Lewis, synagogue organizer at JCRC.
Massachusetts is home to an active National Rifle Association (NRA) contingent, called the Gun Owners’ Action League (GOAL), which tried to oppose one of the key requirements on the bill. In Massachusetts, before the Gun Violence Prevention bill was passed, the police could deny a handgun license to someone who did not have a criminal record, but was deemed a danger to the community. Yet, that same person could receive a rifle license.
JCRC wanted to ensure police chiefs had greater discretion in issuing rifle and shotgun licenses as well, and ultimately succeeded. Congregations including Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Temple Israel in Boston, and Temple Isiah and Temple Emunah, both in Lexington, worked with their local police chiefs to pass this legislation. “It was a hard-fought battle,” recalled Lewis.
One piece of legislation that JCRC was not able to push through would have limited the sale of guns in bulk, which are then often distributed illegally. “That didn’t have a prayer because that limits gun sales,” Lewis said, noting that when it comes to gun legislation, it’s important to pick one’s battles and to set realistic priorities.
Through the coalition’s work, JCRC also built bridges with urban communities, where synagogue activists met mothers who have lost their children to violence in the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston. “These stories of loss were a lot more real, and for folks to go to hearings and hear the story of a mother who had experienced that, people started to think more deeply about gun violence,” Lewis said.
JCRC is now focused on creating budgets for gun violence prevention programs in Massachusetts and partnering with groups working on more systemic problems. One such group is the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. Louis was 15 years old and a 10th grader at West Roxbury High School, who dreamed of becoming America’s first African-American president. His life was abruptly cut short when he was caught in crossfire between rival gangs, while on his way to a Teens Against Gang Violence meeting. His mother, Tina Chery, founded the institute in his honor to educate people in her community on violence prevention.
“It was upon Louis’s death that I woke up,” Chery said. “I wanted to channel my pain and anger to keep his memory alive and to teach this concept of peace and healing.” She also wanted to work on correcting the misconception that violence only occurs in poor neighborhoods in inner cities. “People don’t think that violence in urban settings is an issue. People tend to think, ‘It’s those people over there,’” Chery said. “Violence happens anywhere, at any time, to anyone.”
But while legislation to prevent gun violence is a step in the right direction, she said it’s more than just about gun control. “Why do people feel the need to pick up a gun and hurt someone? They’re dealing with trauma and unresolved grief – guns are just their weapons of choice. ”To prevent gun violence means to get to the root of the problem, Chery continued.
JCRC shares this philosophy and has also partnered with Youth Jobs Coalition, which provides teens with job opportunities in the summer and throughout the year. The group is also working on gun violence prevention programs offered through the Department of Public Health. “We can’t just create laws around gun violence without investing in opportunity for people who if not given those opportunities, might choose violence,” Lewis said.
It is too early to tell if the Gun Violence Prevention law has been effective, as implementation is also a time-consuming endeavor that requires careful supervision. It has already been reported that one police chief was able to remove a rifle and an accompanying license from someone who was a danger to the community. “That’s a win. To know that there are laws in place to keep communities safe is a good thing,” Lewis said.
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute will hold its 19th annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace on May 10. The walk begins at Town Field Park in Field’s Corner, Dorchester. Visit www.mothersdaywalk4peace.org.