According to Everytown Research and Policy institute’s website, every year 1,385 people in Tennessee are killed by guns, with the state ranking number 29th in the country for gun law strength. They also report that the gun homicide rate in the U. S. is 26 times higher than in other developed countries. As of February, 59 percent of adults or someone they know has experienced gun violence. That statistic in Nashville is undoubtedly higher, in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in March when an emotionally disturbed former student killed six people with an automatic firearm, one of five purchased legally prior to the murders.
The mass murder escalated calls for sensible gun control laws, and cast three members of the Tennessee state legislature into the national spotlight for using a bullhorn in the front of the chamber as protesters filed in. Two of the lawmakers, who are Black and represent predominantly Black districts, were expelled. The three, dubbed the Tennessee Three, were invited to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House. And Vice President Kamala Harris paid a special visit to Nashville to meet the three at an event at Fisk University.
The Jewish community is no stranger to gun violence, either. Jason Sparks is a member of West End Synagogue and incoming board member of the Jewish Federation. His younger brother Chris was killed by a gun in a road rage incident seven years ago. According to Sparks, the case quickly became one of 800 cold murder cases in Nashville. “It was the worst night of my life,” he says, “I floundered a bit, thought we’d catch who did it.” The personal tragedy changed Jason’s philosophy around guns and activated him politically. He frequently attends legislative sessions and has provided testimony to the legislature. “I grew up with guns and rifles, knew how to use them the right way. My brother felt the same way,” he says, “It’s heartbreaking to have to go and testify for something like this.” Sparks and his family continue to offer a $25 thousand reward for information leading to the capture of the person who committed his brother’s murder.
The notion that gun control is used today as a political cudgel is shared by Rabbi Joshua Kullock, of West End Synagogue. Kullock was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and prior to coming to Nashville he lived and worked in Guadalajara, Mexico. “This country has a fixation with guns and it’s a problem that you don’t see in the rest of the world,” he says. Further, he says the American Jewish community is no stranger to the debate. “Now that politics are the religion of the Jews, your opinion on how to deal with it depends on where you fall.”
Still, statistics show the majority of American Jews want more restrictive gun control laws. Pamela Nadell is a professor of Women’s and Gender History and director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University. She says a 2022 National Survey of Jewish Voters by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 96 percent of Jewish voters support requiring comprehensive background checks for all gun purchases and 91 percent support raising the
minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21. “We are a county of mass shootings almost on a daily basis.”
Nadell cites an article in the City Journal from December 2022 that states simply, “American Jews are feeling vulnerable.” The article, by Tevi Troy, attributes this growing unease to the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Poway, California; growing street violence against Jews, and the antisemitic statements by high profile celebrities like Kanye West. Nadel says there are many Jews who now carry guns into synagogue services because they believe it is the best way to be safe. “There are people who know how to use a gun and are responsible who want to carry in services. And who’s really thinking about Isaiah’s swords into ploughshares when they bring a gun into a synagogue?”
There are Jewish lessons to be found for dealing with the tension between managing fear and living Jewish values. Kullock says, “You can always make a case for guns. There is text to support both sides. But how do you balance preservation of life with the right to self-defense? It comes back to your moral compass.” Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Sherith Israel, says a major tenet of Torah is maintaining the sanctity of life, a concept that runs through many areas of Jewish law. There is also the idea that freedoms left unchecked is not the idea, either. “While I don’t know of a direct correlation to gun control per se, there is a well-known admonition to not place a stumbling block before the blind, which is used in all sorts of halachic matters, and I think would pertain to not allowing people to own guns who are likely to hurt themselves or others,” he says.
The shooter in the Covenant murders was a former student who was being treated for an emotional disorder. At the time of publication of this article, it is still unknown what the motive was, and a judge will be hearing arguments over whether writings left behind by the shooter, which could provide a motive, should be released. What is known is that the shooter had legally purchased seven firearms, the parents did not know about them, and they believed their child should not possess weapons.
What transpired on that day is well documented. What unfolded since is something Sparks is hoping will lead to meaningful change in the laws. “This was a wakeup call. To be blunt, it activated a lot of people with agency,” he says. He finds support in Moms Demand Action, an advocacy organization fighting for stronger gun laws. “They have been incredibly inclusive. Linda McFadyen-Ketchum [Tennessee chapter leader] is an amazing woman. She believes this is not inevitable. We made the situation, and we can unmake it. We can de-normalize walking with AR-15s in the streets.”
Progress on the state level is proving to be elusive, according to John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville). He is both a lawmaker, and a member of Congregation Micah. “Some of my Republican colleagues understand the gravity of this issue, but I can count on one hand the number who will vote for meaningful change,” he says.
Last month, Lee issued a formal call for a “public safety” special session of the legislature on August 21 and is seeking feedback from Tennesseans. In a statement on his website, Lee says, “There is broad agreement that action is needed, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll continue to listen to Tennesseans and pursue thoughtful, practical measures that strengthen the safety of Tennesseans, preserve Second Amendment rights, prioritize due process protections, support law enforcement and address mental health.” But according to Clemmons, there is opposition within the legislature on some key points of Lee’s proposed bill, particularly around temporary removal, or “red flag” laws. “There are other conservative states that have passed temporary removal laws,” he says, “There are some here who are willing to discuss it. The challenge is getting leaders across the aisle to whom others will listen.”
Nashville Vice-Mayor Jim Shulman agrees with Clemmons on the need to dig deeper into issues dealing with mental health and gun ownership, “There is, for example, a history behind red flag laws. Let’s bring in the individuals that monitor and measure this effort and let’s review the results. I think that the majority of people believe in more substantive mental health resources. We should bring in the experts on that, as well.”
Shulman says the Covenant shooting should finally provide impetus for more meaningful conversations, starting at the top, “People seemed to be locked down in their positions on gun control. But with the seriousness of the issue, people have to be willing to listen to others, understand other points of views, and then be willing to work towards sound compromises. The tragic events surrounding The Covenant School have led to specific attention on this issue, including the convening of a Special Session called by the Governor. I am hopeful that everyone, including our elected members of the House and Senate, come ready to listen and learn from experts on this subject and then work to find ways to better protect the public, especially our children.”
Meanwhile, the rising antisemitism nationally is hitting closer to home for Nashville’s Jewish community. Recent hate incidents include distribution of antisemitic literature throughout the city’s residential neighborhoods, spray-painting swastikas and other racist and antisemitic rhetoric on homes in the Sylvan Park neighborhood, and numerous incidents of bullying and threats of violence against Jewish students in local schools. The community relies on its relationships with local law enforcement to provide protection and information. The Secure Community Network (SCN) is a nonprofit founded in 2004 under the auspices of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. SCN works on behalf of Jewish communities around the country and serves as liaison with local and federal law enforcement agencies.
According to a January 2020 white paper entitled, “Firearms and the Faithful,” the SCN convened a group of security experts and law enforcement professionals in 2019 to determine best practices for Jewish communities. Among the top recommendations is the employment of armed security for synagogues, schools, JCCs, and other Jewish community buildings. The state legislature’s recent approval to the state budget to provide $750,000 in security funding for houses of worship is designed to help in this effort.
Despite the debate and argument on both sides of the political spectrum on how best to keep the community safe moving forward, victims of gun violence continue to struggle picking up the pieces. Jessica Cohen Banish will never forget the frantic call she received from her close friend and Covenant School parent, Becky Hansen asking for a ride to the school on that terrible day in March. And as more violence rages on nationwide and news focuses on political debate over the issue, for Cohen Banish and her friend, the pain is ever present. “This is not old news for Becky,” says Cohen Banish, “This won’t fade away with another news cycle because the problem still exists.” She describes the ongoing trauma for Hansen’s five-year-old son who on a recent trip to the zoo could not enjoy himself. “He couldn’t have fun like a normal child because he’s always looking for a bad guy with a gun,” she says.
While those in a position to enact legislation continue the dance of negotiation, the Jewish community, much like every other, tries to maintain balance between gun ownership, safety, and protection. Rabbi Michael Danziger of The Temple, says, “Our tradition is very clear about the responsibility to prevent harm where we know there is danger. The Prophet, Isaiah said, ‘You shall beat your swords into ploughshares and your spears into pruning hooks,’ a verse the Rabbis quote in calling weapons reprehensible and bound for elimination. Do we really think that in our day, he’d have said, ‘but the assault weapons, you shall leave untouched?”
The one thing folks seem to agree on is the need to keep talking. Clemmons continues to talk to his colleagues on the hill, “Our plan is to sit down, talk things through. Try to decide what is a non-starter, and what can be discussed?” Cohen Banish says, “We have to talk to each other. It doesn’t have to be a black and white issue. Every little law is a step in the right direction.” Sparks believes change is afoot. “I hate that tragedy gives me hope, but I think people are tired of this. It’s in the zeitgeist of the country, not just Nashville.”
Kullock says from a practical perspective legislation needs to be the driver, “Do you need semi-automatic [assault] weapons? No, we need thoughtful legislation regarding what is okay and what is beyond reasonable. But he believes the key to real change is to dig even deeper to uncover a fundamental truth in Judaism. “You have to balance where you are going with where you are now. The vision of the prophets was for a redeemed world, one where people exchange guns for working tools. A world that needs guns is a world that is unredeemed.”
To provide feedback to the Governor’s office, visit: www.tn.gov/governor.