Nashville is a growing city, but at times it can still feel like a small town. This small-town feel was palpable when news of the Covenant School shooting began to emerge. Some learned of the horror from personal text messages long before the official reporting of the incident was public. Many of us are only one degree of separation from those killed, injured, and directly affected in the Covenant School shooting. The families there are friends and neighbors, and that tragic day has impacted us on a personal level. Even Governor Lee is not immune from this proximity. One of the teachers shot and killed was a close friend of the Governor and his wife, Maria. In his statement the day after the tragedy, he said, “Cindy (Peak) was supposed to come over to have dinner with Maria last night after she filled in as a substitute teacher yesterday at Covenant.” Perhaps this personal connection softened his heart and moved him to call a special session of the state legislature for August 21 to come back together to work on ways to address the epidemic of violence committed by guns in our state.
Woodmont Christian Church in Green Hills counts Covenant School families among their church community, making the church a natural place to host a panel discussion, ‘After Covenant: Faith, Guns, and Protecting Tennesseans.’ Church members Katie and Mike Dieckhaus’ daughter, Evelyn Dieckhaus, was among the children gunned down and killed at the school. “You all have continued to show us how to be beacons of light strength and love. Like our Evelyn,” Katie Dieckhaus said as she addressed the crowd assembled to hear the panelists.
The gun safety conversation was led by three panelists: Dr. Alex Jahangir, former U.S. Senator Dr. Bill Frist, and Rev. Dr. Clay Stauffer, Senior Minister of the church. In his remarks, Senator Frist, a medical doctor and former Republican Majority Leader for the U.S. Senate, said it’s an issue that’s growing and it’s time for us to act on it. “These guns and these weapons are the number one cause of death for people under the age of 19. That’s never been seen in any other country in history but it’s occurring today and it’s increasing.”
Senator Frist said that the polarization in our political sphere has been the root cause of the lack of laws to adequately address gun violence, especially in Tennessee. Frist urged everyone in the room to call their elected officials. He said the message we should communicate to our lawmakers going into the special session is to genuinely listen to the voices of the people of Tennessee. The vast majority of Americans, over 75%, including Republicans, Democrats, gun owners and non- gun owners agree that we need to revamp, revise and do everything we can on a policy level to address the issue, just as we did with regard to car safety years ago, reducing car and traffic deaths significantly.
Specific policy recommendations shared by Frist include:
· Enact extreme risk protection orders. Much like red flag laws, this would allow families or police to temporarily confiscate firearms belonging to potentially dangerous people or bar them from purchasing firearms.
· Child access prevention and safe storage laws. It's all about responsible gun ownership. Legislation would impose penalties on adults that allow children unsupervised access to firearms, while safe storage laws require gun owners to store firearms unloaded.
· Expand background checks to all firearm purchases. Tennessee is without universal background checks as those legally prohibited from purchasing weapons often circumvent the system through private sales.
· Require firearm safety courses. Every licensed hunter must complete a course, why not gun owners? The panel said education could reduce firearm injures and accidental deaths.
We in the Jewish community know only too well the danger of violence committed by guns. Advocating for security grant funding to protect houses of worship, hiring security personnel, and organizing active shooter trainings is depressingly common practice for all Jewish congregations. It was a person with a gun who took the lives of 11 people at The Tree of Life shooting. The shooter was recently convicted of all counts and awaiting sentencing, but the scars and trauma of that day continue to haunt the congregation, the Pittsburgh community, and all of us who now must walk past armed security as we enter our houses of worship.
In his closing comments at the Woodmont Church panel discussion, Rev. Stauffer shared his thoughts on how we can move forward, beyond the partisan bickering and rhetoric, to come together to truly solve problems rather than simply blame problems on the other side of the political aisle. He quickly recommended a book, Morality, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory. Learn more about Rabbi Sacks here: www.rabbisacks.org
Stauffer’s recommendation of this book is a reminder of the wisdom Dara Horn shared during her Nashville presentation in May. She urged people to move beyond talking about dead Jews, and move toward celebrating, sharing, and amplifying the social justice and communal values inherent in Jewish life. Jewish wisdom, and the teachings of Jewish leaders, can be valuable for everyone striving for a more just and respectful community. Even Stauffer, a Christian church leader, referenced the wisdom of Rabbi Sacks as a way forward.
JCRC will remain engaged in this conversation, urging our elected officials to be creative, thoughtful, and comprehensive in working on policy to address the epidemic of violence committed by guns, both with policy specific to the use of guns, and policy to address the other factors that lead to the violence we are witnessing throughout our city, state, and country. Building safe and resilient communities will be part of the theme of the JCRC Social Justice Seder on April 11, 2024.
At the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville Annual meeting in June, we thanked outgoing chair, Steven Remer, and welcomed incoming chair, Harold Benus. To learn more about the work of JCRC in our community please message Deborah Oleshansky, Deborah@jewishnashville.org