Navy Yard shooting: Haven’t we been here before? Let’s not end up here again.

Sept. 16, 2013Police personnel near the Navy Yard.Matt McClain / The Washington Post Doesn’t it feel like we’ve been here … Continued

Sept. 16, 2013Police personnel near the Navy Yard.Matt McClain / The Washington Post

Doesn’t it feel like we’ve been here before? Another mass shooting, this time at the Navy Yard. More profiles of kind neighbors, loving siblings, gentle friends lives cut short.

It has been nine months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and yet, despite the pleas of devastated parents and fierce political wrangling, not only has Congress failed to reinstate an assault weapons ban, but it also neglected to require background checks that would have denied easy gun access to terrorists, domestic abusers and those struggling with mental illness. In fact, rather than Newtown being the watershed moment many believed it would be, there has been no meaningful progress on gun laws over the past year.

Against all reason, the gun lobby has prevailed once again. And we the most empowered people on earth have resigned ourselves to utter disempowerment in the face of their inexhaustible coffers and distorted logic, recklessly dissociating access to guns and gun violence. And meanwhile, including this week’s tragedy at the Navy Yard, there have been 17 mass shootings in the U.S. since Newtown, not to mention thousands of barely reported homicides in urban neighborhoods across the country. Every year, hundreds of children shoot themselves or someone else when they got their hands on loaded weapons. Like the 3-year-old in Tacoma, Wash., who, when his mom’s boyfriend stepped out of the car to pump gas, unbuckled his seatbelt, reached for the gun and unwittingly shot himself in the head. Thousands of women live in utter terror that their husband’s or boyfriend’s rage will turn from scary to deadly when he owns a gun. And so many of us have lost dear friends and loved ones who, in a moment of despair, took their own lives with guns. Thousands of lives wasted and families shattered each year.

This is an epidemic, and it may well be the great shame of our generation. Our children and grandchildren will wonder how we could abide such reckless abandonment of common sense and the common good.

Who will live and who will die? The Jewish calendar calls us to stop everything this time of year and recite these terrifying words, and many of us do so as if our fate is out of our hands. Of course there will always be unforeseen and unavoidable tragedies, but to hide behind the mantle of inevitability is a gross abdication of human responsibility. We can’t stop gun deaths, but we can surely minimize them, like they did in the U.K. and in Australia after mass shootings in the 90’s led grieving nations to demand strict controls on the manufacture of guns and their availability. Now, 20 years later, gun deaths in both countries have dropped significantly.

What is going on here? The heart of the challenge beyond even the age-old disagreement over interpretation of the 2
Amendment is a shameful lack of political will, the result of a shortage of empathic alignment with victims of gun violence. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we don’t fundamentally believe that it’s our problem. Instead, our response is to cry a little, install better alarm systems, build higher walls and pray to God it doesn’t come any closer to home. If we really felt that Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard was our shared tragedy, if we felt that the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans from guns each year was our problem, we wouldn’t sleep as long as guns are easier to purchase than Sudafed in this country.

When God confronts Cain to ask the whereabouts of his younger brother Abel, Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God does not respond, leaving that question to subsequent generations to answer. Tragically, shamefully, throughout Genesis we see the failure to answer Cain’s question in the affirmative. Ishmael and Isaac can’t live together; Jacob deceives Esau; Jacob’s sons oscillate between wanting to kill Joseph or sell him into slavery. It’s as if history answers Cain’s unanswered question with: No. Your brother is not your business. Every man for himself.

But just as Genesis winds down, Jacob’s sons go to Egypt and beg for food. Long-lost brother Joseph, dressed as Pharoah’s viceroy, plants a stolen goblet in his youngest brother Benjamin’s sack and insists that all the other brothers return home, but Benjamin stay as his slave. This is a defining moment in Torah. These brothers inheritors of a legacy of flagrant disregard of fraternal responsibility break script. How can there be peace for me, says brave Judah, if there is no peace for my brother? If Benjamin stays, I too will stay. We’re all in this together.

After many generations and too much pain, we have finally learned how to answer the underlying question of Genesis and the great question of human existence: Am I my brother’s keeper? And the answer is an undeniable affirmation of the essential connectedness between one person and another. In an instant, the script shifts from one of alienation and radical aloneness to one of love and shared responsibility. That is our story, cries out the book of Genesis. Like it or not, comfortable or not, convenient or not your pain IS my problem, your destiny is my sacred responsibility.

How long will it take for us to learn this same lesson? Gun violence in this country is more than a political problem; it’s a spiritual problem an empathy gap. Shame on us that we have left the heavy lifting to the bereaved families who now, in addition to grieving the loss of loved ones, must also drive the advocacy for reasonable and responsible policy change.

Let this latest mass shooting remind us of the inescapable truth of human connectedness. Let it awaken within us the sacred responsibility we hold toward one another, the empathic attunement that drives social change. As long as one parent fears sending her child to school, as long as one person worries if his wife will make it home from work alive, as long as one teen fears that he’ll be shot on the way home from 7-11 with Skittles and an iced tea, as long as one teacher wonders which kids will show up alive when school resumes after summer break, none of us is safe. Not one. I am your keeper and you are mine. That is the sacred calling between human beings, and the only way out of this mess.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding Rabbi at


, a Los Angeles based progressive, egalitarian Jewish community.

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  • Pilot1

    The left’s answer is not to address the problem but to punish the law abiding instead as usual.

  • Pilot1

    If the kid with the skittles had been taught not to atack people he would be alive to.

    Also rabbi remember what happened to the Jews who were disarmed by Hitler before he gassed them.

  • plattitudes

    Pray tell, exactly how would the failed gun-control legislation have prevented the shooting at the Navy Yard? No assault weapon was used, and until they release more information on the handgun he may have gained access to once inside the building, we don’t know its clip capacity.

    The legislation did not fail ‘against all reason’ as the author asserts. It failed because the benefits of the law were basically nil, and the costs, measured in terms of infringement on the second amendment, were too high.

  • freedompurveyor

    This article is based entirely on the flawed premise that these things happen because people have access to guns. Yet, it always happens in a “gun free zone,” and in this case in a city with some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. It’s a little ironic that to be your “brother’s keeper” is to disarm citizens and entrust their security entirely to a government which can’t even protect them on its own military installation.

    If there is anything to be gleaned about gun control from this, it is that no legislation could have prevented it. A shotgun was used, the exact weapon our esteemed Vice President urged people to buy instead of a rifle. The man himself had security clearance, so it is hard to imagine a system where it is harder to buy a shotgun than get access to a Navy base.

    We don’t hear about the cases where mass shootings are stopped by responsible, armed citizens. That doesn’t fit the media narrative. Instead, all of the attention is given to people like this in the hopes that it can be used to further a political goal. Most people can probably name most shooters in the past 2 decades, but they could never name a single person who stopped a mass shooting, or even a victim. Is it so surprising that this keeps happening when so much attention is guaranteed? Does the media not have a huge incentive to shift the blame?

  • 00KC

    The guns were bought down the street a few miles in a “not-gun-free-zone” just across the state line.

    No one wants to take the guns away from the police that took him out. People want to create a universal background system that can perhaps incorporate the information like prior shootings, etc….so that this man wouldn’t have been able to purchase a gun. Would you rather his weapon was a knife….my guess is “responsible” citizens would have stopped him before he killed one….but most likely before 2…

  • SimonTemplar

    I can’t help but think that this is a little microcosm of what would happen on the streets in a “gun free” America. The law which Clinton signed back in the early 90s disarmed military personnel on military basses. Military bases are (with the exception of the MPs, I guess) basically gun free zones. Yet one person motivated to break the law walked into the gun free zone and shot a lot of law abiding (and defenseless) people.

  • freedompurveyor

    Most gun crimes are committed with weapons that are obtained illegally, but let’s assume that he was only able to get his hands on a knife (as faulty as that assumption is). What if he used said knife to kill a law enforcement officer and take his weapon? It barely changes the situation.

    I don’t think anyone is against background checks, but the fact is we already have them. The shotgun was purchased from a federally licensed dealer, who is required to run a background check, and it came back clean. He was never actually convicted of a firearms offense, so that is not relevant.

    It’s very easy in retrospect to paint him as a dangerous person who shouldn’t have a gun, but it’s very difficult to actually predict who is going to do something like this, and it’s impossible to keep guns out of the hands of every person prone to doing it without infringing on the rights of everyone else.

  • Italian Rose

    President Obama can do much more to prevent gun violence and to reduce the availability of guns to the American Public. All illegal guns begin their life as legal guns so if we get our arms around the legal guns we can get our arms around the illegal ones as well.

    The President has the power to withhold federal dollars appropriated to the several states. Award federal dollars in direct proportion to the state’s Brady score, and watch the several states enact legislation for stronger gun laws to up their Brady scores to be recipients of federal money.

    People can by contract give up their second amendment rights. If you want to work for government federal, state, or local you sign an affidavit that you are not a gun owner or that you will get rid of your guns in 30-days and you consent to have your name entered into the NICS system. If you want to be a recipient of any type of federal aid or any federal program, you do the same thing. If you are a private sector firm and you want to do business with the federal government, you and all your employees must sign non gun ownership affidavits and consent to your name being entered into the NICS system.

    We need to significantly start reducing the numbers of guns in America to make our people safe and to keep our police officers safe and this is one additional thing the President can do today to start getting dangerous weapons off the streets and out of untrained hands.

  • plattitudes

    “People can by contract give up their second amendment rights” — this is true. However, making such a revocation of rights a requirement for employment, aid, or licensing a business is, quite literally, unconstitutional. The second amendment PREVENTS congress from enacting any law of the kind.