Time to end rhetoric and take action against gun violence epidemic

    Philadelphia police are shown responding to a homicide in 2013. (Matthew Grady for WHYY)

    Philadelphia police are shown responding to a homicide in 2013. (Matthew Grady for WHYY)

    The weekend’s bloodletting began on Friday night, April 22, when 25-year-old Anthony Molina returned home to Lindbergh Boulevard and got out of his car to throw away some trash. A man who had been sitting on some nearby steps began firing at Molina, and killed him, while Molina’s fiancé watched.

    By Saturday afternoon, Philadelphia had notched two more homicides — Timothy McGorder, 29, found dead in front of a home on Sulis Street, and Guy Ellison, 36, shot to death inside a green Pontiac Grand Prix.

    Early Sunday morning, on East Wyoming Avenue, 17-year-old Angel Castellanos took a fatal bullet in the chest. That afternoon, Alex Cherry, 21, was shot in the head and died. And by the time most Philadelphians had finished dinner, there was one more grim statistic: 18-year-old Elijah Frazier was killed in Cedarbrook by someone who emerged from a red SUV and fired shots into a crowd.

    Just another weekend in the big, beleaguered city, where police have clocked 80 homicides so far this year. Quick, name 80 people you know — your mail carrier, the best man at your wedding, the gal who fills your scrips at CVS, plus 77 more — then picture their names on headstones, one gritty, gray plaque after another.

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    Eighty people. That’s three major-league baseball teams, plus a few hopefuls who didn’t make the cut. Two-and-a-half classes of Philadelphia school kids (right, 33 per overcrowded room). That’s who knows how many still-in-shock brothers and grandmothers, children, cousins, and friends.

    And lest we place too much blame on Philadelphia, where brotherly love was in short supply, note that peace did not prevail in Wisconsin that weekend, where an 18-year-old opened fire with a high-powered rifle outside a high school prom, or in Ohio, where eight family members were shot in the head while they slept.

    Our gun violence epidemic is a public health crisis

    If people were dying with this frequency of E. coli or a new strain of flu — six in one weekend, in one 142-square-mile metropolis — we would summon public health officials and declare an emergency. Epidemiologists would sleuth that bacteria to its source; microbiology experts would hustle to develop a new vaccine. The company responsible for the tainted food would revamp procedures and struggle to regain consumers’ trust.

    Why, then, are we so sluggish in responding to the epidemic of gun violence, which claimed nearly 13,000 lives (homicide, unintentional shooting, and murder-suicide) in 2015?

    Why, in fact, are the makers of weapons going (all pun intended) great guns, with Smith & Wesson sales up 61.5 percent in the three months ending Jan. 31, compared to the same quarter the year before?

    Why does the NRA have $3.4 million to spend on lobbying Congressional and state legislators to bend its way on even the most milquetoast gun control measures: waiting periods, background checks, and limits on gun show sales?

    These are rhetorical questions, and I’m tired of rhetoric, so weary of hearing politicians serve up condolences after each mass shooting (“our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families blah blah blah”), then do nothing to keep the next alienated, angry young man from getting his hands on a semi-automatic.

    An act of conscience to make the unthinkable real

    We need to change that story. So how about this one? While police pasted yellow tape at the spots of six different homicides, Jews in Philadelphia and across the world were marking the first night of Passover. I was at my mother’s house, and there was an orange in the center of the Seder plate.

    Back in the sexist old days (you know, the early 1980s), a young girl approached a respected rabbi and asked him about the place of lesbians in Judaism. The rabbi thundered back, “A lesbian in Judaism is like a crust of bread on the Seder plate!” — that is, utterly transgressive. Unthinkable. Not. Going. To. Happen.

    Except, it did. In honor of that story, some Jewish feminists began placing an orange on the Seder plate (bread at Passover seemed too much of a violation) to insist on their fruitful inclusion. My daughter, 15, has never known a Passover without this symbol. And this year, with all the other foods — bitter herbs, roasted egg, shank bone — arrayed around the plate’s perimeter, my mother plunked the orange in the middle.

    You couldn’t order a more apt metaphor. “What are the once-radical ideas,” I asked at the Seder, “that now have moved into the mainstream?” My relatives brimmed with examples: Women vote. Gays and lesbians can marry in every state. A black man is our 44th president, and a woman might well become our next.

    The story of Passover, commemorating the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, is really a story of radical transformation. Slavery was the norm; freedom was the transgressive idea. (Unthinkable. Not. Going. To. Happen.) And yet, it did — with acts of conscience (the midwives who refused to kill Jewish infants, in violation of Pharaoh’s orders) and risk (Jews who painted their doorposts with lamb’s blood, marking themselves in hope that the angel of death would pass over their houses), through faith and collective action.

    This year, slaves; next year, free?

    Can we imagine it? Acts of conscience and risk and faith and collective action leading to a society in which a Montgomery County man cannot obtain a permit to carry a concealed semi-automatic gun into a church? In which he cannot obtain a gun at all?

    Can we demand that our elected officials offer something more substantial than sympathy notes in response to the next mass shooting? Can we face the deep-pocketed Pharaohs of the NRA and tell them, in unequivocal terms, that the Constitution’s framers never meant the 2nd Amendment to facilitate the casual murders of half a dozen Philadelphians in a single weekend?

    There was one other thing happening during that blood-bathed interlude of April; it was also National Poetry Month. Does that seem extraneous? It’s not. Poetry can utter what seems impossible; it can kick us out of complacency. It can — unlike lobbying statistics or homicide counts — remind us that behind every word is a breath, a longing, a human being. Salma Jayyusi, a Jordanian-Palestinian poet, wrote, “If we read one another, perhaps we won’t kill one another.”

    We Jews celebrate Passover each year as an act of empathy and imagination; we read the story not as passive observers, but as participants, poised to act. We speak in the plural voice and the present tense: This year we are slaves; next year, may all be free.

    Passover and National Poetry Month have ended, but the violence shudders on. What if we read the local crime news the way we read the Haggadah, the way we read a poem, as if we were Anthony Molina’s fiancé and Timothy McGorder’s mother and Elijah Frazier’s cousin. What if we imagine freedom from gun violence as the orange on the Seder plate — the idea that was unthinkable until the day we made it happen?

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