Two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, I accompanied 12 students to the March for our Lives in Raleigh. Shortly after, one of our teens organized a rally for students here in Asheville. Inspired by their passion for change, their stories of being afraid at school and a deep conviction that all life is precious, I feel a shared responsibility to keep the issue of gun violence in the forefront of our minds.
I’ve been a rabbi for 22 years and a student of Tae Kwon Do for the last nine. On the surface, it appears counterintuitive, but the two identities really do complement each other: the discipline, the ritual, the cultivation of awareness and character each demands feeds the other. I practice mostly because martial arts are mind, body and spirit practices that teach deep respect for others and cultivate the qualities of perseverance, self control, indomitable spirit, integrity and courtesy. Despite having earned a third degree black belt, I’ve often still wondered whether I should rest more easily because I’m better equipped to defend myself. As a martial artist, I walk taller and more confident when I’m alone at night. But should I ever be in danger, would my training really be sufficient?
I had a memorable encounter with a visiting 6th degree master instructor early in my practice at a Tae Kwon Do tournament. “At your skill level, do you feel confident you could defend yourself against anything, even if someone pulled a gun on you?” I inquired. His response floored me. “Yes, because I never leave the house without my pistol.”
Guns are a game changer. Americans are 5% of the world’s population and we own 50% of the world’s guns. In such an environment, it seems the only credible defense against a gun is another gun. At the same time, studies are inconclusive whether putting more guns in the hands of good people is a good or a bad approach to gun violence. Folks who study gun violence think the difficulty or ease with which guns can be acquired has more to do with changing the number of crimes committed with firearms. In addition, we know painfully well from the school shooting in Florida that the authorities are not responding even when people who have guns are on FBI watchlists. Addressing the scourge of gun violence has to be comprehensive and decisive.
I believe Parkland revealed to us too late to be prophetic that gun violence is a public health issue. More than 210,000 students have experienced it at school since Columbine in 1999. Those students will never be the same. But I’m glad I am hearing their voices and I will join with them in making Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High be the tragedy that inspires us to do something collectively that will be sane and smart. We Americans are good at tackling tough issues. Remember how we radically changed American mores around tobacco, got people to start wearing seat belts and addressed the issue of drunk driving. And our society is better for it. For all our sakes, now is the time to act on gun violence, too.