More than 1,000 mourners gathered at a Parkland, Florida synagogue on Feb. 16, 2018 for the funeral of Meadow Pollack, 18, one of the 17 students and staff killed in a school shooting this week. (Photo/JTA-WSVNTV)
More than 1,000 mourners gathered at a Parkland, Florida synagogue on Feb. 16, 2018 for the funeral of Meadow Pollack, 18, one of the 17 students and staff killed in a school shooting this week. (Photo/JTA-WSVNTV)

Helping ‘outcast’ kids not become shooters is our imperative

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This week’s horrifying news of the Parkland shooting perpetrated by a teen “social outcast” harboring white supremacist ideas has resurfaced public outrage about guns. A great deal has already been written about this incident and culpability, and for our Jewish community, I want to offer another perspective.

Our outrage is rightfully placed at the feet of legislators who have abdicated their role of representing Americans – more than 90% of whom support universal background checks and 52% of whom want stricter gun control laws in general. Even as Congress fails to act, there is more we can do to address gun violence.

I began to view gun violence in a new light a few years ago, when I went to a shooting range and learned firsthand the awe and fear of firing a weapon. My instructor was a Jewish law enforcement official with an encyclopedic knowledge of firearms. Awe increased as I experienced the full power of the gun, and handled this tool whose essential purpose is to injure or kill. Fear deepened as I realized that this small piece of metal made me powerful. My head enveloped by protective ear muffs, and concentration trained on the use of the gun, I realized that shooting is a profound moment of personal agency and aloneness.

Our Jewish community has been fighting for two decades for effective policies that will reduce firearm related violence. At the core of this advocacy is a consensus perspective that the widespread availability of firearms endangers innocent life and violates the fundamental Jewish teaching of b’tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are created in the image of the divine and entitled to have the value of their lives respected. Also at the heart of this is a keen understanding that anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice are a significant motive in gun related crimes, making our community particularly vulnerable. JCRC therefore advocates for stricter licensing, registration, mandatory comprehensive background checks, restriction of the sale of military grade weapons, and more. Despite support for these measures provided by our Bay Area elected representatives in Congress, given the intransigence of their colleagues from across the nation, it is easy to feel hopeless.

But we are not helpless. Moms Demand Action reminds us that that “thoughts and prayers are not enough to honor the victims of gun violence” and is using a recipe for advocacy that we Jews know well:  advancing a single issue, getting candidates on record, and supporting races of those who will enact legislation that will lead to sane gun control and courage in standing up to the NRA. We Jews value children’s lives and want a safe and secure future for future generations, and we need to get behind this movement.

Just as there is truth telling in the public discourse about why Congress continues to fail to act, so too must we do some truth telling about what propels a person to commit these heinous acts. I learned first-hand the intoxicating sense of power, and validation of personal autonomy that comes from holding and using a gun. I now understand how a child repeatedly failed by adults who simply didn’t know how to handle his inappropriate behavior or awkward presence might seek a sense of power through guns. When peers’ response to a child whom they perceive to be strange is to ostracize the child, and when school administrators see a child as a social outcast but fail to provide social and emotional support to build that child’s attachment and relationships with others, and given the accessibility of guns in our society, it is not a surprise that these teens’ rage finds salve in the power of using a gun to instill fear, awe, and finally get acknowledgement.

To be sure, our politicians should not be let off the hook to legislatively act. And to be sure, California and Bay Area municipalities are doing far more to address gun accessibility than is Congress. And yet, social isolation as a contributing factor in gun related death is something we CAN address.

Former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy argued that loneliness is “an epidemic because it affects a great number of people in our country, but also because one person’s loneliness can have an impact on another person.” A truth teller, the Surgeon General also argued that guns pose “a public health issue” to our society.  Dr. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, who has studied and writes about public shootings in America says mass killers are “people in social isolation with a lack of support systems to help them through hard times and give them a reality check.” From Sandy Hook in Newtown to this week’s shooting in Parkland, extreme social isolation is a common thread among perpetrators.

Sandy Hook Promise argues that “people who are at-risk of hurting themselves or others often show signs and signals before an act of violence takes place.”  But are we listening? While we are young, we are trained to ignore unusual kids. And as adults, we propagate the problem, willfully ignoring those who make us uneasy. Social isolation is something we have been tacitly trained to use as a response to those whom we view as different. But we know well that the damaging result is that, too often, people turn to use guns against themselves and others because of our disregard. Catalyzed by the horrific shootings in Newtown, Sandy Hook Promise now works to teach young people how to be more socially inclusive and connected; this community realized the antidote to violence is connection.

We can change the social conditions that currently enable hostility to fester among these willfully forgotten children. Beyond Differences teaches children how to interrupt social isolation among their peers, and empowers faculty and administrators to make their schools socially inclusive. It reminds us that it is “imperative that we intervene during adolescence to reduce and end social isolation before it manifests in more dangerous behaviors, such as self-harm and community violence.” If we Jews want our and other children to feel safe from guns, then insisting on emotional safety in their school environment is an easy, direct first step. The mass shootings we see in schools today began germinating for the perpetrators when they were very young, as adults and peers failed over and over again to acknowledge, embrace and support them.

Solutions to systemic societal ills come only when we tell the truth. And there are two truths here. Congress is responsible, and must be held accountable to enact legislation to diminish gun violence. Our outrage at their willful neglect must be maintained, and we must apply pressure to get elected those who will support gun violence prevention measures. We too are responsible, and must hold ourselves, our schools, and our children accountable to disrupt the social isolation that makes those who feel powerless and invisible seek recognition through violence. We are not helpless or impotent.

Abby Porth
Abby Porth

Abby Porth is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco.