(RNS) — Last week I traveled to downtown Pittsburgh from my home in Squirrel Hill, with an FBI agent at the wheel, to the Allegheny County Courthouse, prepared to give testimony in the trial of the maniac who slaughtered my kinsmen nearly five years ago at the synagogue where I am rabbi.
These are hard memories to dwell on, but when I think about the events of that day I find myself worrying most about our children. These days, I am reminded of an episode from the first season of “Star Trek” called “Miri.” Captain Kirk and his crew land on a world completely occupied by children with no adult supervision. The residents of this world had attempted to prolong their lives via a virus-like injection given at birth. The injected person would age very slowly over hundreds of years.
But the experiment had gone awry. When puberty arrived, the virus would speed up the aging process, causing the individual to become a “grup” (slang for grownup), hurtling toward death with delusion, pain and violent behavior. Mistrustful of the grups from the Enterprise, the children capture their communicators, stranding the landing party on the planet. Without access to the ship’s computers, Dr. McCoy is unable to inoculate the crew from the virus that is beginning to spread.
Have we become dazed “grups”? In this world of violent excess, have we shirked our responsibility to our children? When did we get to a point where teenage bullies pick up military-style rifles, causing havoc in their neighborhoods, amusement parks, schools, churches and other public spaces.
Have our children lost their minds? No. In the absence of adults acting like adults, they have become infected: guns are children’s playthings. There is no one around to train them. There is hardly any oversight as children acquire guns behind the backs of their fathers who are hooked to their Thrill Kill video games.
“Be a Man among Men” is a popular tagline among gun retailers. Among AR-15-style guns, the “man-up” weapons are named with X-box gamers in mind: the Tyrant Semi-Automatic or the Black Rain Ordnance Predator. Even with the number of guns in the United States outpacing the population, gun manufacturers continue to target teenagers under the age of 21 and meet their demands.
Many parents seem to forget that parenthood means having moral authority over those you bring into the world. The U.S. has become the only country among its peers where guns are the leading cause of death among young people, after motor vehicle deaths. In my state, Pennsylvania, firearms are the leading cause of child mortality.
Everybody in my city is focused on the Pittsburgh shooting. What we don’t talk about is the outrage we should be feeling when each and every day a child kills or harms another child with a gun he carries in his backpack, lunch box or in his pants. One-on-one murders among teenagers have risen by 25% this year in my hometown.
Where is the outrage when a 15-year-old brings a handgun to the Kennywood Amusement Park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, and shoots into the crowd?
Where is the outrage when in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, we could allow a duel to the death to happen between a 16-year-old boy and a 19-year-old boy in broad daylight?
Where is the outrage when a 16-year-old teen is shot and killed by a 15-year-old boy outside of the entrance of Oliver Citywide Academy in the inner city of Pittsburgh?
Where is the outrage when two teenagers act out some kind of vendetta against another gang when they shoot into a crowd of mourners at the Destiny of Faith Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?
Fifty children have died in my region in the last 16 months in this manner. Where is the outrage?
How can we allow thousands of guns, most acquired illegally, to come into the hands of the children we love? American society has become infected. One study published in 2016 predicts that the likelihood of knowing at least one gun violence victim over a lifetime is 99.85%. Where is the outrage?
I am not the mayor, and I am not the chief of police. I am not part of a field surveillance group, like the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency tracking gun running in this country. I am a rabbi, and others like me have a moral voice that we have inherited from the ancient prophets of Israel. That voice is so needed now, as this virus has come to infect our children, who are alone in a scary world.
There are some courtrooms that still display the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments is “Thou shall not murder.” That is the bedrock of any moral society. Another commandment holds us liable for idolatry and says that “God visits the sins of the fathers upon their children for generations.” What? Elsewhere in the Bible, Moses teaches that children will not be put to death for the sins of the parents. So let’s circle back: What do the Ten Commandments mean by “visiting the sins of the parents upon their children?”
How could children be affected for sins they did not commit?
The Talmud of Babylonia interprets the verse to say “sins are visited on the children only if they continue to be My enemies.” In other words, if children perpetuate the evil culture their parents started, they are God’s enemies. Violence will beget violence, death rates will continue to rise, and our children and grandchildren will continue to die.
If children see that illegal gun possession and gun violence is legitimate and has become part of our culture, and we have adopted it as a way of life, they fall into line without any protest.
This is not a Second Amendment problem anymore.
I have had conversations with gun owners who feel that something has gone awry. They feel that their rights can be protected and we can also take a moral stance against irresponsible parents and gun manufacturers who create guns for children. A ban on these weapons is currently being considered by Congress.
Parents need to teach their children to stay away from handguns like we teach them to stay away from fire. States are passing safe storage laws that require gun owners to store their firearms unloaded, locked and separate from ammunition, but it is estimated that more than 4.6 million children still live in a home with firearms that are not stored securely.
What is the result? A teenager kills four schoolmates in Michigan. A toddler takes a gun out of his “Paw Patrol” backpack that he uses to carry his lunch to school and kills his mother while she is on a Zoom call. Certainly responsible gun owners can agree that guns and children do not mix.
Last summer I attended a White House celebration for the Gun Violence Prevention and Safe Communities Act, the first law in 20 years adopted by a bipartisan vote. I looked to shake hands with Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who backed the bill with 14 other Republicans in the wake of the terrible shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that left 21 people dead, 19 of them children. For Senator Cornyn, it took courage and considerable risk to back a bill that even mentioned gun control because of the stonewalling partisanship that is part of the D.C. culture.
Truth be told it was a fairly modest law. A few rows away, Manuel Oliver, whose son was killed at the high school in Parkland, stood up during President Biden’s speech and shouted “It’s not enough!” As security whisked him away, the president called out, “No! No! Let him be! It’s not enough. We have to do more.”
We have to do more for our children. We love our children. As I concluded my testimony at the trial, I gazed into the faces of the jury and shared with them my gratitude from the heart of Judaism that we are so blessed to have one another. When we lose a person, we lose a world. At Shabbat dinner last Friday, the day after I testified, I blessed my children with the blessing of shalom. Shalom is not security. Shalom is not being vigilant against your enemies. Shalom is a place in our souls where our deepest values are held. Shalom brings tranquility and a quiet confidence that we live on a planet where our parents and other adults help children to flourish and become adults made in God’s image.
Our children do not live on some distant planet where grups are the enemy. It is time for grups to lead by example. We need to make our homes safe. We need homes filled with shalom. In that way, we can fulfill the words of the Biblical prophet Malachi, “God will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (3:24).
(Rabbi Jonathan Perlman leads New Light Congregation, serves on the clergy council for Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence and is an adviser to the board for the LiFE Male STEAM Academy in Pittsburgh. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)