Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Every time a mass shooting takes place, great numbers of Americans hope that Congress will pass “common-sense gun laws.” How could they not? people ask. These were elementary school children. These were people at a prayer meeting, at a dance club, at a movie. Great numbers of Americans also worry that Congress will pass gun laws which, they believe, would flout the Second Amendment. It is a violation of my constitutional rights, people declare. I have the right to protect my loved ones and myself. I have the right to bear arms.”
On only one thing do all agree: mass murders are a bad thing. Yet, somehow, massacres take place frequently, most recently in Las Vegas. In many cases, the perpetrators acquire their weapons legally. Are these murders, therefore, the responsibility solely of the shooters, or do we, as a nation that aspires to function by the rule of law, somehow bear responsibility as well?
Every year at Yom Kippur services, we repeat aloud the Al Chet in the third-person plural. We have sinned against You… It is tempting to protest that it makes no sense to confess to sins we did not commit. Why should we confess to the sin of swindling when we, in fact, have been swindled? Wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge our own actual acts of wrongdoing? Chanting the Al Chet, as I’ve come to understand it, is our collective way of challenging ourselves to take responsibility for and do better on behalf of every community to which we belong, regardless of our personal shortcomings. I might not have defrauded anyone, ever, but have I looked away when someone else has? Did I, at the very least, tell my representatives in Congress that the TARP bailout in 2008 needed to be accompanied by the prosecution of subprime mortgage sellers and others who willingly brought our financial system to its knees? That someone needed to go to jail?
Each group selectively emphasizes the clauses of the Second Amendment that best supports its position. The National Rifle Association and its supporters, including some legal scholars, focus on “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Millions of others, including other legal scholars, emphasize the opening clause, “A well regulated Militia…,” pointing out that a massively-armed individual in an expensive Las Vegas hotel is neither well-regulated nor a militia. Regrettably, parsing the language of the Second Amendment has not brought us any closer to common cause or common sense.
Renewed conversations about the Second Amendment are guaranteed to get us nowhere unless we read the text through the lenses of both common sense and shared responsibility. Should people be able to purchase and own guns? While this is not a choice that I would make, I could not object were it done in a well-regulated fashion, meaning through common sense gun laws that remove military-grade arms from the public sphere. And it’s my responsibility to make that position known to every political candidate who wants my vote.
The sins of premeditated murder will never disappear. Sins never do, which is why the Al Chet will never be shorter. But fewer mass murders and fewer deaths sound good to me. It’s the responsibility of all of us to make certain that we move towards this goal in a manner that is responsible, respectful — meaning with common cause — and driven by common sense.
Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.
Original image via Flickr/Talya Modlin
Carol Zoref is a fiction writer and essayist. Her novel Barren Island received the A.W.P. Award for the Novel (Association of Writer and Writing Programs). Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times The Christian Science Monitor and more. She is on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and also teaches undergraduate fiction writing at New York University.