When I heard that a hate-filled individual wielding an AR-15 assault weapon emblazoned with a swastika had deliberately murdered three Black Americans in a Jacksonville, Florida, Dollar General store, I found myself reliving the grief and outrage I experienced as an American witness to several other such incidents of the recent past.
My thoughts turned in particular to the senseless murders in 2018 of 17 people in another Florida town — Parkland. Similarly, the shooter was a young man carrying an AR-15 with ammunition magazines carved with the swastika. In that case, as it turned out, perhaps randomly, none of the victims were Black, despite the shooter’s self-professed hatred of African Americans and other marginalized groups in the U.S. Five of the murder victims that time were Jewish kids.
An overflow crowd at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston heard one of the student survivors from Parkland testify two weeks later. I wasn’t able to attend, but I was among the several hundred thousand in Washington, D.C., who went on to rally behind the students’ demands for commonsense gun reforms under the banner of March for Our Lives. I was gratified to learn that the Jewish survivors and their families were heavily involved in the response. These Marjorie Stoneman Douglas teens adopted the #NeverAgain hashtag. Teacher Ivy Schamis says the choice was inspired by her course in Holocaust history, which had been taking place during the moments that the killer was firing into her classroom.
If we focus only on the differences in the victims who were in the paths of the bullets in these two events, we will miss the point.
Virulent racism and antisemitism are closely linked in our country, and when they are amplified with access to military-style weaponry, they can be “equal opportunity” killers, not infrequently claiming large numbers of innocent victims in single incidents. We also should understand that the observed correlation between racism and antisemitism has an underlying connection to political ideology: Right-wing personalities, often the same ones who glorify gun culture, have turned to the “great replacement” conspiratorial lie that Jews bring immigrants into the U.S. to “wage war on the white race.” The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism’s report on “Murder and Extremism,” released in February, concluded that in 2022, domestic extremists killed at least 25 people in our country, and “all the extremist-related murders were committed by right-wing extremists of all kinds,” white supremacists in particular. Moreover, “most of the mass killings” over the last dozen years were also “committed by right-wing extremists.”
We also can’t lose sight of the specific consequences for African Americans, who suffered 10 deaths just last May in a Buffalo supermarket at the hands of a killer who claimed to be acting “for the future of the white race.” The racist murders in Jacksonville came on the anniversary of what has become known in the Sunshine State as “Ax Handle Saturday.” On August 27, 1960, a white mob attacked peaceful Black demonstrators calling for the desegregation of lunch counters, and the attackers were joined by members of the Jacksonville police force. This is just the kind of ugly history that Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has attempted to ban Florida schools from teaching. The hostile atmosphere DeSantis has ignited by his “anti-woke” agitation was no doubt one reason he was initially booed by many attending a Jacksonville community rally the day after the killings.
It’s not particularly partisan to point out the proverbial elephant in the room — the MAGA-fied Republican Party, allying itself with the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, has become heavily focused on promoting the gospel of the gun and resistance to any commonsense reforms as a point of pride. Several Republican extremists in the House of Representatives have even taken to wearing AR-15 lapel pins — flaunting the same exact gun used in 10 of the 17 deadliest mass killings of the last decade. DeSantis has been right out front on gun promotion too, signing a new state law this April allowing concealed carry of guns without any permit, training, or separate background checks.
To its credit, our Jewish community has been heavily in favor of commonsense firearms reforms. Most recently, Jewish Women International, a coalition that includes organizations representing Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis, joined with other faith groups to lead a friend-of-the-court brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case. The faith groups are fighting against an attempt to overturn existing federal law that prohibits possession of guns by those subject to domestic violence restraining orders, as a recent article in this newspaper reported.
This is a continuing struggle in which there have so far been at least as many setbacks as partial victories. We should keep in mind that gun violence, often inflamed by racism and antisemitism, has the same elements as any crime: means, motive and opportunity. The good work that has been done up to this point has mostly focused on the opportunity part. Hardening the access to our shuls and other houses of worship and placing guards at the doors does something on this score, even as it does little to protect Americans who are patronizing their local Dollar General store, Walmart, movie theater, or deli.
A much greater civic investment is needed to address the means — too broad availability of weapons of war and other guns in our streets — and the frequent motive — hatred that has permeated the country and influenced the unbalanced minds who commit these unspeakable acts.
Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter.