The Bergen County chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is a group that works tirelessly on commonsense gun legislation in this country. Moms Demand Action was formed after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of twenty 6- and 7-year-old children. Today, just 3 1/2 years or so later, Moms Demand Action has more than three million members, with chapters in every state of our country.
I’m the local group leader of the Bergen County chapter. When people hear that I choose to devote much of my time to this organization, the first question they always ask me is why I do it. Why is this issue so important to me? Have I, or has somebody I love, been personally affected by gun violence? And the simple answer to that question, thank God, is no. But the real truth is that I take the gun violence in this country that threatens our children, and our families, and our loved ones, and our friends, and our acquaintances, and our police officers every day very personally.
I distinctly remember the moment I heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook. I was in the parking lot of my children’s elementary school, Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. I was about to pick up my kindergartener. She was just the same age as many of those children who wouldn’t be coming home to their families that night. And it hit me in an instant that this shooting could have just as easily taken place at our school. In our classrooms. And I realized that as a parent and as a Jew, I had to step up and start doing something.
I realized that there is a serious problem of unrestricted gun access in our country. If I didn’t do something, who would? If I didn’t step up to protect my children, then I was just as much to blame as anyone else.
When you think of our most basic Jewish principles — the ones that have been taught to us, repeated to us throughout our lives — what comes to mind?
I can tell you what comes to my mind: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” from Leviticus 19.
“If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” from the Talmud.
That’s a big one.
And how about another quote from the Talmud: “You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it.”
I see Moms Demand Action as embracing our most basic Jewish principle of tikun olam. There is something broken in our world that must be repaired. Every single day, 91 people in America are killed by guns. Ninety-one. That means that Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than are people in other developed countries. Twenty-five times. There’s a false American mantra that goes “Guns make us safer.” But in actuality, a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting or suicide than to be used effectively in self-defense.
I’d like to venture a guess that I’m not the only one who takes gun violence personally. You may never have thought about it in these terms before, but who here thinks twice now before going to the movies, or walking into a big stadium, or getting on line in the airport? Who gives their children or grandchildren an extra kiss these days before putting them on the school bus or dropping them off at college? Make no mistake — over the last few years, gun violence has become personal for all of us.
So that’s why Moms Demand Action is working day in and day out in every state in this country and in Washington D.C. We demand universal background checks. There’s another false American mantra that goes “We just need to enforce the gun laws that already exist.” But unfortunately, many of those “laws” actually don’t exist. Now, under federal law, background checks are required only for sales conducted by licensed dealers. That means convicted criminals and other dangerous prohibited purchasers and even kids are able to buy guns online or at gun shows without a background check — no questions asked. Nearly 40 percent of all gun sales in this country occur without a background check. That means almost half of all gun sales are totally unmonitored.
The second question people generally ask me, after they understand why I’ve become so invested in this issue, is, “But are you making any progress?” And the simple answer to that one, thank God, is yes.
Moms Demand Action isn’t just waiting around for our federal government to get moving. We already have helped to close the background check loophole in at least six states.
We’ve helped pass laws that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers in at least 13 states.
We’ve blocked the gun lobby’s efforts to pass more than 60 dangerous state laws, which would’ve breezed right through otherwise.
We’ve convinced at least a dozen very significant American businesses to enact “guns not welcome” policies.
We’ve persuaded Facebook and Instagram to monitor the gun advertising and promotions that take place on their platforms more closely.
And in June, when our Congress finally decided to listen to the American people, and took to the House floor to start fighting hard for universal background checks, which more than 90 percent of Americans want, Moms Demand Action drove in more than 100,000 phone calls in just seven hours to our members of Congress, showing our resolve and support.
This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. But let me tell you something, we are taking our country back.
When Moms Demand Action first started, you couldn’t beg a politician running for office to include gun violence prevention in his or her platform. It was the third rail of politics. Politicians were so fearful that the NRA would sabotage their campaign if they simply mentioned common sense gun laws. And now, just three years later, the politicians are calling us: What can we do? What events can you help us put together? I’m putting gun violence prevention into my stump speech. It’s what my constituents want. Let’s work together.
Let me remind you of a time, not so long ago, when smoking was everywhere. In movie theaters, in stadiums, in airplanes, in schools. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There were rumblings about how unsafe this was for our children and our families, but what could we do? The tobacco industry was so strong! This was a mainstay of our economy and of our way of life! Well look how far we’ve come in just one generation to safeguard our loved ones. We will do it again.
And finally, after I explain to people why I do what I do, and that it’s really been worth my time, they often ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?” And the answer to that questions couldn’t be simpler.
Simply go to www.momsdemandaction.org and click on “join us” or “take action,” and you’ll be on your way. You can give as much time or as little time to the cause as you feel comfortable giving. Some people feel more comfortable just making a donation. As I said before, this cause is very personal. And please don’t let the name fool you, Moms Demand Action is not just for moms. It’s also for dads, and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles, and teachers, and anyone else who wants to stand up for our kids and say “Enough.”
This November we are approaching an incredibly crucial election, of course on the national level but also on the state and local levels. If gun violence prevention is important to you, the single best thing you can do is to educate yourself on how your candidates have voted on gun safety laws in the past, and how they say they plan to vote in the future. Then, you vote accordingly.
Call your representatives, call your senators, call your candidates, and ask them if they support universal background checks for all gun purchases. Then, when you go to the polls in November, if this issue is important to you, vote only for candidates who support universal background checks for all gun sales.
We can change our laws, but only if we have leaders in office who have gun sense. And fortunately, because we live in an area where almost all of our candidates support the Jewish community and support Israel, we have the luxury of putting other important issues like this one at the top of our list when we consider our votes.
As we all know, Elie Weisel, very beloved and influential Jewish icon, recently died, and when that happened our Facebook feeds and other reading materials have been filled with his wisdom and words. But the one quote that keeps capturing my attention is “We must speak, we must take sides. For neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
As moms, as dads, as grandparents, as Jews — we must speak. We must take sides.
Sarah Nanus is the local group leader of the Bergen County chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and a member of Cohort 4 of the Berrie Fellows Leadership Program. She lives in Tenafly with her husband, David, and their three children and belongs to Temple Emanu-El of Closter.