Along with citizens throughout our nation and beyond, I was anguished by the death of the beautiful, innocent children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. In the wake of the shootings, I was gripped first with deep grief and then with a powerful wave of activist energy.
I hoped that this most horrific incident of gun violence would shake the nation from complacency and stir the adoption of sensible gun control legislation. I believed that all over the country, parents of all stripes and persuasions — including gun owners — would recognize that a civilized nation cannot continue to allow policies that make such unimaginable acts possible. I feared that the calls for gun regulation that filled the airwaves just after the shooting would be drowned out by the next compelling news item.
Several great national leaders have stepped up to lead a national gun reform campaign: Vice President Joe Biden (who has the passion and political expertise), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who has the money), and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (the legislative vantage point), to name a few. Many fine national organizations — including a remarkable range of national Jewish organizations — have begun sophisticated organizing campaigns. (I urge every reader of j. to sign the petition at www.endgunviolencenow.org.)
The general contours of thoughtful violence-prevention policy have begun to emerge. These include legislation limiting access to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, effective enforcement of firearm regulations and registration of arms. More complex are questions about how inadequate mental health services contribute, in very small numbers, to gun violence, and a broad conversation about sanctioned violence in news, media, entertainment and sports.
To effect such changes, the president and his congressional allies will need to demonstrate an unstoppable groundswell of support from the American people. This work requires a grassroots national campaign on a massive scale. We will need a broad multifaith coalition of religious leaders supporting life-affirming gun control policies for our country. There must also be organizations of parents, of grandparents, of mental health professionals, of educators, of health care professionals, of first responders, of veterans and many others to raise their voices to stop the carnage.
To inspire all of this grassroots organizing, the nation needs one national leader to serve as the identifiable face of the campaign to fulfill President Barack Obama’s promise to undertake “meaningful action” toward “common sense” gun control. Precisely now, as weeks have passed since the killing and a new Congress is in session, a single galvanizing personality must step forward to embody the nation’s determination to prevent more senseless deaths.
The right person to play this mobilizing role is Michelle Obama. Almost universally beloved and admired, the most respected mother in America, the first lady can serve as this compelling, galvanizing leader. Gifted with charisma and wisdom, she has devoted her first four years in the White House to issues related to children’s health. There is no greater children’s health issue in our nation than the number of families shattered every day by gun violence. Most important, Michelle Obama, seen by all as a devoted parent, can insist that we keep alive the powerful human instinct to protect the children of our nation far better than we do.
I challenge Michelle Obama to step up and make gun control her signature campaign. Like her husband, she is an admirable model of thoughtful parenting. Unlike her husband, she is relatively free of political constraints. She is uniquely positioned to convene the far-ranging grassroots coalition that is needed to support the president and congressional leaders in doing the needed policy work.
For far too long the loudest voices on this subject belonged to those who oppose sensible gun regulation. Such people are Americans and their views must be honored. But we neglect our responsibilities as citizens when we fail to make our voices heard.
The children of Sandy Hook will forever be a blessing in the hearts of their families and their community. If their deaths can serve to bring significant change to the nation’s incoherent gun policy, then their memories will be a blessing throughout the land.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg teaches and writes about living with conflict and difference from her home in St. Paul, Minn.