Noah Pozner would have turned 7 years old this month. The youngest victim of the December 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the only Jew among them, his life was cut short because a deranged man was able to access weapons in a nation that cares more about its guns than its children.
“If there isn’t some kind of change in the national consciousness by 6 and 7-year-old children being gunned down in the sanctity of their school, then I think we have lost true north in this country,” Noah’s mother, Veronique Pozner, said after her son was murdered. “Our compass is broken.”
You can hear Pozner enunciate these words in a stunning video on www.forward.com accompanying her profile as the first of the Forward 50, our annual list of American Jews who have most dramatically impacted the national story. She is astonishingly composed. She looks straight into the camera. She looks straight into your heart.
But her words have gone largely unheeded. How can that be?
Her home state of Connecticut did approve a package of laws that included adding more than 100 guns to a list of banned assault weapons, banning armor-piercing bullets and putting limits on gun magazines. Maryland, New York, Delaware, California and Colorado also tightened their gun safety laws, many by expanding and improving background checks. Six months after Adam Lanza added “Newtown” to the ever-growing list of gun-fueled massacres, momentum seemed to be building in state capitols, even if Congress couldn’t manage to approve tepid legislation on background checks.
Progress, however hard-won, proved to be limited, elusive beyond the aforementioned states, all run by Democratic governors ensconced on America’s more liberal coasts. In Colorado, the geographic outlier, the backlash was swift and furious — two state senators who had backed stronger gun laws lost recall elections.
Instead of a developing national consciousness, we see a divide on America’s gun culture that is hardening like cold steel. According to a list compiled by CNN, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming have approved laws loosening gun restrictions in the past year.
Kansas has decided to stop enforcing all federal gun laws. Guns are now allowed in North Dakota churches, Kentucky zoos, South Dakota schoolrooms, Wyoming courtrooms and public college campuses in Arizona. Good luck tracking down what are supposed to be public records on gun ownership; weapons permits are now state secrets in too many jurisdictions to recount here.
How can this be?
The gun industry, the National Rifle Assocation and its fabulously funded allies can exert such absolute power on the local, state and federal level because, in the end, the vast majority of citizens who don’t share their views also don’t care enough to stop them.
Even with the heroic efforts of Gabrielle Giffords, even with the searing statements of Veronique Pozner, even with the outcry over Trayvon Martin’s unnecessary death, even with the gripping logic of those who wish not to ban guns but to reasonably limit them, there still is not enough public momentum to enact the public will.
So as we approach the Newtown anniversary, and the inevitable retrospective stories, some serious introspection is in order. Other nations have responded to such horror with constructive solutions. Australia, for example, chose to enact a massive gun buyback, a ban on assault weapons, and stricter rules for gun ownership after a 1996 massacre shocked the nation.
As a result, experts say, the risk of an Australian being killed by a gun fell by 50%. Firearm suicides declined by 65%. “A nation founded by convicts gave back their guns,” wrote the journalist Julia Baird. And is the safer for it.
Other cultures recognize that the right to self-defense and to hunt with one’s family must be tempered by a guarantee of public safety. As Pozner said on the steps of the Statehouse in Hartford: “Citizens may have the right to bear arms but they do not have the right to bear weapons of mass destruction.” The kind of weapon that was used to murder her son.
Observers say that the movement to create federal background checks, tighten gun laws and ban assault weapons has stalled because proponents lack the passion of their opponents. After every mass shooting, that passion swells up, assumes a human face, ignites heartfelt pleas, and then loses its urgency, its voice, drowned out by well-funded opposition and distracted by other issues. It’s not enough to blame the NRA. Blame ourselves.
When it comes to gun deaths in America, even a massacre like the one in Newtown only claims a fraction of the actual lives lost. Using data from the Center for Disease Control, Slate magazine estimated that as of November 6, 29,576 people died from gunshots in the United States since the massacre at Sandy Hook. Imagine that terrorized, bloody elementary school, repeat it a thousand times, and it still wouldn’t add up to the overall gun violence afflicted on and by Americans.
But Newtown can still serve as a galvanizing moment. And the Pozners can serve as a touchstone.
In the Forward’s video, the family’s rabbi, Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel, recounts how Veronique Pozner insisted that Connecticut Governor Dannell Malloy view Noah’s horribly damaged body before his funeral. “She wanted the governor to see what happened to her child,” Praver said. “She wanted him to enact laws that would protect other children, to protect other people from that kind of carnage.”
Noah left a twin sister, who survived the massacre in another classroom. She’ll be forced to celebrate her birthday without her brother this year, for the first time in her short life.
Go ahead. Look her in the eye and say there isn’t anything more to be done to prevent another little girl from living with this tragedy the rest of her life. Go ahead.