On February 14, I was glued to the television as events unfolded in Parkland. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is fewer than 50 miles from where I live, and the events seemed all too close to home. I have three children who attend a Jewish day school in Miami and my wife works there as well. I realized that I could have very easily been one of those parents looking for his or her entire family after a madman walked into a school with an AR-15 and shot indiscriminately at anyone in his way.
I have generally aligned myself with the right when it came to gun control, and I used to view gun control legislation as something abhorrent which was pushed by those on the left. It disgusted me how it seemed that every school shooting became an excuse for the “anti-gun crazies” to try and take away my rights.
While I used to own a gun and even had a concealed carry permit, I was completely ignorant about guns in general. I really did not know the difference between a semi-automatic and an automatic weapon. I really could not have described what an assault rifle was. All I knew was that the liberals were constantly trying take away my right to own a gun, even my revolver.
And then I went to prison.
In many ways, prison is simply a microcosm of what goes on in the outside world. Prisoners debate the same issues of the day, and there are opinions on both the left and on the right. In many ways, prisoners are more passionate about their opinions, for the sole reason that there is little else to distract them. Prison also puts people together who would otherwise never cross paths. Where else besides a prison camp can a former trader sit at a table with a drug dealer, someone accused of identity theft and someone else accused of tax fraud? And yet, the prison system throws all of these people together. Make no mistake about it: Prison life is lived in close quarters. In many ways, this presents an opportunity to learn from one another and allows for an open exchange of views. Since I was stuck in prison anyway, I decided that I might as well spend some of my time getting to know people I would never have otherwise met.
The Pulse Nightclub shooting was a big deal in prison. It opened up a debate about gay rights and about gun control. As in the outside world, opinions varied. There were those who took the position that all guns must be banned and there were those, like myself, who adopted the mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
In prison, most of us sleep in bunk beds. The person on the top bunk where I slept was an African American fellow about my age from Chicago. By all accounts he was a pretty good guy and we actually got along quite well. He was in the middle of serving a 12-year sentence for some sort of drug offense in which a gun was somehow involved in the crime. While a prisoner cannot serve time in a prison camp if he or she was involved in a violent crime, he or she can serve their sentence in a prison camp if there was a gun tangentially involved in the crime, and this was my bunkmate’s situation.
Like many others in the prison, he had his fair share of exposure to guns and violent crime. But I will never forget what my bunkmate told me after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. “Why the hell are you even able to get an assault rifle,” he exclaimed. “Why would anyone need that? The only thing that’s good for is killing.” I realized he was right. Why would I even want such a weapon? More importantly, why would I want anyone to have such a weapon? I immediately felt my previously strong position against gun control starting to waver.
When I left prison, I really did not think about gun control that much at all until the Parkland shooting. As a convicted felon, I was no longer allowed to own a gun anyway, so the issue did not even affect me. And then the Parkland shooting happened, and it dragged me back to that night in prison. I remembered those haunting words, that the only thing assault rifles are good for is killing. The next day as I was working out in the gym, I kept on looking over my shoulder, wondering what I would do and where I would hide if someone walked in with an AR-15 and started shooting. If I, as a 39-year-old adult, am worried about such issues, I can only imagine the trauma being faced by mere students to whom this was all too real.
Do I still believe in the right for citizens to own guns? Yes. But assault rifles? No. The time has come to ban these agents of destruction. Jews have a very clear biblical commandment of Lo Taamod Al Dam Rai’echa, do not stand by as your brother’s blood is spilled. We also have another commandment of u’shmartem et Nafshoteichem — you must protect your own lives. Acknowledging that assault rifles are nothing more than agents of destruction is only the first step. We have a biblical and moral imperative to make sure that there are no more Columbines, no more Sandy Hooks and no more Parklands — if not for ourselves, then for our children.