I have a confession to make.
My middle name is Norman. This fact hides somewhere in the small data between my first and last name on official documents like my passport, driver’s license and social security card.
Norman Mueller, for whom I am named, was my mother’s father. We never met. In fact, my mother barely knew him. Norman was murdered in 1939 by a man in a workplace shooting at the Wisconsin Gas Company in Milwaukee. After a medical absence, my grandfather’s killer came back to work looking for his job. He wasn’t yet well enough. My grandfather had to break the news. The man didn’t like the answer that he needed more help and so he killed my grandfather and then killed himself. My mom was six years old. And in the heart of the Depression, with America perched at the edge of war to stop Hitler’s march through Europe and genocidal plan to exterminate Jews, my grandmother went to work to support her two girls—my aunt, who is still alive and my mother, who succumbed to cancer in 2012.
I have a few black and white, sepia-tinged photos of my grandfather. That’s about it. A handful of photos, and the memories of my mother going silent each year on the anniversary of his death. I’d come downstairs for breakfast and she’d be staring through the kitchen window, looking out at the apple trees in our backyard, crying. Every year. Like a memory clock that never needs winding and never stops. That’s the thing about trauma: when you are fortunate enough to heal, it still leaves a permanent scar. It’s always sensitive to the touch.
As children, toy guns weren’t allowed in our house. As adolescents, we were schlepped along to political campaigns our mother worked on for candidates who understood that sane and responsible gun laws were a necessary antidote to unnecessary violence and death in an open, thriving democracy. And as an adult, I cringe, then boil, then rise to speak and write whenever gun violence claims lives in our nation. In Milwaukee, where I grew up, gun violence ravages the segregated, Black parts of town. There have been 39 gun murders so far in 2019, 50% of them claiming victims between the ages of 18-29; 94% under 50 years of age. Wisconsin is a “concealed carry state.” Meaning you can walk into a place with a gun and keep it hidden on your body. You don’t need a permit if you buy the gun from an individual. Governor Scott Walker and his supporters in the Wisconsin legislature passed that law in 2013. Walker’s no longer governor but the law still stands. Politicians can have that kind of impact. It reminds us, as my mother used to say, that every vote counts. For a long time.
New York, on the other hand, has relatively strict gun laws. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a supporter of such legislation and uses his office to restrict access to weapons. This is a matter of his own principle but it is also a result of political expediency. That’s how public service works. It’s you and your voice combined with the people you represent. And it is why I am a regular supporter of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. According to their mission, NYAGV aims to “strengthen gun safety laws in New York State; defend and preserve New York’s strong gun safety laws; and strengthen federal gun safety laws, since illegal guns from states with weak laws continue to flood New York communities.”
I can get with that.
I will let you in on another secret: I don’t find prayers to be particularly helpful in moments like this, unless those prayers are uttered in quiet humility alongside a survivor of gun violence who seeks love and comfort in the fog and terror-filled hours following the hellish spectacle, such as those we bore witness to this weekend in El Paso and Dayton. In Gilroy and Las Vegas. In Parkland and Sandy Hook. In Charleston and Orlando. In Pohway and Pittsburgh. Prayers work when we sit silently beside a mourner; when we are with them in their grief and sorrow. But when we arise from that low place and go out into the world, it is our own obligation to act that rules the day. Our Sages knew this principle quite well, which is why they created the legend of Nachshon’s daring feat of wading into the Red Sea, up to his throat, ultimately what caused the waters to part. From his own actions, from the steps he was willing to take, he made a path from the Sea to Sinai, where legislation was written that said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Nachshon got that law passed. Not by words but by deeds.
The man in the White House (well, not quite a man but a spoiled, narcissistic, racist adolescent), our president, Donald J. Trump, bears some responsibility for the current carnage. When immigrants and African Americans are demonized during rallies, blood-curdling screams rising over applause from rabid masses; when the press is under attack by crowds and the man himself; when one so irretrievably bound up in his own self-regard as to pronounce that the cause of these targeted massacres is “mental illness” and not raw, xenophobic racist ideology, it is time to declare the man not a man but an incompetent individual who is now permanently tainted by his own narrative of destruction. More wisdom from the Sages: “Hillel said, ‘In a place where there are no men, strive to be one.’”
A mere child in 1939, my mother was powerless to change the course of history in the moment when it hit home. But she raised me to believe that our fate was truly in our hands. And to wake up to news of mass killings, of White Supremacy and hate, fomented by our president day after day, is to realize again and again that we have the power to change what is to come.
The New York Post says so. And so does virtually every media outlet across the country.
You can learn more and get involved.
There is Moms Demand Action; Everytown for Gun Safety; New Yorkers Against Gun Violence; March For Our Lives. You can call your City Council member; your State Assemblymember; your State Senator; your Congressperson; your U.S. Senator. You can let them know what you think about guns and hate. You can attend a vigil, talk to your children, reach out to your neighbor. You can turn inward, you can reach out to God and pray. But then you must act. Do your part. Root your values in deed, shape the future with the work of your hands.
And don’t do it for me. Do it for yourself, for your children, for our country. Do it for Norman and let his memory be a blessing.