As I sat quietly last Sunday evening during the Tree of Life memorial ceremony at Congregation Beth Israel, the only synagogue in the City of Charlottesville, my mind was flooded with images of so many incidents that preceded what occurred in Pittsburgh last week. All mass shootings — Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Parkland, and more — are terrible tragedies, but too many of the most recent shootings, such as the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, the massacre of a prayer group at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, the deliberate shooting of two African-Americans shopping for groceries in Kentucky last week, and the assault on Jewish worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue, are distinguished by one additional factor. The people killed and injured in these events were targeted because of their religion, race, or sexual orientation.
The rise in hate-related attacks in America is deeply troubling. For example, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 over 2016, the largest spike in more than 50 years. This sends shivers down the spines of those of us who witnessed neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a 22% increase in neo-Nazi groups in 2017. Hate seems to be on the rise in America, emboldened by xenophobic rhetoric coming from Washington, DC, and endorsed by conspiracy theorists of the internet.
While we frequently lay blame for these murderous attacks on numerous factors, from a person’s mental health challenges to Presidential rhetoric, the common element in these mass shootings remains the use of semi-automatic weapons, mostly rifles like the AR-15. And we will never effectively combat mass shooting without more serious efforts to prevent these weapons from being acquired by those who should not have them. We know that “thoughts and prayers” are no longer enough; we now need to marshal the political courage to solve the problem.
What Can You Do?
- Vote on November 6. Send a message that you reject the hate-filled rhetoric of this administration and support common sense gun safety measures like universal background checks. The best way to do this in our area is by voting for Tim Kaine and Leslie Cockburn, and by asking others to do the same.
- Educate yourself. Understand the rise of hate groups and what can be done about them, from resources such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the NAACP.
- Support neighbors and groups that are repairing the damage of hate attacks and fighting for gun safety. In Charlottesville, you can still give to the Heal Charlottesville Fund through the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation. The Muslim-American community is collecting contributions to support the families of the Jeffersontown victims at http://launchgood.com/Kentucky . Funds have been established on GoFundMe.com and LaunchGood.com to assist in the aftermath of the Tree of Life attack, and the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania will match donations to a fund set up by the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh up to $100,000. Groups like Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America provide useful opposition to the NRA while fighting for gun safety measures.
- Follow the efforts of Democrats and others in the General Assembly working for common sense gun safety. Though the Speaker’s House Select Committee on School Safety was barred from considering the wider issue of gun violence — a serious flaw — it will soon issue a report that will likely contain some concrete recommendations designed to improve safety in schools. Some of us on the committee have been arguing to increase funding for additional school mental health counselors, and I hope this will make it into the report. House Democrats are also engaged in the “Safe Virginia Initiative,” holding public hearings all over the state designed to build support for common sense measures such as universal background checks. You can watch for information about upcoming SVI community forums on my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts.
Visits in Charlottesville
We are a “citizen legislature.” That means members of the General Assembly spend most of the year in our home districts. Except for any days that we have legislative committee meetings or are called into special session, I am usually in Charlottesville and available to meet with you through the end of 2018. Please call my Charlottesville office at (434) 220-1660 to schedule an appointment.