Holding the Floor for Justice

By Kate Friedman, NCJW Legislative Intern

I sat in the Eisenhower Executive Building screening room, stunned, as families who had lost loved ones in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting filled the room. I was invited to attend the official White House pre-screening of Newtown, a moving documentary about the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting on December 14, 2012, and its aftermath. I arrived expecting the audience to be Washington, DC-based colleagues I might recognize, and possibly some Congressional aides. Instead, the room was filled with dozens of families who had lost children, parents, and friends to the gun violence epidemic.

The documentary began, filling the darkened room with the sounds of gut-wrenching 911 recordings from that fateful December morning at Sandy Hook Elementary. The families of the children and educators killed wept and held each other. Afterwards, the Newtown families spoke about their anger that Congress had yet to pass any gun violence prevention legislation and their heartbreak over the continued loss of life. The horrific Orlando shooting, occurring just a few days before, intensified their anger and sadness.

I left frustrated with the continued Congressional inaction, only to learn that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy was holding the Senate floor, refusing to give it up until gun safety legislation received a vote. My spirits rose as I arrived to the Senate gallery about 5 hours into Senator Murphy’s filibuster. I sat in one of the seats in the small Senate chamber and watched as senator after senator discussed substantive gun policy. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (my senator) asked Sen. Murphy “how do we go home and look people in the eye and say we failed again? …How do I go back to Cleveland and say, ‘well, we tried it again [but] we didn’t do it?” Senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Jeff Merkley of Oregon spoke about the Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College massacres, respectively. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrandangrily asked her colleagues “where is our spine?”

Watching the filibuster, I was filled with hope. The purpose of the filibuster was to force a vote on two gun safety amendments to an appropriations bill, both supported by NCJW. One proposed banning people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns and the other, closing the gun show loophole by requiring background checks for all gun purchases, including those sold online and at gun shows which account for 40% of purchases. With upwards of 85% of the American people in favor of additional reform to reduce gun violence, it seemed like the Senate was finally becoming more in-tune with the American people.

Our Jewish faith teaches us tzedek tzedek tirdof — to pursue justice. When our senators stood for fifteen hours and when millions of people across the country raised their voices to demand common sense gun violence prevention measures, they were pursuing justice. I was inspired. Unfortunately, both amendments failed to get the 60 votes required to pass. As I watched the number of “nays” ticking up on C-SPAN, I was enormously disappointed in the Senate for failing to protect the American people from the daily gun violence across our country. It seemed unconscionable that some lawmakers would refuse to even discuss legislation that could save lives. Frustratingly, the pace of policy change is slow; a marathon, not a sprint. Looking back, the gun violence prevention movement did gain a great deal of momentum in the last few weeks. The filibuster was followed by further action for justice in the House — with lawmakers holding a sit-in urging similar legislative action. These Congressional efforts galvanized celebrities, organizations, and individuals to speak up and get involved, whether by calling their lawmakers, posting on social media, or talking to friends about the need for change.

Remembering the overwhelming grief from the families at the Newtown screening, I am impatient waiting for change to come, but hopeful for what is already being done. Change won’t happen unless we take action and mobilize others to raise our voices together.