Eric Birnbaum and John Pawlowski probably never met; they didn't have all that much in common. One was a divorced, Jewish personal-injury lawyer with two daughters in college, gunned down in a suburban parking lot. The other was young enough to be his son; he was Catholic, with a pregnant wife. As a police officer in North Philadelphia, he knew well that our streets are dangerous places. It was on one of these streets that he met his senseless death.
But Birnbaum and Pawlowski shared a common fate; they were both victims — not just of the armed men who murdered them a few days apart, but also of a political system that lacks the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and say, "Enough is enough."
The gun lobby has long argued that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Actually, it's people with guns who do most of the killing, and there are simply too many people with too many guns out there.
Gun advocates also maintain that a right to possess a firearm makes you safer. But each of the five Philadelphia police officers killed by a gun in a little more than two years was not only armed, but well-trained in the use of weapons, so how much more vulnerable would an armed average citizen be? They will also argue that criminals such as the alleged killer of Officer Pawlowski will always find a way to get a weapon, whether it is legal or not. Maybe he would find a way, but maybe not.
We know that in states such as New Jersey and New York, murder rates with handguns are lower per capita than they are in Pennsylvania. The demographics in all three states are similar; what is different is the ease with which one can get a firearm.
The NRA has both bullied elected officials and frightened law-abiding gun owners for decades. While they paint a picture of anti-gun activists advocating the confiscation of guns and the violation of constitutional rights, nothing could be further from the truth. Even with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the case D.C. v. Heller — that the Second Amendment guarantees citizens' rights to gun ownership more broadly than some of us would have liked — the court stated that the "carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons" is not protected by the Second Amendment.
In spite of the number of civilians and police officers killed by handguns in recent years, the majority of our state legislators continue to turn a deaf ear to measures that would make it harder to get handguns.
Two pieces of extremely reasonable legislation have been languishing in Harrisburg for the last several sessions. One would simply require a gun owner to report any weapon that he claims was lost or stolen. Passage would make it harder for a straw purchaser — someone with no criminal record, who can therefore pass a background check and buy a gun — to sell it to someone who cannot pass such a test, and then uses it to commit a crime. The other, also targeting such straw sales, would limit purchases to one handgun per month.
The Talmud teaches us that saving just one life is as though we have saved the entire world. We also are taught that even if we cannot complete the task of repairing the world, we are not free to stop trying. As such, contact your legislator to urge the passing of these bills. Organizations like the Community Relations Council and the Union for Reform Judaism have been active in reducing gun violence, but our legislators, especially in the suburbs, need to hear from their constituents now. Then contact Ceasefire PA to find out what more you can do.
I can think of no better way to honor the memories of Eric Birnbaum and John Pawlowski.
Burt Siegel recently retired as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and serves as a consultant to CeaseFire PA (ceasefirepa.org).