The Arithmetic of Failure

Since the pandemic began, we have been a society fixated on numbers. First we were concerned about the raw numbers of people getting sick, and then hospitalized, and then those who have died from COVID. Looking at individual numbers are important for each of these represents a soul who has become sick, a person who is in the hospital, and a mother, father, friend, child, sibling, or co-worker who has died. I still remember the day Jenny and I cried as we looked at the thousands of names on the front page of the New York Times sitting on breakfast table representing a small percentage of the 100,000 thousand people who had died. Today 100,000 seems like such a small number compared to the 792,000 people who have now died in the US or dare we mention the 5.2 million deaths around the world, may all of their memories be for a blessing.

To put that number in perspective, the population of Wyoming is only 580,000. We have lost over 1 Wyoming so far. Most people in our country tried hard to reduce the transmission of COVID, at last report 76% of everyone eligible, 5 and up, have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Yet we also know that there are people who, perhaps for political or personal reasons, have decided to live their lives as before and ignore any warnings or caution even at the expense of others. While the number of first doses jumps above 80% in New Haven County, it isn’t enough to prevent yet another wave right now, and prompted Mayor Elicker to reinstate a mask mandate. While the severe illness rate of COVID is low, we must continue to try and prevent the spread to others, and the best way to do this is to get vaccinated – cut off the virus before it can infect and spread.

Not all harm, however, allows an individual to choose to protect themselves. Not everything has a vaccine. I didn’t learn about the population of Wyoming statistic by reading about COVID. I learned that statistic while learning that over the last 20 years we lost another Wyoming to another plague. From 2000-2019 over 570,000 people have died from gun violence.[1] 570,000 people. Just like those who claim that getting a vaccine somehow infringes upon their rights, people claim that for us to take any meaningful action to reduce gun violence – through smart gun technology or by banning firearms whose sole purpose is to take a human life – somehow impedes on their rights. Their right to own a death machine. No one goes hunting with an AR-15, or with a semi-automatic handgun – they serve only one purpose.

For those of us who still live with unvaccinated children under 5 or adults who cannot safely get vaccinated for a medical reason, perhaps we are one of those people, this stage of the pandemic might feel like an isolated cage. There is hope on the horizon, but when we don’t know. We do know that each person eligible for a vaccine who refuses puts us or our loved ones in danger. So we wait, just like the 1,454 Hamden High students whose classes were cancelled for three days in a row because of a “credible threat” and who then had to stand in 27 degree weather while one-by-one they walked through a metal detector on their way to school. Like the thousands of parents and grandparents who received a recommendation from the school that students don’t bring their book bags to school because of how long it takes to search each bag. Our unwillingness to inoculate our society from gun violence is trapping these kids into a cage of fear and isolation where they are told they cannot leave the school to walk to Wood’n’Tap or Wendy’s across the street to get lunch together.

Just like almost each of the 1000+ COVID deaths each day in the US is preventable right now, gun violence is also preventable. Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Tate Myre, 16, Justin Shilling, 17, and Hana St. Juliana, 14, who were murdered two weeks ago in Michigan by a fellow 15 year old whose parents bought him a gun and laughed when he was caught purchasing ammunition at school – their deaths were preventable.

For everyone who claims that gun-control laws, which we can rename anti-murder laws, don’t work, the pandemic has taught us to look at numbers differently. Instead of focusing on the total number of cases, officials look at the number of cases per 100,000 people to gauge the actual spread in a given community and we can do the same for gun violence. After 25 years of being forbidden by national law to examine gun violence deaths as a national health crisis, the CDC and NIH are now receiving money to help examine, and ultimately reduce, gun violence in the US.[2] The CDC has a map of the US eerily similar to the COVID maps we have etched in our minds, color-coded by “death rate from gun violence,” the number of people who have died per 100,000 people.

When viewed this way, we actually see that states and cities who have taken prevention efforts have some of the lowest rates in the country: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Connecticut, all have rates 5 or less per 100,000 people in 2019. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence these are the states with the strongest gun laws, including background checks and mandatory waiting periods.[3] Meanwhile the states with the highest rates of gun violent deaths scored an F, including Alaska, Mississippi and Wyoming, Missouri, Louisiana, and Alabama, each of whom have rates of 20 or more deaths per 100,000 people.

How we arrived at this situation seems similar to the story of Joseph. We think about Joseph as a cunning underdog, sold into slavery only to become the second in command of Egypt! He forgives his brothers and saves their lives, he seem to be a true tzaddik. Except that he first taxes the people – storing their extra grain during times of plenty – and then sells it back to them during the famine. First he collects all of their silver, then their land. As the people cried out to Joseph: “Let us not perish before your eyes…. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we…will be slaves to Pharaoh;[4]” “he made the Egyptians pass from one end of Egypt to another[5],” which according to Rashi “made them strangers in their own land.” As the famine subsided, he then decreed that 1/5 of all of the produce was now Pharaohs. Joseph wasn’t a benevolent ruler, he was ruthless and greedy, just like the politicians who claim that protecting American’s “right” to own a weapon of death and destruction is the most important issue on the ballot – more important than those same people receiving help and assistance – while they receive tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in money from gun manufacturers and gun rights groups.

We know that the pandemic has taken a mental health toll on us all and that this is a strong mitigating factor in the severe increase in gun deaths, both homicides and suicides in 2020 and 2021. When our children have to stand in the cold for even 1 minute because there is a metal detector and bag search at their school, we have failed them. When yet another student kills their classmates with a gun, we have failed them. When someone depressed has easy access to a firearm, we have failed them. How much longer will we fail our children?

May we resolve to do better, to protect our children not with hate but with love, not with fear but with hope. May we realize the prophet Joel’s vision to “Beat our plowshares into swords, and our pruning hooks into spears.[6]” May we have the courage to give our children a world of peace.


[1] https://efsgv.org/wp-content/uploads/2019CDCdata.pdf

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/27/us/politics/gun-violence-research-cdc.html

[3] https://giffords.org/lawcenter/resources/scorecard/

[4] Gen 47:19

[5] Gen 47:21

[6] Joel 4:10