Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore.
The owner of the small gun shop outside Baltimore was outraged that he’d been lied to. That the young woman who had strolled into his shop the previous week, clearly a novice with firearms, had misled him about her intentions. He was indignant rather than concerned about the woman who had nearly ended her own life.
“She’s struggling,” I told him. “She wanted to take your shotgun and shoot herself in the head. She would have said anything.” He was wearing a mask, as were my police officer friend and I. I mused that in normal times, the masks would have made the other people in the store more, not less, suspicious.
“We don’t do refunds for guns,” he said.
It was true. The receipt for her purchase said “store credit only.” Was I really supposed to exchange one deadly weapon for another? Or buy her some fishing tackle? The friend was along because I didn’t feel comfortable handling the firearm. I was there because I am the woman’s rabbi, and I promised a social worker that I would dispose of the weapon.
Then it dawned on him. He remembered her. How he had helped her choose the right ammunition, taught her how to load the single barrel, foldable 12-gauge shotgun. “She seemed …” he trailed off.
“She’s food insecure, housing insecure,” I said. “She could really use the money.” He relented and refunded the $150. “Something to think about,” I said, “the next time someone like her comes into the shop.”
I doubt he thought about it. There were other customers waiting. And his was an “essential” business.
Among the many bills Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed this month, one caught my attention — a bill that would have extended instant background checks to private sales. I knew my young, suicidal congregant had purchased a shotgun not because it was the easiest firearm with which to take her life but because long guns are nonregulated in Maryland. There’s no waiting period to prevent impulsive acts of gun violence; the merchant need only provide an instant background check.
Passing the bill would have been a useful step in closing a long-standing loophole, but not one that would have prevented my congregant from acquiring a deadly weapon during the height of her crisis. More dangerous for her was the fact that Hogan has considered gun shops essential businesses during the pandemic.
Studies show that increased unemployment correlates to increased suicide rates. The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute predicts suicide rates to rise by the thousands as U.S. unemployment reaches its highest level since the Great Depression, as a result of the pandemic and its ensuing shutdown.
The current crisis has also led to increased gun sales, where this March saw an 85 percent increase from the same time last year. The demand is there. For my young congregant, the opportunity was there. But common-sense regulations were absent. So when she realized a bridge nearby wasn’t quite high enough to unquestionably end her life, she found it easy to purchase a gun.
“Make sure to wipe off the barrel,” she told me in a call from the mental hospital where she had voluntarily admitted herself. “I put it in my mouth.” She was contact tracing for us.
How she came to that moment is a long story, as it always is. How she survived is also a dramatic tale. But her survival stands in sharp relief against the backdrop of Maryland’s failure to keep her safe.