NPR’s The 3 Wise Guys reflect on the three-year mark of the Pulse shooting

By : Scottie Campbell
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“The 3 Wise Guys” radio show brings together the voices of three religious leaders of seemingly disparate faiths—Imam Muhammad Musri, Rabbi Steven Engel and Reverend Bryan Fulwider—and finds common ground. The show has aired in Central Florida on 90.7 WMFE since 2012.

In the weeks following the Pulse shooting, in several episodes, The 3 Wise Guys tried to help us make sense of this senseless tragedy, providing comfort for many in the process. Watermark sat down with the trio to look at where we are now three years later. What follows is a shortened version of that conversation. An extended version will air on WMFE on June 11.

When the Pulse shooting happened, I think a majority of us said a prayer—no matter our faith or our background—that we hoped this atrocity would be the one that wakes everyone up and things would change. Since then, there have been other mass shootings, including one in Las Vegas where the body count was even higher. What can be done?

THE REV: For us in Central Florida what happened on the early morning of June 12 was such a traumatic event. I think partly because no matter where you live, no matter who you are, you believe this is not going to happen in my world; it’s not going to happen in my neighborhood. We think we’re immune. The sheer amount of disbelief in the beginning that this could be happening here was part of those early moments. Then we began to check to see if people we knew had been at the club that night. We began to text around and talk to people that we knew might have been there and then we began to get the more official calls.

We talked to filmmaker Dan Karslake who happened to be in Orlando a week after Pulse promoting a new documentary and he said one of the most difficult things about this is how it has religion running all through it. The young people at the club, a lot of them, would not have been welcomed in churches the Sunday morning after this happened because they’re gay or lesbian, because they’re transgender, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There was the part of it where it was a person of a Muslim faith who had been identified as the shooter. I think it’s important we talk about where religion has been, where it is and where it needs to go in terms of acceptance and welcoming the LGBTQ community because we still have a long way to go.

THE RABBI: I think that there is another level to this also and that is the level of violence that is part of our culture. I think that certainly the LGBTQ community is no stranger to violence in general, but this level of violent taking of life in such a heinous way was a wakeup call to some who had not realized they had been sitting on the sidelines. I’m not saying this person wasn’t responsible, but when you say things in your religious institutions that are not friendly and not welcoming to people who are different from you and those people are attacked you need to take some responsibility.

You’re asking what the answer is? I’m not saying there is an answer, but before you find it you have to really define what the problem is. I think one of the problems is an acceptance of violence as a means to express our dissatisfaction, that we find violence to be an acceptable means [of communication]. Not only physical violence; but violence with words, violence through intent, the violence about what we say about other people. Those are all forms of violence which ultimately lead to death.

THE IMAM: We were all taken off guard with what happened on the morning of June 12 and especially for us and the Muslim community. We were, as we are now, in the month of Ramadan, a month of fasting where the focus is on prayer and on seeking God’s forgiveness.

When I was awakened by a call from law enforcement to come to the scene, I learned quickly that the attacker or the murderer had gone and cased several locations where he found a police presence and so he did not carry out his murder elsewhere and found this an easy target. On one hand you look at the randomness of violence that some people carry out these heinous crimes and kill a lot of people without real reason.

We saw that with the Las Vegas shooting. As the rabbi said, the culture of violence is being promoted in movies and people feel like everybody should get a gun and go out and act on their fears. And so the question that you posed about what could come out of this is a serious discussion in our country about the place of guns, about mental illness, about how we treat each other, because it seems like every time something like this happens our politicians say it’s not the time to talk about this. Then we are hit a week or two weeks later with another mass tragedy.

Out of that discussion presumably there would be a change in laws; is that something you feel is needed? How are they tied together?

THE REV: Since Pulse, the League of Women Voters helped to pull together a statewide coalition that now has I think 130 to 150 organizations involved in what is called the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. That group had two basic pieces of legislation that they put before the state legislature now three years running with absolutely no response on these two particular pieces. One is universal background checks. It’s the simplest thing in the world and 90% of Americans say, “Yes, we should have universal background checks and everyone should be registered.” It should be a no-brainer and we can’t get the legislature either in the state or nationally to enact that.

The second piece is on long guns—AR-15s, AK-47s, that kind of gun—that we no longer sell them. You can’t even begin to get an entertainment on that or large capacity magazines, it doesn’t even get to committee.

What’s so frustrating is I have good friends who are active gun enthusiasts. They love you to have guns and shoot guns, they’re very responsible gun owners. I said to one of them you know you’re not going to agree with me on this, but I really think we need to get rid of the long guns. This friend of mine said, “No, I actually agree with you. I have one, but I don’t need it and that [could] help stop this kind of craziness of the mass shootings.” Since Sandy Hook, every single long gun that’s been used in a mass shooting has been purchased just days, or weeks at most, before the act of violence. Can you say it wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t sell it? Maybe not, but it sure would make it more difficult.

THE RABBI: How do you move people to action? I think if we look at our history and our country there are two ways that people are moved to action and both, in a way, represent the division in our country. One is that a person feels collective responsibility. In other words: what happens to everyone is my responsibility. The other is a camp that says I’m not going to do anything until it affects me personally.

I think we’re missing an opportunity for some amount of dialogue to bring those two groups of people together and it’s not just political parties. If you bring these two together, I think that we may be able … to force legislators to do what we want to do. The voices just haven’t been loud enough. Look at the Parkland kids. That’s a great example of people that don’t usually have power who garnered power because they brought people together who felt a collective responsibility in their town no matter what their political persuasion and they made some difference. Now it’s not all the way, but look, a group of high school kids—it’s almost an embarrassment that they did what they did and then we as adults sit on the sideline and we can’t get anything done.

Do you think there is more our local government could be doing?

THE RABBI: It raises a larger issue of what rights does a city or county have versus what a state or the federal government has. In some cases that local government is tied by what happens up in Tallahassee. They’ve already enacted some legislation, for instance, that sanctuary cities will not be permitted in Florida. Sometimes I think that a city may have to exhibit some form of civil disobedience toward the state government or federal government if they think the issue is wrong.

THE REV: That’s where it’s going to take a great deal of creativity, thoughtfulness and community involvement to push the boundaries. As the rabbi said you may have to step into civil disobedience as a community and say we’re going to have more strict or careful laws around this and we’re going to go ahead and take the court system. We don’t want to, in any way, indicate they’re not great leaders. Their hands are tied in a lot of ways. There are decisions that have to be made by all of us, together.

THE IMAM: The choice that the Orange County School District made not to arm teachers is a message to Tallahassee that wherever and whenever we can defy the spread of guns and gun violence we’re going to do that. The teachers went to Tallahassee and said, “We don’t want this. You are choosing it for us, but we don’t want this, we are not asking for it.” We see that Tallahassee, instead of going with the direction of the people, it’s going the opposite direction. The students from Parkland went to ask for something and they were given something else and that is a sad state of affairs. We as the voters have to remember this. When you vote you have to know that there are consequences for voting. Each and every one of us indirectly is responsible for the state of affairs we are living through. If we want change to happen every person who can vote should go out and vote their conscience and bring us the change we aspire to.

The Three Wise Guys can be heard on their show “Friends Talking Faith” which airs on 90.7 WMFE every Tuesday starting at 6:30 p.m. The broadcast featuring this story will air on June 11.

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