Rachael Joseph has seen the unimaginable heartbreak that comes with a loved one being killed by gun violence. Nearly 14 years after that event, she’s the director of outreach at Protect Minnesota, the state’s only independent, state-based gun violence prevention organization. On Aug. 11, she’ll be speaking at Temple Israel’s “Views From The Pews.” But first she shared her story with TC Jewfolk, and why the gun violence prevention movement is a Jewish value, in this week’s Who The Folk?!
How did you get involved with the gun violence prevention movement?
My aunt, Shelley Joseph-Kordell, was shot and killed at the Hennepin County Government Center on Sept. 29, 2003. It came out during the criminal trial that the woman who murdered her was able to purchase a gun for $60 at a gun show through a private sale. No background check, no paperwork. It was really shocking for my family and me to learn that that type of gun sale is totally legal in Minnesota. It still is. My aunt didn’t have anything to do with the legal system; she worked as a geriatric care manager. She started doing that with her grandmother, my great grandmother. She saw a huge need in the community. She started a business called Rent-A-Daughter. She had a small handful of clients and kept it very personal. Her clients looked at her like a daughter. She took on some clients, an elderly married couple, with three kids. Two lived out of state and the youngest daughter started harassing my aunt. The older sister hired my aunt. The youngest had a long history of harassment. She was banned from the Post Office and from donating blood at the Red Cross. She started harassing Shelley over the perceived control over her parents’ estate, but the shooter’s own siblings hired Shelley to do this work. She physically attacked my aunt. She’d leave half-hour threatening voice mails, left dead animals on her doorstep. then she used the courts. In Ramsey County, she filed 200 frivolous legal actions in a year. She went to Hennepin County and filed another to lure her to the government center. At that point, it had no metal detectors. Shelley was scared that day at the courthouse. She and her lawyer, Rick Hendrickson, had requested a security guard to accompany them to the 17th floor where the courtroom was. Shelley went to use the restroom before court and the security guard went with her. She told the guard, “Stay outside, don’t let anyone in.” Then this woman approached and shot Rick in the neck at close range when he’d knelt down to leaf through some documents in his briefcase. This woman then headed for the restrooms where Shelley was. The security guard saw this woman approaching with a gun and ran away. Shelley was left alone, she was shot four times and she died at the hospital a short time later. The private sale loophole resulted in Shelley’s death. It was a really horrific event for my entire family. I wasn’t expecting the PTSD from the criminal trial to hit me as hard as it did when I had kids. I drop them at Jewish preschool every day and I start crying in my car because I’m convinced that’s the last time I’ll see my kids alive. It comes in waves after 13 years but the trauma is still very much with me every day.
When did you start this work?
I started a few years ago volunteering with the Everytown for Gun Safety Survivor Network to connect people personally impacted by gun violence and create a community. I started at Protect Minnesota in January, primarily organizing educators, the Jewish community, and in North Minneapolis. It’s the shittiest way to get to know some of the best people I’ve ever met.
Is the message resonating?
Sharing my personal story serves a purpose. It makes people feel something, so they want to then look at their own lives and figure out how gun violence is impacting their life. There are 33,000 gun deaths every year. They do want to engage. It’s been portrayed as a hot political topic with no remedy, but it’s a public health crisis. When we frame it in that context, they want to get involved.
Why do you see it as a public health crisis?
Easy access to firearms is causing the 33,000 Americans to be shot and killed each year, and thousands more are injured and living with lives changed forever, not to mention surviving family members. If there was a disease killing this many Americans, we’d treat it as an epidemic. With cars, we saw the number of motor vehicle deaths and we installed seat belts, made seatbelts the law. I see gun safety as a similar issue where we can put some basic safety measures into effect. The 19 states that have background checks on all gun sales see a nearly 50 percent decrease in many types of gun violence, including women shot and killed by an intimate partner, gun suicides, police officers shot and killed in the line of duty, and gun trafficking, which has a huge impact in urban areas.
What can be done to the access side of the argument without crossing the 2nd Amendment?
At Protect Minnesota we embrace the 2nd Amendment because all the language for regulation is there. We’re not anti-gun, we’re anti-gun violence and we think the majority of Minnesotans are with us. A Star Tribune poll said 82 percent support background checks in our state. Anything that Protect Minnesota wants to see done at the legislature won’t impact responsible gun owners. There are two ways to buy a gun in Minnesota: Go to a federally licensed firearms dealer and have a background check done, which takes about 90 seconds to complete. Or go through a private sale and those private sales aren’t required to have background checks. Most responsible gun owners go to a licensed dealer and purchase it the right way. They know that a background check is not a hardship. They see the private-sale loophole as a way that dangerous people can get their hands on a gun, and it reflects poorly on responsible gun owners as well. Even 75 percent of NRA members support background checks.
Why should this be an issue the Jewish community should get behind?
In terms of the Jewish community, we need to be concerned about the permitless carry bill in the Minnesota legislature. It will remove any requirements for a permit or training before the open carry of any type of firearm in public spaces. Our current permitting system is an extra failsafe. A background check is needed for a permit to carry. The permitless carry bill would remove that. The bill also redefines public spaces very broadly to include schools, hospitals, churches, synagogues. Any space that’s used by the general public. The State Fair. It’s terrifying. What are we so afraid of that we need to be armed everywhere we go? It’s a moral and safety issue. “He who takes one life…it’s as if he destroyed the entire world.” Our hope is that we can engage more and more of the Jewish community, my community.
What will the main idea be when you speak at Temple Israel?
They’d like me to share my personal story. A lot of people in the community are familiar with my family. Shelley was on the board at Temple Israel at one point. But I’ll also give them a way to think about gun violence as a moral issue and a Jewish value, and ways they can engage with the work Protect Minnesota is doing in our state.