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Jewish groups push for action on gun control

President Obama attends the Sandy Hook interfaith vigil at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012.  (Pete Souza / White House)

President Obama attends the Sandy Hook interfaith vigil at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012. (Pete Souza / White House)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In the wake of the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., Jewish groups are looking to build alliances and back legislation to strengthen gun control laws.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that his group is assembling a coalition that would be ready to act once the right legislation comes along.

“The point now is to create the atmosphere in which there is a demand for action, using our voices, organizing the parents in our pews,” Saperstein told JTA in an interview. “When the parents across America start crying out for effective action, if there’s religious leadership, it will galvanize the community to create the moral demand that moves toward sensible legislation.”

Staff at the RAC, the locus in the Jewish community for gun control initiatives in past decades, spent Monday reaching out to other Jewish leaders, as well as to leaders of other faith communities.

“The best way is to rally the faith community and come together around shared policy,” said RAC spokeswoman Rachel Laser.

A number of Jewish groups have indicated that they will back a gun control bill proposed Monday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the first since the Newtown shooting. It would ban more than 100 assault weapons and ammunition clips that contain more than 10 rounds.

The Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle registered in the name of his mother, whom he killed before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where he murdered 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police have said he used multiple clips, although their capacity has not been publicly reported.

Jared Loughner, the gunman in the January 2011 attack in Tucson, Ariz., that grievously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others, had a 33-round magazine.

The legislation, Feinstein said in a statement Monday, “will be carefully focused on the most dangerous guns that have killed so many people over the years while protecting the rights of gun owners by exempting hundreds of weapons that fall outside the bill’s scope.”

Feinstein helped draft the last iteration of an assault weapons ban, in 1994. It lapsed in 2004, after the National Rifle Association fought against its renewal.

B’nai B’rith International on Monday demanded the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

"Assault weapons enable a shooter to fire multiple rounds without stopping to reload as they automatically expel and load ammunition with each trigger-pull," B’nai B’rith said in a statement. "There is no sane, acceptable, reasonable need in a civilian setting to fire off large rounds of ammunition."

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs circulated a petition through its constituent Jewish community relations councils that calls for "meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games."

Officials of Jewish groups planning on action said the likeliest vehicle would be Feinstein’s legislation, which she plans to introduce as soon as Congress reconvenes, in January.

“We have been in touch with Sen. Feinstein,” said Susan Turnbull, who chairs Jewish Women International, a group that has as a principal focus combating domestic violence. “We support her bill.”

The National Council of Jewish Women, which has also taken a leading role in the Jewish community on gun control initiatives in the past, announced its support Tuesday for the Feinstein legislation and for legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would tighten background checks. The NCJW has in the past mobilized a grassroots network of activists to push for gun control legislation. Hadassah also called on Congress to introduce reforms.

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly on Monday called not only for a ban on assault weapons, but for longer purchase times, deeper background checks, coding ammunition for identification and banning online sales of ammunition.

President Obama, attending a prayer vigil in Newtown on Sunday, said that he was ready to back action that would address such violence.

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” he said.  “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

Although he was short on specifics, a number of observers said that Obama’s strong language suggested he was ready to do what he had avoided in his first term: Advance assault weapons restrictions.

In addition to Feinstein and Schumer, a number of other Jewish lawmakers have also weighed in. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who in the next Congress will be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that “expressions of sympathy must be matched by concrete actions.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is retiring, expressed support for an assault weapons ban and proposed a national commission on mass shootings.

In addition to banning assault weapons, Jewish groups are also seeking broader initiatives to address violence.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, said he would bring to the attention of lawmakers a study that links mandatory moments of silence to drops in juvenile violence.

Turnbull of Jewish Women International said that any legislation should deal also with identifying and treating individuals whose mental health should preclude access to weapons.

“We will back any legislation that bans assault weapons and the ammunition as well as giving families what they need to treat individuals with a proclivity toward violence,” said Turnbull, a former vice-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “I think this will be the ‘big idea,’ that the president is not going to limit the conversation to just guns."
 

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