WASHINGTON, March 26 (JTA) The National Rifle Association says the president’s lax enforcement of gun laws has killed people, and a senator accuses the NRA of cheapening the memory of the Holocaust.
In recent weeks, the back-and-forth rhetoric between pro-gun control and anti-gun control forces has escalated.
Many Jewish groups say that while the barbs may obscure the work they’re doing toward getting tougher gun control laws passed, it’s important that the rhetoric not be ignored.
They say the rhetoric shows that the NRA is not in the mainstream and, according to one Jewish activist, exposes the group as extremist.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, said President Clinton is willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda, and said the president is responsible for the shooting death last summer of college basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong at the hands of a white supremacist because federal gun laws are not being enforced.
Congresssional republicans have distanced themselves from LaPierre’s remarks and Jewish groups have denounced the NRA, but the headlines have already been made.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote to NRA President Charlton Heston and LaPierre urging them to stop the “disruptive rhetoric of blame.”
Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said it is unfortunate that the political landscape has not yet changed enough to move gun control legislation forward.
“I’m not sure what it takes to get gun control to be issue number one,” he said. People are not making the connection between the tragic school shootings during the past few years and the need for better gun safety legislation, Pelavin noted.
Many legislative proposals related to gun control are stymied. The juvenile justice bill, for example, which includes provisions such as safety locks for handguns, background checks at gun shows and a ban on large ammunition clips, has not been worked on in months.
The bill is stuck in a committee where the House and Senate versions of the bill are hammered out. But the war of words continues.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) called on the NRA to remove from its Web site an article that compares gun safety measures proposed by President Clinton to Nazi Germany’s laws preventing Jews from owning guns.
The article claims “resistance to Nazi oppression was hampered by the lack of civilian arms possession.” It makes the case that gun owners “simply disappeared” in Nazi Germany and the organizations that called for gun registration and confiscation contributed nothing to winning the war or stopping the Holocaust.
Joined by Holocaust survivors at a news conference, Lautenberg called the NRA’s views “ridiculous, transparent and insulting.”
The NRA denies that the article insults the memory of the Holocaust. “Quite the contrary,” said Bill Powers, the director of public affairs. “It helps us to never forget that terrible time in history.”
Matthew Dorf, director of the American Jewish Congress’ Governmental and Public Affairs Office, believes the rhetoric is an important part of the debate.
“Rhetoric is good,” he said. “The gun control movement won the rhetoric war.”
Although gun control legislation is moving slowly, other initiatives are under way.
Both the Religious Action Center and the AJCongress are endorsing the Million Mom March, a march and rally scheduled to be held in Washington on Mothers’ Day, May 14, when mothers will speak out for gun control. The AJCongress is also continuing its “Stop the Guns: Protect Our Kids” campaign to send 1 million signatures to Congress demanding strict firearms laws.
A recent agreement signed between the Clinton administration and Smith & Wesson emboldened many gun control advocates. The gun manufacturer says it will provide locking devices and a code of conduct for the sales and distribution of handguns.
There also is movement on the state level. New York is considering a new package of gun control legislation proposed by Gov. George Pataki, and Maryland will soon consider legislation that calls for mandatory child safety locks on all handguns.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of community relations councils and national agencies, has taken strong gun control positions for many years. Since the shooting at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles last summer, the organization has received more calls from communities for information on gun control legislation and advocacy projects.
While the vast majority of Jewish groups advocate gun control measures, not all agree.
Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, which claims 7,000 members, believes gun control is lethal, especially to Jews.
“It’s important for Jews to understand that gun control is really a fraud,” says Aaron Zelman, the group’s executive director. “It gives the government control over people.”
Zelman believes anyone who uses a gun for a criminal purpose should be “locked up and then throw away the key.” But gun control only has negative effects on law-abiding citizens, Zelman said.