Gun control gains steam again


WASHINGTON, May 15 (JTA) – A year ago, gun control was an oft-repeated mantra for a number of Jewish groups, but with the election of a president supported by gun lobbyists it was thought to be an issue that would have to wait.

Now a new legislative push has started the issue rolling again, as a bipartisan compromise bill may prove to be a rallying point for organizations.

Introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the bill calls for background checks on individuals who buy guns at gun shows. The compromise bill is thought to have a better chance of passing than other legislation that contains stricter regulations.

Adding to the mix this week, President Bush announced a national initiative to combat gun violence. But the president reiterated his desire to work with existing gun violence laws rather than focusing on new legislation, as the Clinton White House had favored.

These developments could bring about a renewed focus on gun control, though it will not suddenly become a priority issue for many Jewish groups, according to Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Gun control may have slipped from the radar screen for some Jewish groups, but the RAC has spent the past few months strategizing about how to pass gun safety legislation.

The McCain-Lieberman bill would improve current law, Pelavin said, but he admitted the bill is not everything the RAC wants.

“You have to take small steps,” when it comes to gun legislation, and the McCain-Lieberman bill is actually a “medium” step, Pelavin said.

The bill aims to close the “gun show loophole” that allows people to buy guns at gun shows without a background check, a requirement for gun sales at stores.

Lieberman said he believes the bill will help people find common ground on the issue. At a news conference Tuesday, he noted that the bill had received the endorsement of the National Association of Police Organizations.

“We’re on the verge of a breakthrough here,” Lieberman said.

Part of the reason, perhaps, that Jewish groups were having trouble mobilizing around gun control was the lack of real movement on the issue in Congress.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a longtime gun control advocate, said there had been no legislative progress since 1994, when the Brady Law was enacted. That law, which requires background checks in licensed gun stores, will be extended by the McCain-Lieberman bill, Schumer insisted.

Jewish groups have been involved in other ways on gun control over the past year. Both the RAC and the American Jewish Congress endorsed the Million Mom March, a march and rally last year in Washington, D.C., that drew three-quarters of a million gun control supporters..

The American Jewish Congress also organized the “Stop the Guns: Protect our Kids” campaign last year to send one million signatures to Congress demanding strict firearms laws.

A number of Jewish groups favor strict gun control legislation, such as licensing of handgun owners, the registration of handguns, consumer product safety standards for guns and limits on gun purchases of no more than one a month.

The administration’s proposal is a sign that the president is “sensitive to the issue,” but Bush hasn’t gone far enough, said Phil Baum, executive director of AJ Congress. Baum said he would like to see more imaginative initiatives that emphasize prevention rather than calling for more effective policing. In light of the latest developments, AJ Congress will reinvigorate its campaign and get more involved on gun control, Baum said.

Bush supports closing the gun show loophole and favors an instant background check at gun shows, but he focused his attention on the creation of local partnerships to enforce existing gun laws more effectively.

“This nation must enforce the gun laws which exist on the books,” Bush said Monday as he unveiled his plan.

Through Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Bush administration proposes to devote more than $550 million over the next two years to hire new federal and state prosecutors, support investigators, provide training and develop and promote community outreach efforts.

Bush’s proposed 2002 budget includes nearly $50 million in grants for states to hire new gun prosecutors, conduct community outreach and engage in other efforts to reduce gun violence.

The Justice Department’s budget request also includes $20 million for new state prosecutors and community task forces to combat juvenile gun crime, and $9 million for 94 new assistant U.S. attorneys who will focus on school gun violence and juvenile gun offenses.

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