Gun Shy On Gun Control


After last week’s record-setting carnage at Virginia Tech, the National Council of Jewish Women reacted by calling for a “renewed effort” on gun control.

“As the toll from gun violence mounts, we feel compelled to ask, how many more tragedies will it take to spur lawmakers to take decisive and effective action …?” asked the organization’s president, Phyllis Snyder, in a statement.

The organization is not alone in pressing for stricter measures to control firearms; it is an agenda item of almost every mainstream Jewish group.

But that continued concern is not matched by day-to-day activism. And the reason is that Jewish leaders see virtually no chance frightened, intimidated politicians will act to toughen gun laws.

Despite statements of concern following major incidents of violence like the Virginia Tech and Columbine massacres, Jewish leaders say they can’t afford to invest scarce resources in a cause unlikely to move in Congress, due to the overwhelming influence of the National Rifle Association and more radical pro-gun groups.

“We are a multi-issue community with many domestic and foreign policy concerns on our agenda,” says Rabbi David Saperstein, an ardent anti-gun crusader who is head of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “When this issue begins to move, we generally see the Jewish community weigh in quite significantly. But there is clearly not a sense of political prioritization on [guns] that would encourage us to take a lead role.”

Other Reform leaders say that the failure of Congress to act — even on issues like extending the assault weapons ban — has made it hard to generate activism on the gun issue.

The Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA), the national umbrella of community relations organization, has repeatedly passed resolutions on gun control at its annual plenum, but has not made new gun control legislation a lobbying priority. The most recent resolution stresses that “Jewish tradition compels us to uphold the sanctity of life,” while calling on the group’s members to raise awareness and “make common cause” with anti-gun public officials and activists.

Even the Orthodox Union, with its generally conservative political agenda, has passed a resolution calling for “sensible gun regulation, including banning of certain sophisticated attack weapons” and promoting identity chips that make a gun operable only to its owner.

Like a slew of other domestic policy issues, there is nothing intrinsically Jewish about gun control. “We have a stake in it as Americans,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We’re concerned about the rise in violence and the impact on the hate community … But it’s not a time for us to stand up and say we want gun control because Jews could be targeted.”

The past 16 years, however, have seen a growing trend of firearm attacks on Jews, beginning with the November 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in a New York hotel. Subsequent years saw the 1994 Brooklyn Bridge attack by a Lebanese gunman on a van full of chasidic students that left one dead; the 1997 attack atop the Empire State Building that killed one man and critically injured another, carried out by a man who said he wanted to target “Zionists in their den” and the 1999 shooting at the El Al terminal at the Los Angeles airport that killed a ticket agent. In 2000, there was a series of incidents, including the shooting death of a Jewish woman in Pittsburgh by an extremist neighbor, the shooting of six Jews returning from shul in Chicago and a rampage at the North Valley Jewish Community Center near Los Angeles. Last year saw the attack on a Seattle Jewish Federation center that killed one employee. That’s compared to three incidents with three fatalities in the previous 15 years, according to the ADL.

Pro-gun Jews argue that the way to fight anti-Semitism is to arm more Jews. In the ‘70s, Jewish militants made “Every Jew a .22” their catchphrase.

Aaron Zelman, president of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, says his Wisconsin-based group has grown since 1989 to over 6,000 members. In his videos and on his Web site, he argues that more Jews would have survived the Holocaust had they been better equipped to battle the Nazis, as scattered groups of partisans did across Europe. The same applies to Virginia Tech, he posits. “No one can defend their lives while some lunatic goes around killing people,” says Zelman. “Gun control kills people and doesn’t do a damn thing to make them safer.”

Zelman, who considers the National Rifle Association “a giant fraud” because it accepts some gun control laws, which he does not, says “the Talmud is very clear: If a man comes to kill you, rise quickly and kill him first. If you want to deal with anti-Semites, you make them fear you.”

But Jews who support a liberal interpretation of the Second Amendment are a minority.

“The way to deal with anti-Semitism is to use the modalities of America that make it the rarity that it is,” says Rabbi Saperstein. “We have been spared so much of the anti-Semitism and sectarian divisiveness in part because of America’s tradition of tolerance and respect. That’s what we need to build on.”

The level of Jewish involvement in the gun issue going forward will likely be dictated by the amount of general activity on the issue, which was not on the agenda of the Senate and House leaders when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress this year. Some Democratic legislators, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have called for increased action in response to the Virginia incident but others have been cautious for fear of appearing to exploit the tragedy. “I see virtually nothing happening [in Washington] except some tweaking, maybe having a better reporting system for those with mental problems,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s political science department. “Many Democrats in the House and Senate have learned the lesson of Al Gore in 2000. Gun control, among many other factors, probably cost him many southern states, including Florida and maybe his home state of Tennessee.”

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democrat who is the leading gun control advocate in Congress, says the notion that Gore lost because of the gun issue “has become the folklore here in Congress” that has kept many from acting. “They are nervous to deal with any gun issues at this point,” she said Tuesday.

McCarthy in February reintroduced an expanded version of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, but sees a better chance of passing a bill that would require states to enter information about mentally ill people in a national database for background checks before gun sales. A version of that bill passed the House in 2002.

“This is the one bill that would have stopped the killer in Virginia,” says McCarthy, who ran for Congress after her husband died in the 1993 Long Island Railroad massacre. Ethan Felson, associate executive director of JCPA, says that since the Virginia Tech shooting, Jewish leaders “have been buzzing about what it is we can or should be doing. There is certainly a lot of conversation about whether the laws we have in place are being properly enforced.” But, he added, “I don’t know necessarily if there will be a dramatic shift in priorities. It takes a while for all these things to gel.”

But Felson says evidence that gun control is among the top communal priorities is reflected in the fact that it is annually one of only seven or eight resolutions adopted by JCPA.

Rabbi Saperstein says he is “not optimistic” that any significant gun legislation is on the horizon. “I don’t see that we’re going to achieve traction,” he said Tuesday. “Opposition to gun control is well organized and funded. This can be a third-rail issue where elections can be lost. As a result, more people are going to die needlessly.”

Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.