Broader Gun Rights: Bad For The Jews?


Defenders of broadly defined gun ownership rights announced this week, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that limits states’ right to regulate firearms, that they will further challenge the power of municipalities like New York City and New York State to keep guns out of owners’ hands.

The gun lobby will probably miss its target, some experts say.

The court’s decision, which ruled unconstitutional Chicago’s 28-year-old strict ban on handgun ownership and declared local governments subject to the right-to-self-defense provisions of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, is in many ways a victory for a rural-based pro-gun movement — at the expense of cities like New York and Chicago, where gun violence is prevalent — said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. He called the decision “unfortunate and disappointing and deeply confusing,” which may bring “deeply problematic results that we are going to have to live with for a generation.”

The National Rifle Association indicated this week that it is preparing legal challenges to gun laws it views as restrictive in many places, including New York State and New York City.

The state’s gun control legislation, including an assault weapon bill named for 1994 shooting victim Ari Halberstam, is strong enough to withstand a challenge in court, said Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Division of Middle East and International Terrorism.

Provisions of the city’s gun control legislation, which determine the fees and length of time it takes to obtain a permit, are “reasonable regulations,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference Monday, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The gun lobby and gun criminals will use [the court’s ruling] to try to strike down gun laws, and those legal challenges will continue to fail,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The court’s 5-4 ruling that a handgun in one’s home is a “fundamental” right, two years after it affirmed an individual’s right to possess handguns in Washington, D.C., stated that Second Amendment protections extended to cities and states.

Gun control, while not usually considered a high priority Jewish issue, has potentially greater impact on the Jewish community than many other sectors of the population, because an estimated 80 percent of Jews live in urban areas, many of which have strict gun control laws.

Representatives of several Jewish organizations said the New York City area, and its array of Jewish institutions and Jewish neighborhoods, are unlikely to become more vulnerable to attack if handgun ownership becomes more widespread as a result of the Supreme Court ruling.

But the Anti-Defamation League called the decision, in a case brought by a Chicago community activist who had sought protection against street gangs, “a disappointing setback in the fight against extremism and violence.”

“Extremists and those who commit hate crimes pose a serious threat to law enforcement, the general public and, more specifically, to members of the discrete racial, ethnic and religious groups who are often their targets,” a statement by ADL National Chair Robert Sugarman and National Director Abraham Foxman read. “We deeply regret that the Court has restricted the latitude that cities and states retain to keep guns out of the hands of extremists, terrorists and violent bigots.”

The New York Times declared in an editorial this week that the Supreme Court “subvert[ed]” the “entirely sensible ban on handgun ownership” in Chicago on which the court made its ruling. “The results will be all too real and bloody. Mayors and state lawmakers will have to … keep adopting the most restrictive possible gun laws – to protect the lives of Americans and aid the work of law enforcement officials.”

“I don’t think [the court ruling is] going to make a difference” here, Devorah Halberstam, an active gun-control advocate since her 16-year-old son Ari was shot to death by a Muslim terrorist on the Brooklyn Bridge, told The Jewish Week. The assailant, Rashid Baz, opened fire, with a submachine gun, on a van filled with young chasidic students.

Working since then to limit the availability of such assault weapons, Halberstam has pushed to close loopholes in gun control laws, leading to the passage in New York State of comprehensive legislation known as Ari’s Law, and a similar bill that is now pending in Congress.

Assault weapons are a “larger problem” for public safety than handguns, Halberstam said. “I can understand [individuals’] need to protect themselves.”

It is unclear whether the ruling, which applied to handgun ownership, will also affect laws aimed specifically at assault weapons.

Terrorists like Baz who aim at Jewish buildings or people tend to use the more deadly weapons instead of lower-power handguns, she said. “I don’t see [the court’s ruling this week] making the Jewish community become a larger target,” Halberstam said.

Maki Haberfeld, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, told The Jewish Week she does not see any reason for the Jewish community to “fear” that it will be singled out if handguns become more available. Firearms, she added, are always available — despite gun-control legislation — to those who want “to perpetuate acts of violence.”

Pelavin of the Religious Action Center said New York City’s Jewish community will not be more threatened than other parts of the city, he said. “I don’t see a discreet particularistic impact of the decision. I see Jewish values being impacted.”

The Religious Action Center is a longtime supporter of gun control legislation, as a way to reduce the general level of violence in the United States, he said. “We’re concerned about the safety of all Americans. We’re concerned about the neighborhoods where we live. We’re concerned about the streets where we walk.”


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