They may be buffeted by strong legislative headwinds, but in the wake of the worst mass killing in modern U.S. history — 59 dead at a country music concert in Las Vegas — officials at mainstream Jewish organizations vowed this week to keep up the fight for “sensible” gun legislation.
Representatives of several groups said they would, in fact, increase their efforts, but they remain unsure if their work for bills that expand background checks for gun buyers and limit the availability of firearms will pay off — at least in the short run.
And Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, told The Jewish Week Tuesday that URJ and its Washington-based Religious Action Center are now holding discussions with “some of the most prominent religious leaders in the country … not [only] the usual suspects, the progressives,” to form an ecumenical coalition to lobby in favor of firearms reform.
Yet, a central question lingers: Is Las Vegas different from Columbine and Virginia Tech and the other shooting sprees that grabbed headlines but did not lead Congress to adopt such legislation?
In this case, the shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, had at least 23 firearms with him at the time of the shooting. At least one used a “bump stock” adapter that allows a semi-automatic weapon to shoot hundreds of times per minute, a rate comparable to the more tightly regulated fully automatic weapon, such as a machine gun, according to The New York Times. All of the firearms, including the bump stock, are legal, The Times reported.
“We’re realists,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has lobbied for several years for “sensible” gun control legislation. “How can you be optimistic when you have a Congress that seems to believe that every single person has the right to bear arms?”
The organization’s 62 national chapters were to take part on Wednesday in a National Day of Action to draw attention to the gun control issue.
Kaufman hailed as “a victory” the announcement on Tuesday by House Speaker Paul Ryan that the SHARE Act, which would have allowed easier access to gun silencers, has been withdrawn from consideration for an imminent vote. She said her organization would monitor future attempts to consider the bill again.
She and spokespeople for several Jewish organizations said they were cautiously optimistic that the public climate has changed in favor of gun control legislation, but that it is too early to determine what new lobbying efforts they would initiate or what the outcomes would be.
“With each horrific event that grips the consciousness of our country and of public officials, [they may] finally wake up to the fact that we need sensible legislation to rein in the shootings,” said Eric Fusfield, B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs. “We still have a cause to fight, and we’re going to fight it. We’re going to speak with a loud voice.”
But, he said, “Only time will tell” whether the efforts will be successful.
“We’re going to be pushing hard” at the local, state and national level, agreed David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which advocates for “serious gun control.”
Cheryl Fishbein, JCPA chair, issued a nuanced statement that called for the public to “come together to address the underlying causes in the days ahead.”
“We thought it was proper to express our sympathy for the victims” without referring to a political issue, Bernstein told The Jewish Week. “This is a long-term effort to change our laws and change our culture,” he said. “That starts with raising awareness.”
After the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, in which 26 students and staff members were murdered, when a national consensus in favor of gun control legislation appeared likely, several national Jewish organizations joined the debate. The time has arrived to limit availability of firearms, Jewish leaders argued.
After the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, which took 49 lives, ranking as the then-deadliest mass killing in modern U.S. history, more calls came from Jewish leaders for gun control legislation.
And after the dozens of mass killings across the country in recent years, ditto.
Within a day of the Las Vegas shooting, Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, said in a statement: “All too many times we have witnessed the tragic dangers guns in the hands of determined killers or domestic extremists present. One way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun violence prevention measures.”
“It is an urgent moral question and an urgent Jewish question.”
“It is well past time for meaningful, bipartisan gun violence legislation,” said Gary Saltzman and Daniel Mariaschin, president and CEO, respectively, of B’nai B’rith International. “We have long held there is no acceptable, reasonable need for civilians to have access to large rounds of ammunition.”
URJ’s Rabbi Jacobs framed the issue in moral, and Jewish, terms.
“It is an urgent moral question and an urgent Jewish question — a matter of pikuach nefesh [life and death],” he told The Jewish Week. “It’s one of our highest Jewish obligations. It’s irresponsible not to talk about it immediately. This is a public health and safety issue. The Jewish community is overwhelmingly in favor of common-sense gun reform.
“Our prayers must be followed by action, long overdue limits to the easy access to firearms,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “Common-sense measures, like restricting the use of silencers that make a shooter harder to locate and stop, must prevail.”
Is he optimistic that his efforts will succeed in the wake of this week’s shootings?
“That’s a very tough question,” Rabbi Jacobs said, adding that he senses a shift in public opinion that would support his position. “I’m hopeful that [the Las Vegas tragedy] passed a new threshold … a tipping point … a cumulative effect. The difference will be that people will [likely] put the requisite pressure on Congress to act.”
As early as 1975, the URJ passed a resolution that “recognized the need for legislation that would limit and control the sale and use of firearms.” And in 1999 the URJ passed an “Ending Gun Violence” resolution that urged congregants of Reform synagogues to become involved in lobbying for gun control legislation.
Former Long Island Rep. Steve Israel has his doubts that any gun control legislation will move given the current political climate, and the power of the well-funded National Rifle Association.
“Will anything change?” Israel, asked in an op-ed piece in The New York Times on Tuesday. “The simple answer is no,” he wrote. “The more vital question is, ‘Why not?’”
“Congressional redistricting has pulled Republicans so far to the right that anything less than total subservience to the gun lobby is viewed as supporting gun confiscation,” Israel wrote. “The gun lobby score is a litmus test with zero margin for error.”
Congressional Democrats, frustrated by years of futility on gun safety legislation, called on Republican leaders on Tuesday to create a special committee to investigate gun violence in America, though they weren’t hopeful. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-L.I.), the only Jewish Republican in the House, issued a statement that extended his “deepest sympathies” but made no mention of legislation. (Zeldin sponsored a bill last year that would have stopped a gun sale to a suspected terrorist after law enforcement obtained a court order based on probable cause within three working days of the attempted purchase; the Freedom Caucus blocked the legislation.)
Political lobbying in the wake of an emotionally charged event like the Las Vegas shootings is a bad idea, columnist Ben Shapiro wrote this week in the Jewish Press, which serves a mostly Orthodox readership.
“Making policy on the heels of horror is rarely wise,” Shapiro wrote. “Good policy is good regardless of timing; bad policy is bad regardless of timing. But when something horrific occurs, it’s in the interest of those pushing a related policy to suggest that those who oppose the policy somehow don’t care enough about victims. We heard this from gun control advocates after Sandy Hook, after Pulse, after Virginia Tech, after Columbine — after every mass shooting. Passion doesn’t make policy good or worthwhile.”
In response to the Las Vegas shootings, Rabbi Douglas, of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., on Yom Kippur read an updated version of the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy, which begins “On Rosh HaShanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many will be born … .”
His “Unetaneh Tokef for America” includes the lines, “Today it is written, today it is sealed in the United States of America, who shall die, and who shall be injured … who by full automatic fire, and who by semi auto … who by AR, and who by AK … who by pistol and who by revolver … but repentance, prayer and charity, will do absolutely nothing to avert the decree, nothing, for our politicians are too frightened.”
Reached Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Avi Anderson, 29, spiritual leader of the 100-member unit Young Israel Aish Las Vegas, told The Jewish Week, “We were in total shock. Our initial response was to see if everyone in the community was accounted for. This happened in our backyard. No one from our community was hurt, but people know people who were there.”
The rabbi’s message to congregants going forward?
“We need to take life more seriously. The question to ask: What can we do to improve ourselves and value every moment?
“Congregants brought up the massacre’s proximity to Yom Kippur. I try not to play God — we don’t know why this happened. We just need to try and help and be better people.”
Staff writer Hannah Dreyfus and JTA contributed to this report.