Gun control in U.S. a divisive issue for American Jews

Gun control in U.S. a divisive issue for American Jews

The National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section has partnered with CeaseFirePA, the largest gun violence prevention group in Pennsylvania, to advocate for “common sense” gun control laws.
For the past several months, the NCJW Pittsburgh Section, a volunteer organization that works to promote progressive social changes, has worked with CeaseFirePA to call for increased gun controls, both on the city and state level, including a city ordinance requiring handgun owners to report a lost or stolen handgun within 24 hours of discovery, and a state bill limiting handgun purchases to one per month.
“Common sense gun laws are good for all of us,” said Susan Nitzberg, president of NCJW Pittsburgh Section. “We’re not against the Second Amendment, we just think there should be common sense laws. It’s a public health issue.”
Gun control has long been a cause important to numerous Jewish social action groups.
For example, the Anti-Defamation League last fall joined a coalition of religious and civil rights organizations in an effort to stop the Senate’s consideration of H.R. 6842, which would have removed Washington D.C.’s bans on semiautomatic weapons and handgun ammunition, repeal registration requirements, and remove criminal penalties for possession of unregistered firearms.
Hadassah, in 2000, reaffirmed its long-held written policy, urging federal and state legislatures to enact stronger gun control laws.
And the American Jewish Committee filed an amicus curiae brief last year in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, arguing that the Second Amendment does not protect the right to possess firearms for personal use, but rather “was designed to enhance state and local authority to protect life and liberty through the maintenance of militias composed of the local populace.”
“The American Jewish Committee has a strong and well-stated policy on gun control,” said Lisa Steindel, director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, which is associated with the AJC.
Steindel stressed that incidents such as this month’s tragic murder of three Pittsburgh police officers in Stanton Heights should not be the only impetus for stricter laws.
“I don’t think we should have to wait for these things to take place,” she said.
According to some Jewish organizations, imposing restrictions on gun ownership is a Jewish value.
“It’s pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life,” said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has been very active in its efforts to ban assault weapons, and in support of the Brady Act, the Million Mom March, and closing the “gun show loophole.”
“More people die by gun violence than are saved by guns at the end of the day,” said Weinstein. “Thirty thousand Americans are killed every year by gun violence. That’s a hard statistic to argue with.”
Weinstein cited the Stanton Height murders as an example of why an assault weapon ban makes sense. Police say that Richard Poplawski used a semi-automatic AK-47 to shoot the three police officers.
The 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, signed into law by President Clinton, expired in 2004.
“It’s hard to understand why we can’t re-enact that law,” said Weinstein. “At the end of the day, if we have laws that take military assault weapons off the street, that makes us all safer.”
But not all Jews subscribe to the anti-gun paradigm.
“Any Jewish group that claims that it is somehow in the Jewish tradition to restrict ownership of guns, misreads that tradition,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, community scholar for the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“Israelis have a gun under every bed,” Schiff said. “They have this whole concept of the purity of arms. The question is never about the weapon per se, but how you regard the use of the weapon. If you need weapons to combat evil, then so be it. If the weapons are misused, it is an abomination.”
“You can not coherently make the argument that there’s a Jewish position that restricts the number of guns you can own,” Schiff said.
Aaron Zelman, founder and director of the 7000-member organization, Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership, would agree.
“The restrictions ought to be on the abuse of firearms by criminals,” said Zelman. “They should be severely punished. Should we have penalties on people who drive a car, or people who drive a car drunk?”
The JPFO “focuses on creating information for people to use to make people understand why the Second Amendment is good for them,” Zelman said. The organization produces informational films, handbills and books promoting Second Amendment rights.
“Our focus is on the Bill of Rights,” he continued. “We believe in laws based on the Bill of Rights, not just something politically expedient.”
“We’re the organization that the Jewish community doesn’t give a damn about,” he added.
One film produced by the JPFO, “Innocents Betrayed,” “clearly shows the connection between disarming people and governments murdering them,” Zelman said, adding that the results of gun control legislation led to the nine major genocides over the last 100 years, including Nazi Germany.
Jewish gun control advocates are ignoring the lessons of history, Zelman claimed. He said guns are necessary not only “to protect ourselves from bad guys, but to protect ourselves against governments that could become tyrannical.”
“The leadership of the Jewish community doesn’t give a damn,” Zelman said. “They’re afraid to deal with the truth, and they’re afraid to admit that they’re wrong.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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