For the first time in his more than two decades at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Ethan Felson has been seeing an issue presented, and a consensus reached, in a matter of hours, not days.
Amid continuous coverage of the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children in their classrooms in Newtown, Conn., Jewish organizations across the denominational spectrum came together quickly with a sweeping statement — addressing not only gun control but mental-health care and the violence in pop culture — atop an online petition that was posted at 10 p.m. Monday night.
By Tuesday morning, more than 5,000 people had signed it, said Felson, who is vice president and director of domestic concerns at JCPA.
“We will not allow the intense emotion we feel now to return to a place of complacency where we become desensitized to the atrocities that unfold around us daily,” reads the petition statement, in part.
“We recognize the right of Americans to own guns, but we do not accept the current state of affairs.”
The petition calls for lobbying for “comprehensive action, including meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games.”
Felson said this was likely to be the top issue when the JCPA meets for its annual plenary in March, which will draw representatives of 14 national and 125 local partner agencies.
“Across the spectrum, people have said ‘full stop,’ something must change,” said Felson. “This has always been an issue that has been part of a tug-of-war. I think that’s gone.”
Previous resolutions passed at the JCPA’s annual plenaries have touched on violence and crime in terms of urban issues, though in 2007, following the Virginia Tech massacre — the worst in U.S. history — there was a reference to mass shootings.
“This is an issue that transcends the prior conversation,” Felson said, adding that it was “highly unlikely” the issue would fade in importance after the headlines from Newtown cease.
That outcome differs from 2007, following the murder of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, when statements were issued but the organized Jewish community was skeptical that any progress could be made on gun control.
“I don’t know necessarily if there will be a dramatic shift in priorities. It takes a while for all these things to gel,” Felson told The Jewish Week then.
Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, which has taken a leading position among Jewish groups on gun control, said she was encouraged by President Barack Obama’s statement Friday about Newtown, in which he tearfully said, “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
The White House on Tuesday said the president was open to a new assault weapons ban as well as closing the loophole that allows sales at gun shows without a waiting period and other measures.
Obama did not make gun control a priority in his first term and dodged questions on the subject during his re-election campaign, Laser said.
“This feels like something different,” Laser told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “It’s encouraging.”
Laser said her group is holding extensive discussions not only with other Jewish organizations, but also with groups of other faiths, such as the National Council of Churches and the Islamic Society of North America, to create an unprecedented push for reforms.
“It’s a matter of building support so in the beginning of the 113th Congress we can see activity. It’s an uphill battle, but never say never,” she said. An early test will be a bill proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, that would ban 100 types of assault weapons as well as ammunition clips that contain more than ten rounds.
Congress passed a ban of certain types of semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons in 1994 but the law expired a decade later.
In the immediate aftermath of the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a wide range of Jewish organizations sent out statements with different levels of specificity about gun control.
Citing an earlier deadly shooting by a man in an Oregon mall just days before the Connecticut incident, the National Council of Jewish Women called on “federal and state leaders to enact tougher laws to control the sale and possession of guns. Guns are dangerous weapons and have no place on our streets, in our communities, or in our schools.”
The Anti-Defamation League stressed its longtime commitment for “strong, effective and sensible gun control legislation.”
“Since 1967, ADL has favored expanded federal and state regulation of the sale and transfer of firearms and other dangerous weapons,” according to the statement. “Unfortunately, all too many times we have sadly witnessed the tragic dangers guns present … We firmly believe that one way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun control legislation.”
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and its Rabbinical Assembly on Monday called not only for a ban on assault weapons but for longer purchase times, deeper background checks, coding ammunition for identification and banning online sales of ammunition. Meanwhile, several leaders within the movement’s Schechter Network of day schools, are mobilizing to press for more gun control laws, and the movement’s United Synagogue Youth is planning a rally for Dec. 26 in Boston. The youth rally will be, in a nod to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his iconic phrase about marching in Alabama with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., called Praying with Our Feet: Rally Against Gun Violence.
The Orthodox Union also promised action on gun control but did not specify the nature. “The Orthodox Union will join with all Americans of good will to assure the security of our children and our places of learning,” said the organization on its website. “Alongside our homes, our schools must be places of security for our children in an otherwise uncertain world.”
Felson said the OU and its associated Rabbinical Council of America supported the JCPA petition.
The bloodbath unfolded when Adam Lanza entered the school Friday morning and opened fire with weapons that were registered to his mother, who was his first victim before he left home. It is unclear what led him to the school. Investigators are trying to determine if Lanza had a history of mental illness.
Speaking on CBS’s “Face The Nation” Sunday morning, New York Sen. Charles Schumer said he sensed this event could shift national attitudes about gun control and create greater impetus on Capitol Hill.
“We could be at a tipping point … where we might actually get something done,” Schumer said. But he also added that gun control advocates should understand the concerns of gun owners.
“Those of us who are pro-gun control have to admit that there is a Second Amendment right to bear arms,” he told host Bob Schieffer. “I know my colleagues on the pro-gun side say ‘how can liberals and the left say there is a First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment that should be read expansively, and the Second should be seen narrowly, through the pinhole of, well it’s only the militias.’”
Based on recent mass carnage incidents, Schumer favors renewing the assault weapons ban, increasing background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and limiting the legal capacity of automatic clips. He noted that bystanders last year were able to tackle Arizona gunman Jared Loughner, who pleaded guilty to the Tucson massacre and attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and had a 33-round clip, only when he paused to reload his weapon.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg added his voice to the growing chorus of politicians calling for tougher gun laws. In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he called on Obama to order government agencies to enforce current gun laws more aggressively and called on Congress to pass tougher, “common sense” laws to restrict assault weapons with large magazines.
In an interview that aired Monday night, Bloomberg cast his commitment to gun control in terms of his Jewish upbringing. “I don’t know what your religion teaches you, mine teaches you to take care of each other,” the mayor, appearing emphatic and emotional, told CBS News’ Scott Pelley.
A CBS opinion poll found that 57 percent of Americans now favor more gun control, the highest figure in a decade, although 66 percent said they believed different laws would not have stopped Lanza.
In an interview Wednesday, Chalres Heller, director of the Wisconsin-based group Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership said his organization has been flooded with calls since the shooting from people who are worried about new gun legislation.
“They are concerned that opportunists will take advantage of this,” said Heler, who is a conservative talk radio host in Tucson, Az. “Gun control is poison.”
He beieves an assault weapons ban would have no ipact on the violence. “We tried something similar for 10 years and multiple studies show it had no effect,” said Heller. “There are things that governments of states could do immediately to provide security to schools. They might have to call up the national guard, which is there for emergencies, until other arrangements are made.”
Heller said states should allow retired law enforcement officers to work as security guards at schools since they are alredy permitted to carry firearms. He noted that when an armed terrorist invaded a Jerusalem yeshiva in 2008, killing eight students, an armed, an armed student killed the terrorist.
Managing Editor Robert Goldblum and JTA contributed to this report.