Friends knew Tom Diaz was changing when he started reading about ants. It wasn’t just the science that intrigued him, although the Capitol Hill staffer was known among colleagues as a wonk’s wonk. It was the miracle of creation — the endless variety, the questions science couldn’t answer.
The ants were early signs of a personal reassessment that ultimately produced a dual conversion in Diaz’s life — to Judaism and away from the gun culture that had always been part of who he was.
Diaz, in middle age, has become a serious Jew and a major figure in the effort to stop the flood of deadly weapons engulfing the nation, a bitter battle that inched forward with last week’s Senate vote requiring background checks for weapons purchased
at gun shows. The two shifts in his life are connected, though not in a linear way.
“The whole process of considering conversion to Judaism involves thinking about leading an ethical life, about the meaning and consequences of what you do,” he said in a recent interview. “That means everything from what you eat to how you treat fellow human beings.”
The same needs that started him on the path to Judaism, he said, pressed him to re-examine guns. His just-published book “Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America” (The New Press), is an angry expose of an industry he says is “out of control.”
But Diaz, now an analyst for the Violence Policy Center here, is not optimistic that political leaders are ready to take the same moral leap, even in the wake of a series of tragic high school shootings.
“I’m sorry to say I don’t think Columbine has brought the nation to the point where we’re ready to look directly at the problem — that our country is awash in a sea of guns. Despite the recent incidents, we’re in a state of national denial,” he said.
Diaz, 58, grew up in a military family in a succession of Southern towns where guns were as common as bicycles for boys. As an adult he collected them, attended gun shows and bought and sold weapons. He was a National Rifle Association member and a competitive shooter. He displayed bullet-riddled targets on his apartment door, a macho warning to potential thieves.
But something began to change in the early 1990s. In part, it was job related. Diaz, a lawyer and journalist, was working for then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the fiercest advocates of tighter gun-control laws in Congress.
“It really started when I went to work on the crime subcommittee,” he said. “My focus at first was terrorism. Then, the person who had the gun account got promoted and I took over.”
Diaz put together hearings on gun violence and kids. Some of the testimony, he said, was devastating. His work on legislation banning some assault weapons opened a window into a changing firearms industry.
“There had been a revolution in firearms from the early 1980s,” he said. “I learned that the gun culture had gone sort of nuts about military-style guns, guns designed for no other purpose than killing people. That is the thought that led to the book — the change in an industry from something that was primarily a sporting enterprise to something focused on guns to kill people.”
His rising anger led to his current job with the Violence Policy Center, one of the more militant groups in the gun debate. Today the group promotes regulations treating guns as a major health and safety hazard. Inevitably, it says, that would lead to the outright banning of certain weapons.
Diaz’s passion is overwhelming — friends talk about how he chose low-paying anti-gun advocacy work instead of corporate law after leaving Capitol Hill — but he comes across as low key and funny.
“He’s intense on the subject of guns, but he’s no zealot,” said a former colleague on the House Judiciary Committee staff.
Schumer, his former boss, said: “Tom’s passion and intelligence are totally devoted to bringing a rationality to our laws on guns. It’s great to have him on our side.”
The occupational change came just as Diaz was beginning to re-examine his life and place in the cosmos.
“Basically I spent a period of about four years where I did lot of reading and thinking about cosmology, about the universe and about scientific explanations,” he said. “Until that point I had always described myself as an agnostic. I was raised Protestant but never really accepted the Jesus myth. I was looking for a rational scientific approach to life but kept running into ultimate dead ends.”
So he began thinking about religion. “And what I found was that the religion that seemed most consistent with what I’d learned about the inability of scientists to explain ‘first causes’ was Judaism.”
A relationship with a Jewish woman — they have since married — was added incentive, but Diaz said it was his own unanswered questions that paved the way to his Orthodox conversion last year.
“This is a guy who when he takes something on, takes it on thoroughly, with no limits,” said Rabbi Barry Freundel, leader of the Kesher Israel congregation in Washington and the spiritual leader who supervised Diaz’s conversion. “That applies both professionally and in his Judaism; he takes his beliefs and his commitments seriously.”
There is a symmetry in Diaz’s life that seems to please him.
Gun control and Judaism have always gone hand in hand. Jewish politicians, including Schumer and Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California are at the forefront of the battle in Congress. Lautenberg, in fact, sponsored the bill that was adopted last week by the Senate.
Diaz points to a number of reasons for Jewish anti-gun sentiment, including plain demography: Jews are heavily urban and concentrated in the Northeastern states, while gun ownership is most widespread and gun owners most resistant to regulation in the rural South and West.
But it’s the culture that has grown up around guns and the anti-gun control fight that disturbs Jews the most, he said.
“When you look at the extremists, who now monopolize the debate, then you’re talking about things that are foreign to Jewish culture and dangerous to the nation as a whole,” he said.
He cites two prominent examples: Larry Pratt, president of the Gun Owners of America, who stepped down as an adviser to presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in 1996 after allegations of ties to radical militia groups, and Charlton Heston, the current NRA president who once compared gun owners to Holocaust victims.
The NRA, Diaz said, increasingly uses radical, warlike rhetoric that treats every skirmish as a life-or-death struggle against Gestapo-like forces.
“I’m not saying it’s time to bar the doors, but that kind of language does produce concerns,” he said.
Some advocates of gun control really do hope to eliminate all guns, but most have more modest goals: restrictions on sales to minors, background checks and strict limits on weapons intended to kill people in wholesale lots.
Today’s gun lobby — shaped by the radical gun culture and supported by an industry that is making a killing from the most lethal weapons — refuses to acknowledge such distinctions, Diaz said. And the lines between advocates of gun-owners’ rights and the promoters of anti-government, racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that encompass pro-gun ideology are getting blurrier.
That nexus of relationships, and not the responsible sportsman or collector, is what shapes the Jewish community’s strong support for firearms regulation.
Legislators, Diaz said, have a choice: They can wrestle with what he calls “doo-dad” laws, such as those requiring trigger locks on guns, or they can start to confront head-on a firearms industry and a gun culture that have moved far beyond the gun-owning mainstream.
“Without that kind of leadership,” he warned, “we are going to see more tragedies.”