Individual Jews have long been involved in gun control advocacy. But rarely — at least in the past two decades — have area synagogues, religious leaders and organizations mobilized on the issue as they have since the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Addressing hundreds of gun control advocates at a Jan. 23 rally in Harrisburg, Rabbi David Straus, religious leader of Main Line Reform Temple and president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, called gun violence the “moral issue of our time.”
The failure of Congress and state legislatures to take on the issue, he said, should elicit “sustained moral outrage.”
Straus was among a number of Philadelphia-area rabbis and other Jews — many sporting kipot — who made up a sizable portion of the crowd of about 400 at the rally to push for new gun control legislation. JCRC cosponsored the rally along with CeaseFirePa and Heeding God’s Call. The latter two groups are geared solely to enacting what they deem to be sensible gun laws.
The rally was the most visible, but not the only step Jewish leaders and congregations have taken on the issue in recent weeks. The intensified activism among local Jews comes as the issue has gained traction nationally. President Barack Obama, fast-tracking the issue toward the top of his agenda, unveiled a sweeping set of gun control measures earlier this month. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed an assault-weapons ban in Congress last week.
At an interfaith Martin Luther King Day celebration on Jan. 20, Rabbi Greg Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen joined other clergy at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House, calling for stricter gun laws.
“There is profound despair that the slaughter just continues in this country. I think people are worried about the future and what we are seeing is that we are losing our present,” said Marx. “I do support the right to bear arms in this country, but I think that high capacity magazines are ridiculous.”
And on Feb. 3, Congregation Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia is planning a program called “Addressing Gun Violence in Philadelphia: A Conversation & Exploration” that will feature a representative from Mayor Michael Nutter’s office.
The gun control issue has long been stalled nationally. But it rose to the top of the political agenda after the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to officials, Adam Lanza killed his mother before heading to the school and fatally shooting 20 first graders and six teachers and administrators.
Obama’s executive and legislative agenda on guns already has Congress bracing for a fight. Obama has called on Congress to reinstate an assault-weapons ban, institute background checks in all gun purchases and pass legislation that would limit the size of ammunition clips.
Already this year, New York State adopted a new ban on semi-automatic weapons, a move that enjoyed bipartisan support.
Pennsylvania, which has no shortage of gun enthusiasts, has always been considered a tough state in which to pass any gun control legislation.
Shira Goodman, the director of CeaseFirePA who also sits on the board that oversees the Jewish Exponent, said that, in the aftermath of Newtown, state and national lawmakers will be forced to address gun control measures.
But she warned that getting anything significant passed, especially in a state like Pennsylvania with its strong gun culture, “is going to be a tough fight.”
Among the measures rally organizers called for in Harrisburg: background checks on all guns or ammunition bought in the state; a requirement that gun owners report stolen or missing guns; a requirement that Pennsylvania send relevant data to the National Criminal Background Check; and the elimination of a loophole that lets people from other states carry a concealed weapon when it is not permissible here.
Several proposals along these lines have already been introduced in the General Assembly, but none is expected to gain traction immediately. Democrats have been talking about the need to woo suburban moderate Republicans on the issue. One Montgomery County Republican, Stuart Greenleaf, has introduced a resolution calling for the creation of a task force on gun violence. It has passed out of committee but not the full Senate.
Showing how stiff the opposition can be, State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who represents a rural area outside Pittsburgh, announced on the day of the rally a bill he’d introduced that would bar Pennsylvania from enforcing any new federal gun laws. Opponents of the bill say it’s unconstitutional and that state law cannot override a federal statute.
State Rep. Mark Cohen, who represents Northeast Philadelphia and is a longtime gun control advocate, said the rally represented a good show of support, but it wasn’t a game changer.
“You have to be able to counteract the gun culture in rural Pennsylvania,” Cohen said, adding that urban lawmakers have always been willing to introduce measures, but they are constantly outvoted by suburban and rural colleagues.
Cohen added that it will take much larger rallies and a sustained political effort costing millions of dollars to turn the tide. “This is a long, hard battle which has been going on for decades and, barring a massive infusion of resources, will continue to go on.”
Before the Harrisburg rally began, about 150 gun enthusiasts demonstrated outside in frigid temperatures, many carrying weapons. A number of these demonstrators, after checking their firearms with capital police, went inside to attend the opposing rally. One man displayed a sign that read: “I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.”
The rally proceeded mostly without incident. But several people yelled out, “Liar,” when State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Jewish lawmaker from Montgomery County, told the crowd that gun control advocates do not want to disarm gun enthusiasts.
Leach said the idea that the Second Amendment prohibits sensible gun legislation is a myth. Just like First Amendment rights can be restricted — for instance, not being allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded theater — so can the right to bear arms face reasonable restrictions, he said.
“Every right has an exception,” he said.
After the rally, some demonstrators visited the offices of representatives and senators while members of Heeding God’s Call staged a prayer vigil for victims of gun violence. Rabbi David Ackerman of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley read Psalm 23 in Hebrew and English, his voice echoing throughout the cavernous plaza.
Demonstrator Avivah Pinski, whose law office is in Bryn Mawr, said that her cousin’s 7-year-old grandson was in Sandy Hook Elementary School when the shootings occurred but he had escaped physically unharmed.
But, she explained, her real motivation on the issue stemmed from the way in which gun violence has ravaged lives and communities in Philadelphia.
“We have violence in our streets and we have illegal shootings all the time and have children getting hit by bullets,” said Pinski.
Rabbi Kenneth Carr of Or Ami, a Reform synagogue in Lafayette Hill, said he felt a religious obligation to be at the rally. He was particularly interested in lobbying for additional background checks and banning the use of assault weapons.
“We’ve seen too much of this. We’ve seen too many tragedies,” said Carr. “Every time people talk about it and cry about it and forget about it. I think it’s time for us to do something about it.”