Shootings Prompt Gun Control Debate Among U.S. Jews

Both sides use the recent attacks as evidence that their stance is the right one

Yet another mass shooting in the United States has turned the spotlight onto gun control there. And Jewish groups, both left and right, have had their say on the issue in recent days.

Rabbi Judah Freeman from "Jews for the Preservation of Firearms ownership" points out that while the sight of firearms in Israel is by no means unusual, there is a lower murder rate in Israel than in the States. "Why is that? Do guns cause crimes? If so, all those civilian handguns in Israel must be defective," he says sarcastically.

To set the record straight: The law regulating civilian weapons possession in Israel is much stricter than the U.S. law. There is no constitutional amendment preserving right to bear arms. Well, there is no constitution either. What we did have was a special commission that was set up in the 90s that determined that an Israeli civilian must present authorities with a good reason, if he wants to carry a gun. Under the law, he must make his argument every three years, in order to have his license renewed.

Who can carry in Israel?

Retired law enforcement officer or army officers may carry a handgun. Firemen, paramedics need a reference from top officials in the relevant departments in order to own a gun. Full-time jewelry dealers can obtain a license for one handgun, as can a driver that frequently transports explosives. The same goes for residents of the areas facing security challenges (such as the West Bank settlements ). Both licensed and amateur hunters can get a permit for one rifle (with references from relevant sports organizations ), as can animal control officers. Licenses are almost always for one weapon only, and semi-automatic weapons are off-limits for most civilians.

According to a report on firearms ownership submitted to a Knesset commission, in 2010 there were 181,050 licensed weapons in civilians' hands in 2010; most of those weapons were handguns. A citizen's request to purchase a gun must be approved by the Interior and Health Ministries, as well as the police. Training is required, and the gun owner must live in Israel for three consecutive years. He must also speak at least basic Hebrew and must submit various documents that support his request for a weapon.

A different story stateside

In the United States, according to the estimates, 314 million people hold about 270 million guns (obviously, many gun owners have more than one weapon ). More than 80 percent of the worst mass shootings were performed with legally purchased weapons.

Rabbi Freeman thinks it's folly for American Jews to turn synagogues into arms-free zones. He's also not surprised by reports that the number of requests for weapons licenses in Colorado jumped after the rampage in an Aurora cinema theater last month.

"If you were in the theater, would you have wanted a gun with you to protect yourself? Or would you rather cower and hide?" he asks. "By the time police arrived, the shooter was getting into his car. He stopped shooting because he decided he had committed enough evil, not because the police were there.

"By the way, the theater was a supposed 'gun-free zone' - it has a 'no firearms' policy. You have to be insane to think such a policy could make you safer. Do you think that the murderer is going to choose a different location because of your 'no guns' policy? It's a victim-disarmament zone.

He says that the police cannot always be there to protect us. "Responsible citizens are prepared and are preparing for catastrophic situations. Just like we learn to swim, wear our seatbelts, buy fire extinguishers, and save for retirement, it makes sense to always carry your handgun."

For Rabbi Freeman, there is no sense in reinstating the ban on assault weapons in the U.S. President Obama supports the ban, which expired in 2004, but the White House said this week that it will not happen without congressional support.

"During the ten-year assault rifle ban, there was no significant change in any crime statistics whatsoever that could be attributed to the ban," Freeman notes. "There is such a ban in New York City; does it help? New Jersey too. According to the FBI, more people were killed by violent beatings in the United States last year then by so-called assault rifles. Should we ban fists? Hands?"

This week, many Jewish organizations condemned the white supremacist shooting at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb, and expressed solidarity with the Sikh community. Some of them have explicit position on gun control, some do not.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has no official position on gun control. But the Orthodox Union supports "common sense gun regulation, including the banning of certain sophisticated attack weapons, and continues to support meaningful gun control measures."

'Americans don't care enough'

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director and chief legal counsel for the Union for Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center, is upset that two more mass shootings seem to be largely ignored by the lawmakers.

"A significant majority of Americans want stronger gun control laws, but they don't care enough about it to vote on that issue, to donate to that issue, to protest on this issue, to write letters to the newspapers," he says. "Of those people who feel so strongly that they are willing to write letters, give money, organize, protest on this - 90 percent are members of the National Rifle Association, or staunch opponents of any gun control. So for congressmen, there is nothing to gain politically ... Today you can't even get [an assault weapons ban] up for a vote. This is a tragedy, and every day innocent people die in the streets and at homes in America because our politicians don't have courage to stand up and pass sensible gun control laws."

Saperstein acknowledges that Obama has been more vocal about gun control since the recent shootings, but he says the best time to pass this type of legislation "is after the elections, in the lame duck session, or in the first months of a new Congress or presidency, when there will be enough other votes to alter the memory of this divisive issue."

He also says there is a need to strengthen existing laws. "Think about mass murders: It's not just guns, it's semi-automatic weapons, that can spew out huge number of rounds in a single firing. These are not guns for shooting rabbits, these are guns meant to harm other people. People kill people. And what about suicides and accidental deaths?

"More children are killed here in one year than the total number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan put together. That's an extraordinarily alarming statistic, and American Jews are overwhelmingly in favor of gun control."

I remind Saperstein that some gun proponents have cited the Holocaust and the need to protect oneself as an example of why the right to bear weapons is justified. He dismisses that argument.

"The notion that the Jewish community would have fared much better if they had weapons to protect themselves ... it's a very problematic historical argument to make. These were not democratic countries where Jews were living under a rule of law, and Jews weren't offered the full protection of the law like in most democracies, particularly the United States. To think that Jews, 2 percent of the population, would fare better if the rest of the country is also armed should some trouble arise ... is really nonsensical."

However, he is careful to note the difference between Jewish support for gun control and American Jews' occasional fascination with images of the perfectly-armed Israeli soldiers.

"I would imagine over 90 percent of U.S. Jews support gun control legislation, but every one of those people support Israel having a strong military capability ... What a nation does and what individuals do are very different things."

Saperstein has no doubts that it's only a matter of time before the next shooting in the United States. "It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are deranged individuals, and then they begin to mimic and copy each other, and small hate groups that want to target other groups."

He says the Religious Action Center is working hard to bring together religious and civic leaders from every stream in order to fight for gun control laws and against hate crimes, which he says are "against the idea of America ... Nothing threatens [a pluralistic society] more than the idea of each religious group being at each other's throat."

After the Colorado shooting, I requested an interview with the NRA. The association said it was not granting interviews, and sent a statement: "We believe that now is the time for families to grieve and for the community to heal. There will be an appropriate time, down the road, to engage in political and policy discussions."

Following the Sikh temple shooting, I didn't bother with a request. I assume they are still giving the community "time to heal." With all these shootings, America might just never have the opportunity to debate this, in between the periods of mourning.