In the year since 20 school children and six adults were murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., the organized Jewish community has been frustrated by the inability of a paralyzed Congress to agree on new gun control regulation.
Two rabbis, however, not willing to take no for an answer, have been seeking creative ways of dealing with gun violence. Both have a deep personal attachment to the issue. And both are working on different ways to bypass federal legislation. Together they are seeking to create a national understanding about gun safety, one that will not require Washington’s stamp of approval.
“We’re trying to take a ‘world as it is’ approach,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom synagogue, in Mahwah, N.J. Instead of waiting for politicians to approve tougher laws that would ban or limit gun sales, he has decided to go directly after the gun manufacturers, marshaling the power of consumers. “What I’m hearing from clergy all around is that we are all tired of performing funerals of gun victims and tired of bringing comfort to those in grief. We need to do something.”
Mosbacher knows all about this type of grief. Fifteen years ago he lost his father to gun violence. But it was the Newtown shooting that led him to take action and become one of the driving forces in a movement working to change the way guns are made and sold. “Even though I have a personal story, I needed this to start taking action,” he said. “Perhaps for the first time since my dad has been killed, I feel optimistic about bringing change.”
The December 14, 2012, shooting at the Connecticut elementary school also changed the life of Rabbi Shaul Praver of Newtown’s Congregation Adat Israel. “I took an oath to bring about a change in this culture,” said the rabbi, who stood by the family of 6-year old Noah Pozner in the days following his murder. “I’m prepared to spend the balance of my life fighting for this.”
The Newtown shooting ignited a wave of activism in the organized Jewish community, placing Jewish communal groups at the forefront of the battle for legislation that would limit the types of guns and ammunition sold to the public and mandate background checks of all gun buyers. Some in the Jewish community became the public faces of this battle, including Noah’s mother, Veronique Pozner, and former congresswoman and gun violence victim Gabrielle Giffords. After last May’s defeat of a modest background check measure in the Senate, Jewish organizations continued their work on the issue and focused on grassroots attempts to reach out to members of Congress in their home districts and convince them to support federal gun control legislation.
Praver believes that the overwhelming support of the Jewish community in broad national gun control measures reflects an “oversimplification” of the gun violence problem. “We need to be seen as reasonable and nonfanatical,” he said. This middle-of-the-road approach has led Praver to meet with gun owners across his state and to reach out to groups nationwide that support gun ownership. In public speeches, articles and an upcoming book, Praver is trying to “be the glue” between opposing groups that, he believes, share the goal of gun safety.
His conclusion is that Washington should be left largely outside the debate and that gun control should be discussed on a state level, respecting the attachment of rural Americans to their weapons, dealing with the connection between guns and drug and gang violence in urban America, and protecting suburban America from shooting sprees and gun suicides. “It will be wrong for a rabbi from Connecticut to tell a person in Alaska not to carry a gun. It is part of the lifestyle there, but not necessarily here,” Praver said.
Mosbacher has also been seeking ways to bypass the Washington political gridlock on gun control. Working through the interfaith network New Jersey Together, he has been trying to build pressure on gun manufacturers to make safer guns and to sell them only through authorized dealers who conduct background checks. The network identified the three major European gun manufacturers that sell most of the weapons to American police departments and to the military, and is now working to convince local mayors to question the manufacturers about safety features and “responsible distribution” of their products before purchasing weapons from them for local police departments. “If police departments and the military tell the gun manufacturers, ‘We want you to produce better weapons,’ I think they will listen. After all, the client is always right,” Mosbacher said.
His group has already registered its first success with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who issued an order that requires gun makers bidding for city contracts to fill out a questionnaire about gun safety. The group is in the process of enlisting smaller municipalities to use their purchasing power to apply pressure on the gun makers. A January 16 meeting at a Montclair, N.J. synagogue will try to do just that. “Shouldn’t the gun manufacturers that make their living off U.S. taxpayers lead their industry in developing safer guns and responsible practices?” a flier inviting community members to the meeting asked.
The potential game changer for Mosbacher and his colleague would be a pledge made by New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, to require all gun suppliers selling weapons to the city’s police force to fill out the gun safety questionnaire. If de Blasio, whose city has the largest police department in America, follows through on the promise that organizers said they had received from him during the campaign, pressure on gun manufacturers will increase substantially.
Gun violence was not at the top of the agenda of Mosbacher’s suburban New Jersey congregation until Newtown. The shooting, he said, “was kind of a wake-up call” to many congregations and communities that had not viewed gun violence as their own problem. It was even a wake-up call for Mosbacher, who lost his father to an armed robbery but for more than a decade did not find an opportunity to make the issue have an impact.
The Sandy Hook shooting also led Mosbacher to tell his 10-year-old son for the first time about the gun violence that took his grandfather’s life. “I think he is deeply proud of the work we are doing on gun safety,” Mosbacher said of his son. “This is something he has in his grief and mourning process that I did not have when I went through the process.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman