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Heed the Call

Rabbi Yitzhak Nates and four other religious activists walked into a Philadelphia gun shop in January, and told the owner they wouldn’t leave until he signed a code of conduct intended to reduce “straw purchases” — the sale of numerous firearms to a single buyer, an indirect way too many guns get into the hands of violent criminals.

The owner of Colosimo’s Gun Center refused, police were called, Nates and the others were arrested and spent the next 12 hours in jail. Eventually, the charges against the protesters were dropped. Even more amazingly, the act of civil disobedience drew a sweet reward.

Just after the U.S. Attorney’s office announced in late September that it was lodging its own charges against the gun shop owner, he said he would close his store. Heeding God’s Call, the clergy-led activist group, rejoiced.

By itself, the hard task of nonviolent protest cannot stop the unconscionable epidemic of gun violence across America, but it’s an excellent place to start. Much of the best work on this issue happens at the local level, where the iron grip of the gun lobby is more easily challenged by the deep passions of those who have seen the toll that our national love affair with guns has taken, especially on young people.

Some of the leaders of Heeding God’s Call live in the neighborhoods where guns rule, and gun shops too often are not held accountable for their roles in enabling this alternative, and terrifying, form of governance. The federal charges against Colosimo’s, for example, included several sales of more than 10 firearms to single buyers. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence considered Colosimo’s to be America’s fifth-worst gun dealer.

But some of the clergy-activists — Nates, for example — live in the quieter suburbs where violence is not routine. That’s where many Jews live, too. Our challenge is to make common cause with those less fortunate, in the same way that our concern for other issues of social justice often requires more empathy than direct identification.

The civil action against the Colosimo’s of the country must go hand-in-hand with relentless attempts to change the laws that allow these enterprises to flourish. To its credit, Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council worked with an interfaith coalition for passage of a state bill limiting the number of handguns that could be sold in a given month. But those faith leaders were no match for Pennsylvania’s powerful gun lobby, and the bill went down to defeat.

So now the JCRC and others are encouraging local communities to enact their own laws, and that is happening across Pennsylvania, from Allentown to Erie. While many national Jewish organizations are in the thick of lobbying for necessary reforms in Congress, the incremental steps taken on a local level have a different sort of power.

“We believe that until those in suburban areas recognize the urgency of this issue, which knows no racial, ethnic or geographic boundaries, it will be viewed narrowly as a ‘big city’ problem and ignored in the state legislature,” said Marc Zucker, the JCRC’s chair.

Nates hopes that his group’s civil disobedience — “very specific, very reasonable” — will catch on, as it should. “We’re trying to reduce guns going to the wrong people,” he said. “It’s a step in the direction of peace.”

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