Join the URJ's Campaign
to End Gun Violence
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, URJ President, on Gun Control
Resolution on Gun Control
Swords into Plowshares:
How You Can Join the URJ's Campaign
to End Gun Violence
Excerpts from Rabbi Eric Yoffie's
at the 65th URJ Biennial
December 18, 1999
My third proposal is aimed at the broader society in which we live. Because not only parents and communities raise children; societies also raise children. In some instances, we know, public policy has a profound impact on the welfare of children and families.
Every advanced country in the world faces the problems that we face. Their children also access the Net, and because of America's cultural dominance, they see the same movies and play the same video games. They are as confused as our kids, and have the same violent fantasies. Why is it, then, that 12 American children die every single day from gunfire — a Columbine massacre every single day! — while the comparable rate in the rest of the developed world is a tiny fraction of that number?
We all know the answer: Others have strict gun-control laws, and America does not. And gun-control works, as Canada's experience has surely demonstrated.
Periodically, a people must decide what it stands for, and what it will tolerate. Surely now is such a time. Now is the time to assemble a critical mass of citizens who will stand up and say no to the deadly toll that guns take on the lives of our children.
I will not rehearse the arguments for gun control; they have already been endorsed by this Assembly. What we need now is not more rhetoric, but a different attitude and a different course of action by all who believe that our children need books and not guns.
Let's begin by simply telling the truth.
There exists in the United States a powerful lobby that supports the right of any crook or any wife beater to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked. It is, in effect, the criminals' lobby, and it goes by the name of the National Rifle Association. Our only hope to save children's lives is a take-no-prisoners, give-no-quarter campaign against the NRA.
There also exists a spineless Congress that for thirty years has disregarded the will of 80 percent of the American people. The pattern is always the same: after high profile killings, there is a blip of outrage from Capitol Hill and the passage of some minor gun restrictions. In the meantime, children continue to die unnoticed every day, and the gun traffickers soon learn to circumvent the new laws. What we need now is an end to tokenism and abject cowardice in Congress, and the passage of legislation that will make a significant dent in the easy availability of firearms.
And what is our task as Reform Jews?
First and foremost, we need to see the control of guns not as a political problem but as a solemn religious obligation. Our gun-flooded society has turned weapons into idols, and the worship of idols must be recognized for what it is-blasphemy. The only appropriate religious response to idolatry is sustained moral outrage. Second, we need to recognize that the next nine months is a critical test period for gun control. During that time, a series of bills will come before Congress. If the horror generated by the recent rash of shootings is not enough to open the eyes of our elected leaders, it is likely that gun control will be consigned to the dust heap for a generation.
But please, no self-righteousness. The NRA records victory after victory because it raises money, writes letters, makes phone calls. How many of us have made a single phone call or sent a single telegram? Let's admit it: we have been outmaneuvered, out-hustled, and out-organized on this issue. In the months ahead, our only hope is to match them every step of the way-match their resources, match their organization, match their passion.
What we need to do is go on the moral offensive, and send the message to our legislators that we care deeply about this issue and we will hold them accountable.
What we need to do is organize in every Reform congregation, and have our members in the tens of thousands send personally written letters to their Senators and Representatives, expressing their support for gun control.
What we need to do is have each of our synagogues extend a personal invitation to their elected officials to appear at the congregation and explain their position on this issue.
To assist us, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has prepared a legislative action guide that summarizes all the key bills and provides contact information and "talking points" for members of Congress.
We also need to involve ourselves in anti-violence coalitions in our local communities. Such coalitions press for local gun control laws and help make our communities whole. Still, we know that without federal legislation, guns will simply be acquired in the states of least resistance. The only way to stop the boomerang of bullets that is killing our children is with national gun control.
I know how daunting all of this must seem. But remember: the tobacco lobbyists once seemed invincible and look what happened to them. I for one am filled with a fresh spirit of hope. The American people, I believe, have been aroused by this ongoing, senseless slaughter, and by ineffective laws that allow a child to be killed every two hours. Our task, then, is to lift the nation's sights and challenge the nation's conscience. Our task is to heed the Biblical injunction that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.
Swords into Plowshares:
How You Can Join the URJ's Campaign
to End Gun Violence
A publiclation of
the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
(Read Swords into Plowshares below in text format,
or download it in PDF format.)
Consider these recent statistics provided by Handgun Control, Inc.:
- Each year over 35,000 Americans are killed with handguns, assault weapons, and long guns.
- Firearms are used in about 70 percent of all U.S. homicides.
- Each year since 1989, 3.5 million new guns have been introduced to the U.S. market, either through manufacture or import.
- Only one-third of the guns in the United States are handguns, but they account for two-thirds of all firearms crimes.
- Fourteen children are fatally shot every day — a rate 15 times greater than that of 25 other industrialized nations combined.
- According to the National Rifle Association, 60 million to 65 million Americans own 200 million guns, or about three per owner.
- The National School Boards Association estimates that more than 135,000 guns are brought into U.S. schools each day.
- In 1998, Canada passed the Firearms Act, requiring licensing and registration of all firearms, safe storage, and a ban on many non-sport-related guns. It should serve as a model for U.S. legislation.
The number and severity of violent shootings in recent years can only be described as an epidemic. The unprecedented carnage in our schools, our community centers, and our neighborhoods demands action.
Loopholes in our nation's laws restricting gun purchases and ownership account for the high numbers of guns falling into the wrong hands and contribute to many gun violence tragedies. For example, four of the guns used in the Columbine school shootings passed through the hands of unlicensed dealers at gun shows. Felons buying or selling firearms were involved in more than 46% of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) investigations involving gun shows. In 1/3 of these cases, the weapons in question had been involved in assaults, robberies, homicides, and other crimes.
Despite the epidemic of gun violence, Congress has failed to act on gun control. Major gun control legislation has not passed since 1994, when the Brady Act mandated a five-day waiting period on most handgun purchases and, despite the recent series of horrific shootings, Congress has refused to act. Gun control advocates have proposed a number of measures to restrict easy access to guns.
The Gun Show Loophole and Large Capacity Magazines
Although gun control advocates have proposed a number of bills that would be effective, political realities have led them to focus their efforts on two key provisions for effective gun control — closing the gun show loophole and banning the importation of high-capacity magazines. The gun show loophole allows individuals (as opposed to federally licensed dealers) to sell guns from their "private collections" at gun shows without background checks for purchasers.
Background checks are necessary to ensure that people with criminal records or those suffering mental illnesses are not allowed to obtain a gun. They also provide a "cooling down period" for the person desiring a gun, so that a person will be less likely to commit a crime in the heat of the moment. Earlier this year, the Senate added legislation closing the gun show loophole, sponsored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), to the Juvenile Justice bill making its way through Congress. The amendment narrowly passed by a vote of 51-50, with Vice-President Al Gore breaking the tie. The House did not pass such a provision. A loophole in the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban, which banned domestic production of high capacity clips (greater than ten rounds), allows the importation of high-capacity magazines made before the date of enactment. Foreign companies have exploited the loophole by dumping large clips they claim are "pre-ban." This type of ammunition is dangerous not only because such products are made specifically to harm individuals and are not necessary in a peaceful society, but also because gun manufacturers are evading the law passed in 1994. The import ban passed the Senate as an amendment to the Juvenile Justice bill. Again it was rejected in the House.
Efforts to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate Juvenile Justice bills in a Conference Committee have stalled. While gun control groups continue to urge the committee to produce a conference report which includes the Senate language, many in Washington are pessimistic about the bill's prospects of ever leaving the Conference Committee.
Carry Concealed Weapons
In the early 1990s, Congress drew significant restrictions on the carrying of concealed weapons (CCW). But the gun lobby continues efforts to make it easier for individuals to do so, thus far unsuccessfully on the national level, although many states have such laws. Bills continue to surface like that introduced last year by Representative Bill McCollum (R-FL) which would have allowed any private citizen with a CCW license permit from his or her home state to carry a concealed weapon in other states, even if that state does not permit CCW.
The Brady Act
The Brady Act was passed in November 1993 and was enacted in 1994. It mandated a waiting period of five working days for a person wanting to purchase a gun. This bill significantly reduces the number of impulse crimes and prevents "straw purchases," when a criminal has another individual buy a gun for him or her. The bill also imposed a mandatory background check of the purchaser during that five-day period. Unfortunately, on June 27, 1996, the Supreme Court found that mandatory background checks were unconstitutional, and ruled that Congress exceeded its authority by requiring local law enforcement to conduct such checks. As a result of that ruling, law enforcement authorities no longer are required to conduct a check, although they now have the option of conducting such checks, and the President is encouraging them to do so.
The Brady law expired in November 1998. Instead of a five-day wait-ing period (the time that is currently used to conduct a background check), the dealer is now able to conduct an instant check on the computer. All federal police records are now online and serve as the basis for allowing or denying a person to purchase a gun. This plan is not very effective though. The computer may list that a prospective purchaser was brought up on charges but it may not provide the outcome of the case. The computer records will also not include local police records. The gun control community is asking for a mandatory three to five-day waiting period regardless of the computer system. They tried to get this attached to the Juvenile Justice bill, but failed.
Since the Brady Bill went into effect, background checks have stopped 240,000 felons and other prohibited persons from buying handguns.
STATE LEVEL ACTION
State Handgun Permits
Twelve states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina) require a permit to purchase a handgun, issued only after a state-based background check. This ensures that at the time of handgun purchase, a thorough background check has already been performed. This check is in addition to the background check that occurs at the actual time of purchase. Four of these states, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey require a permit for long guns as well.
State Waiting Periods
Some states have set mandatory waiting periods on gun purchases. For example, California requires a 10-day waiting period for any handgun purchase from a licensed dealer. Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri and Rhode Island, each have 7-day waiting periods. Eight states currently require waiting periods for handgun purchases and many of those mentioned above require waiting periods for the acquisition of gun permits.
LOCAL ANTI-VIOLENCE EFFORTS
The synagogue provides the ideal infrastructure for activating our community's power and social passion on anti-violence issues. Working with interfaith and community institutions, we can, and in some places have, had a tremendous impact in the anti-violence movement. For example, congregations in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area have the opportunity to get involved in the Initiative for Violence-Free Families and Communities in Ramsey County. This community collaboration targets its efforts through ten "Action Teams" organized through workplaces, religious institutions, schools, and communities. For more information contact the Initiative at (651) 266-8020.
Several years ago in Boston, a group of synagogue social action committees joined the Citizens for Handgun Control in funding a part-time staff-person to work on anti-violence legislation.
Synagogues have complimented community-wide and interfaith activism with efforts aimed at preventing violence within their own synagogue-communities. Congregations can develop and utilize existing programs to teach students in our religious schools about violence and appropriate responses to violence, based on our values and traditions. One example of these curricula was developed this summer by The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. To receive a copy call (216) 371-0446. For more ideas on what your congregation can do, see the 'Six Steps Toward Controlling Guns' or contact the RAC.
JEWISH VALUES, URJ RESOLUTIONS
Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity and primary value of human life. The Bible commands us "Thou shalt not murder." The Talmud teaches us that "he who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and he who saves one life it is as though he has saved the universe." In an increasingly impersonal andalienating society, the dehumanizing of the human being and the carelessness with which human life is taken stand in direct violation of these affirmations of our tradition.
Scripture encourages peaceful pursuit of our mutual welfare. Isaiah exhorts the people of the earth "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks" (Isaiah 2:4). We are commanded to turn weapons of destruction into tools for the greater good of society. The following text from Bereshit Rabbah (21:13) further emphasizes the land free of weapons, "The Rabbis, commenting on the words: 'He placed at the East of the Garden of Eden the Cherubim and the flamingsword' say: 'At the East of the Garden of Eden at the very spot where the Cherubim stood with the flaming sword, Gehenna (the opposite of paradise) was created.'"
The URJ has long recognized the need for legislation "that would limit and control the sale and use of fire-arms" and has called on the United States government to "eliminate the manufacture, importation, advertising, sale, transfer and possession of handguns except for limited instances" (URJ 1975). The URJ takes a stand on a myriad of issues, but the Union has spoken out on gun control with particular passion, insisting that gun regulation is "a vital necessity."
Our Jewish tradition demands that we continue to act for prudent gun regulation. By speaking to our children about guns, by mobilizing our congregations around the persistent threat of gun violence, and by doggedly demanding that Congress follow the will of the public rather than pursue gun lobby dollars, we may well see a reversal in the tide of gun violence. But unless we speak out, all that remains is the silence of victims punctuated by gun blasts.
6 STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TO CONTROL GUNS AND REDUCE VIOLENCE
1) Work with your elected officials. Invite your elected officials to your synagogue to explain their positions on gun-control issues. Make sure that officials have ample time to express their views and that congregants and guests have an opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences. Invite people from outside your congregation to make it a community event. Share your views with your elected officials. We must be on call to visit, write, phone, e-mail or fax our political representatives as issues arise. Personal stories and hand-written letters are the most effective tools in reaching your elected officials. To easily reach your Members of Congress by phone, call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. The White House can be reached at (202) 456-1414. In addition, you can use the RAC's online Legislative Action Center to identify and send e-mail messages to your congressional representatives. The RAC website also has protocols and suggestions for writing, calling, and visiting your Members of Congress.
2) Join a local anti-violence coalition. Get involved in community or interfaith initiatives and learn from successful programs. For information on anti-violence programs in your area, contact the Partnerships Against Violence Network at http://www.pavnet.org or the National Crime Prevention Council at http://www.ncpc.org or (202) 466-6272.
3) Organize events. Public forums, hearings, protests, and press conferences increase awareness of the need for gun control legislation and energize others to become active on gun control. You can also help by participating in events organized by others. Mother's Day 2000 (May 14) will be the occasion of the Million Mom March, a demonstration in Washington, DC to show national grass-roots support for common-sense gun control measures. For more information, or to get involved in planning the Million Mom March, visit the Million Mom March website.
4) Join a petition drive for gun control legislation. Petition drives are simple, easy to organize, and can have an impact on elected officials' perceptions of public opinion. Currently, the American Jewish Congress is organizing a massive "Stop the Guns: Protect Our Kids" petition drive in favor of gun control legislation. Petitions are available by calling (212) 879-4500, or at http://www.ajcongress.org. Sign on today.
5) Make your home safe from guns. In addition to removing guns from your home, speak to your children about guns. Make sure they know that if they come across a gun, to assume that the gun is real and to get an adult. Ensure that your children play in a gun-free environment — including finding out if your children's friends have guns in their homes.
6) Organize a gun turn-in/buy-back program with your local police station. As a religious school program, have young children turn in their toy guns for books and other non-violent playthings.
For further information on gun control issues and Reform Judaism, consult the Religious Action Center: 202/387-2800; http://www.rac.org
Visit the RAC's Issues in Focus page on Gun Control
Other gun-control resources:
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence:
A leading gun control organization; current and thorough website with news, statistics, and ratings of your elected representatives on gun control issues.
Handgun Control, Inc.:
Chaired by Sarah Brady; up-to-date website with information about gun control efforts on the national and state levels.
Hands Without Guns:
A grass-roots gun-control organization "created for use by youth programs, schools, and community-based organizations."
Violence Policy Center:
Leading think-tank on guns, gun manufacturing, gun control legislation, gun litigation, & more.
Firearms Litigation Clearinghouse:
Detailed information on gun litigation, including seminars for potential plaintiffs and attorneys in anti-gun lawsuits.
"Swords into Plowshares: How You Can Join the URJ's Campaign to End Gun Violence" written and produced by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director; Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director; Rabbi Marc Israel, Director of Congregational Relations. For more information regarding gun control legislation or for more copies of this publication, visit the RAC website at http://www.rac.org, or call 202.387.2800.