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After Vegas, groups press on with gun legislation
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After Vegas, groups press on with gun legislation

Reforms may be a long shot in current political environment

A makeshift memorial at the site of the mass killing in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Getty Images
A makeshift memorial at the site of the mass killing in Las Vegas at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. Getty Images

After 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire from his Las Vegas hotel room, Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield was struck by the bitter irony that the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history came one day after Yom Kippur, when God seals judgment on who will live and die in the coming year. 

“Just having finished Yom Kippur, this terrible event was too much to ignore,” he said. “It was having the theme of Yom Kippur so deeply ingrained in me and all of us in the Jewish faith, and seeing the terrible event occur brought to mind the liturgy and poetry of the High Holy Days.”

Within hours he wrote a poem about the connection between the mass slaughter and the High Holy Days, a take-off of the famous Unetaneh Tokef prayer commonly read on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur:

Unetaneh Tokef for America

Today it is written, today it is sealed in the
  United States of America-

Who shall die, and who shall be injured

who shall be scarred for life, and who shall be left disabled;

who by full automatic fire, and who by semi auto;

who by AR, and who by AK;

who by pistol and who by revolver;

who by Ruger, and who by Smith and Wesson;

who by Sig Sauer, and who by Colt;

who by Kimber, and who by Springfield Armory;

Who by CZ, and who by Beretta;

Who by HK, and who by Glock; 

But repentance, prayer and charity, will do absolutely   nothing to avert the
decree, nothing,

for our politicians are too frightened.

“It has become so politicized that people have to put aside their own narrow self-interest and think about the good of the community.”

Still, with 59 people murdered at a country music concert in Las Vegas officials at mainstream Jewish organizations vowed this week to keep up the fight for “sensible” gun legislation.

Representatives of several groups said they would, in fact, increase their efforts, but they remain unsure if their work for bills that expand background checks for gun buyers and limit the availability of firearms will pay off — at least in the short run.

And Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, told NJJN on Tuesday that URJ and its Washington-based Religious Action Center are now holding discussions with “some of the most prominent religious leaders in the country … not [only] the usual suspects, the progressives,” to form an ecumenical coalition to lobby in favor of firearms reform. 

Yet, a central question lingers: Is Las Vegas different from Columbine and Virginia Tech and the other shooting sprees that grabbed headlines but did not lead Congress to adopt such legislation?

“We as a country have lacked the will to tackle the epidemic of gun violence in our country,” said Sagal. “If what happened in Sandy Hook and Orlando did not jolt us out, I despair over our inability what should be a nationwide response.”

In this case, the shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, had at least 23 firearms with him at the time of the shooting — at least one used a “bump stock” adapter that allows a semi-automatic weapon to shoot hundreds of times per minute, a rate comparable to the more tightly regulated fully automatic weapon, such as a machine gun, according to the New York Times. All of the firearms, including the bump stock, are legal, The Times reported. 

“We’re realists,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which has lobbied for several years for “sensible” gun control legislation. “How can you be optimistic when you have a Congress that seems to believe that every single person has the right to bear arms?”

Kaufman hailed as “a victory” the announcement on Tuesday by House Speaker Paul Ryan that the SHARE Act, which would have allowed easier access to gun silencers, has been withdrawn from consideration for an imminent vote. She said her organization would monitor future attempts to consider the bill again.

She and spokespeople for several Jewish organizations said they were cautiously optimistic that the public climate has changed in favor of gun control legislation, but that it is too early to determine what new lobbying efforts they would initiate or what the outcomes would be.

“With each horrific event that grips the consciousness of our country and of public officials, [they may] finally wake up to the fact that we need sensible legislation to rein in the shootings,” said Eric Fusfield, B’nai B’rith International director of legislative affairs. “We still have a cause to fight, and we’re going to fight it. We’re going to speak with a loud voice.”

But, he said, “Only time will tell” whether the efforts will be successful. 

“We’re going to be pushing hard” at the local, state and national level, agreed David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which advocates for “serious gun control.”

After the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, in which 26 students and staff members died, when a national consensus in favor of gun control legislation appeared likely, several national Jewish organizations joined the debate. The time has arrived to limit availability of firearms, Jewish leaders argued.

After the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, which took 49 lives, ranking as the then-deadliest mass killing in modern U.S. history, more calls came from Jewish leaders for gun control legislation.

And after the dozens of mass killings across the country in recent years, ditto. 

Within a day of the Las Vegas shooting, Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, said in a statement: “All too many times we have witnessed the tragic dangers guns in the hands of determined killers or domestic extremists present. One way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun violence prevention measures.”

URJ’s Rabbi Jacobs framed the issue in moral, and Jewish, terms. 

“It is an urgent moral question and an urgent Jewish question — a matter of pikuach nefesh [life and death],” he told NJJN. “It’s one of our highest Jewish obligations. It’s irresponsible not to talk about it immediately. This is a public health and safety issue. The Jewish community is overwhelmingly in favor of common-sense gun reform,” including limits on access to firearms and restricting the use of silencers.

Is he optimistic that his efforts will succeed in the wake of this week’s shootings?

“That’s a very tough question,” Rabbi Jacobs said, adding that he senses a shift in public opinion that would support his position.  “I’m hopeful that [the Las Vegas tragedy] passed a new threshold … a tipping point … a cumulative effect. The difference will be that people will [likely] put the requisite pressure on Congress to act.”

Congressional Democrats, frustrated by years of futility on gun safety legislation, called on Republicans leaders on Tuesday to create a special committee to investigate gun violence in America, though they weren’t hopeful. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-L.I.), the only Jewish Republican in the House, issued a statement that extended his “deepest sympathies” but made no mention of legislation. 

Political lobbying in the wake of an emotionally charged event like the Las Vegas shootings is a bad idea, columnist Ben Shapiro wrote this week in the Jewish Press, which serves a mostly Orthodox readership.

“Making policy on the heels of horror is rarely wise,” Shapiro wrote. “Good policy is good regardless of timing; bad policy is bad regardless of timing. But when something horrific occurs, it’s in the interest of those pushing a related policy to suggest that those who oppose the policy somehow don’t care enough about victims. We heard this from gun control advocates after Sandy Hook, after Pulse, after Virginia Tech, after Columbine — after every mass shooting. Passion doesn’t make policy good or worthwhile.”

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