Using a new tactic in the fight to reduce gun violence, a team of clergy and lay leaders — including two New Jersey rabbis — are reaching out to gun manufacturers and the police departments that are their customers.
They are urging municipalities to insist that gun makers add safety features to the weapons they sell legally to police departments.
“We would like to see some kind of user recognition, so that if a gun gets taken from a cop, no one else can use it, or if a parent’s gun gets left out accidentally, a kid can’t use it,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair. “That technology is out there.”
Tepperman is enlisting other local religious leaders to join an organization called NJ Together Against Gun Violence. “Our basic campaign is to ask for a new relationship between the public gun buyers and the gun manufacturers,” he said.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (see sidebar) and New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio have supported such efforts. Fulop has announced that weapons manufacturers who sell guns to his city will be quizzed on their safety policies.
“We are trying to move the conversation in a different direction,” Tepperman explained. “We are not willing to stand idly by when Congress is not willing to move forward. We want a values-based, ethics-based discussion with the manufacturers of these guns.”
On Dec. 11, Tepperman was one of eight Christian and Jewish leaders who visited the Madison Avenue boutique where the Italian-owned Beretta company sells firearms and accessories. Beretta, along with Austrian-owned Glock and German-owned Sig-Sauer, are said to be the principal suppliers of handguns to American police departments.
Joining him were representatives of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck and, from New York, Saint Paul’s Community Baptist Church in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, and Saint Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Yonkers and an organizer from the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.
(A parallel group of clergy — including Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah — attempted to make similar requests in visits to the three companies’ corporate headquarters in Europe.
“The gun executives refused to meet and did not respond to media inquiries,” said a press release they issued on Dec. 15. “We will be back,” pledged the Rev. David Brawley of Saint Paul’s Community Baptist Church, who traveled to Europe along with Mosbacher.)
In Manhattan, the advocates spoke with the senior manager at the Beretta shop, hand-delivering a letter for senior management outlining their proposals.
The rabbi described the manager as “extraordinarily polite. He assured us he would be happy to deliver the message, but he did not seem especially interested. He is the manager of a store that sells some expensive hunting rifles, but mostly what it sells are sweaters and hunting paraphernalia to the Upper East Side New Yorker crowd. We don’t have a beef with him.”
In a Dec. 12 phone interview — the one-year anniversary of the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn. — Tepperman said he has been especially concerned with gun violence for the past year. “I have been personally moved by how many people are affected,” he said.
Among them have been the caretaker at Bnai Keshet, Deborah Hall, who lost two sons to gunshot wounds, and the synagogue’s director of operations, Stuart Brown, whose brother was shot to death in a mugging. “Once you start to have the conversation, you learn that many people have been touched by gun violence. It completely transcends borders,” Tepperman said.
The NRA did not respond to NJJN’s requests for an interview. But board member Scott Bach, appearing on an NRA-sponsored webcast on Dec. 11, called for gun manufacturers to boycott Jersey City. He said Fulop “should not be politicizing the process of procuring arms” for law enforcement agencies, he said.
Tepperman calls his effort an ethical and religious calling.
“At the simplest level, we are obligated to preserve life and protect the sanctity of life. It is at the very core of what it means to be Jewish,” he said. “When there is an opportunity to make changes in the way guns are sold and the way guns are available, we are 100 percent commanded to take action.”