In the wake of Orlando, rabbis call for action, not prayer, against gun violence
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'You feel like you take one step forward and then you're assaulted yet again by just an unspeakable horror'

In the wake of Orlando, rabbis call for action, not prayer, against gun violence

A group of 850 US clerics take on the 5-million strong NRA in a coordinated push for broader legislation on gun control

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting is set up close to the nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center in Orlando, Florida, June 15, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting is set up close to the nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center in Orlando, Florida, June 15, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Rabbi Menachem Creditor was about to commence Shavuot morning services at his Berkeley, California synagogue when he was told about the Orlando shooting on June 12. His first reaction, he said, was “rage.”

“You feel like you take one step forward and then you’re assaulted yet again by just an unspeakable horror,” said Creditor, a founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

One of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals, the Shavuot holiday marks the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. In synagogues across the world, Jews disconnect from the Internet (for two days of observance outside of Israel) while reading the Book of Ruth and partaking of celebratory dairy meals.

In a central part of the prayer service, the Ten Commandments are recited as a reenactment of their reading by Moses to the Israelites. Clearly stating “Thou shall not murder,” these central tenets of western Judeo-Christian tradition also declare an injunction against “graven images.”

However, just as the Israelites doubted God and formed the Golden Calf, Creditor railed against “the American proclivity for making an idol of a gun.

‘I’m done composing prayers. We have to vote out of office anyone who votes with the NRA’

“I’m done composing prayers,” said the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in a late Monday night conversation after the end of Shavuot. Instead, he’s gearing up for a battle against the National Rifle Association, a 5 million-member nonprofit organization that advocates for gun rights.

“We have to vote out of office anyone who votes with the NRA,” Creditor said.

A group of supporters/members of Rabbis Against Gun Violence at the June 3, 2016 ‪#‎WearOrange‬ SF Golden Gate Bridge March. (courtesy Rabbis Against Gun Violence)
A group of supporters/members of Rabbis Against Gun Violence at the ‪#‎WearOrange‬ SF Golden Gate Bridge March, June 3, 2016. (Courtesy Rabbis Against Gun Violence)

Since its launch in January, Rabbis Against Gun Violence has grown to 1,100 members, some 850 of whom are American rabbis. Its activism is largely through public awareness efforts, such as the upcoming “Stand Up Shabbat” to mark the Orlando tragedy and a year to the June 17 Charleston church shooting, and a recent #WearOrange campaign.

The grassroots organization partners in a broad-based way with other anti-gun groups to facilitate its end goal: the end of the “gun violence epidemic,” said Creditor.

And now, ahead of the November elections, Creditor said the organization will participate in a coordinated campaign warning candidates that “no seat is safe if they vote along with the NRA.”

Epidemic of gun violence

Typified by the Orlando shooting, for Creditor and other like-minded activists, the “epidemic of gun violence” does not have a simple cure.

“We are still learning more details, but one thing we know is that it is far too easy in our country for dangerous people to obtain guns and use them with deadly results. Such easy access to guns means we are not safe anywhere — not in our nightclubs, places of worship, movie theaters, workplaces or schools — and lives are at stake,” wrote Rabbis Against Gun Violence in a statement.

According to not-for-profit organization Gun Violence Archive, in 2016 alone, the US has seen 23,506 incidents of gun-related violence, of which 6,030 resulted in death and 12,347 in injury. Of these incidents, some 1,000 are accidental. Another 158 are labeled “mass shootings.”

Clusters of 2015 mass shootings on a map of the United States from the Gun Violence Archive non-profit website (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/)
Clusters of 2015 mass shootings on a map of the US from the Gun Violence Archive website (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/)

On its website, Gun Violence Archive states its mission is to report incidents of gun violence “to provide raw, verified data to those who need to use it in their research, advocacy or writing.”

‘We must demand that our lawmakers act and work to keep guns out of dangerous hands’

The data is stark. Labeled “Last 72 Hours,” a tab on the GVA website lists up-to-date incidents of killings and injuries in the innumerable shootings reported across the US that are collected and validated from some 1,500 sources daily.

The pro-gun lobby is headed by the powerful NRA through its Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), established in 1975. According to its website, the institute “employs a staff of more than 80, with a team of full-time lobbyists defending Second Amendment issues on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures and in local government bodies.”

For Rabbis Against Gun Violence and other anti-gun activist groups, the NRA’s “over-influence” in Washington, DC, is a first target on the way to eliminating the senseless killing of some 90 Americans a day. “We must demand that our lawmakers act and work to keep guns out of dangerous hands,” said the organization.

Putting their mouth where the NRA’s money is?

In an ongoing project called “Has your U.S. Congress person received donations from the NRA?” The Washington Post has charted that since 1998, the NRA has donated $3,782,803 to current members of Congress.

The webpage includes an interactive map of the United States, whereby clicking on a state, readers can discover how much the NRA has donated to the state’s congressmen. Donations start at $1,000 and reach upwards of $60,000.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Janesville, Wisconsin, June 2, 2016. (AP/Andy Manis)
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Janesville, Wisconsin, June 2, 2016. (AP/Andy Manis)

On the Republican side, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt has received $60,550 from the NRA; and in Virginia, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte has received a reported $52,500 since assuming office in 1993. Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot has seen $54,100 from the NRA in his cumulative 19 years as a congressman; since entering Congress from Wisconsin in 1999, Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan has received $36,800.

A few Democrats are also named on the list, which is topped by Georgian Rep. Sanford Bishop, who also joined Congress in 1993, and has received a reported $40,650 from the NRA.

In terms of Jewish congressmen, freshman Republican New York Rep. Lee Zeldin has garnered $7,450 from the NRA since assuming office in 2015.

Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin, a US Representative for New York's 1st congressional district. (Courtesy JTA)
Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin, a US Representative for New York’s 1st congressional district (Courtesy JTA)

Are these donations influential? According to the NRA legal arms’ website, in Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin where politicians received high donations, for example, no permits are necessary to purchase or carry weapons, aside from a permit to carry a handgun.

In New York state, which has a relatively low cumulative total of NRA donations to congressmen ($40,350), a permit is required to purchase, register, license, and carry handguns. In New York City, that also goes for rifles and shotguns.

In states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, whose current congressmen have not received funds from the NRA, the laws surrounding gun ownership are much more strict, according to the NRA-ILA website.

The background check bog

 

Much of the politically blocked legislation anti-gun activists seek to push forward involves the sale of weapons. However, from increased background checks to gun registration and the restriction of access to military-class rifles, there are some cautious signs of a new openness to debating change.

On June 15, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and other Senate Democrats staged a 15-hour filibuster talking about gun control. As reported in Politico, two Democratic-backed gun measures may come up for a vote: a proposal from California Senator Dianne Feinstein to bar buyers on federal terror watch lists, and a plan from Murphy and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and New York Senator Chuck Schumer that would mandate background checks for sales at gun shows and over the Internet.

“We’ve gotten to a place where we’re going to get votes on these important amendments,” Murphy told Politico early Thursday morning.

In the case of background checks, after the June 17, 2015, killing of nine at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, FBI Director James B. Comey admitted that a more carefully done check on Dylann Roof could have prevented his purchase of a military-class AR-15 rifle.

Thousands of people hold hands and sing 'We Shall Overcome' during a prayer vigil for the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting at the College of Charleston TD Arena June 19, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Thousands of people hold hands and sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ during a prayer vigil for the nine victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting at the College of Charleston TD Arena June 19, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

“This case rips all of our hearts out,” Comey said in The Washington Post a few weeks after the shooting. “But the thought that an error on our part is connected to this guy’s purchase of a gun that he used to slaughter these good people is very painful to us.”

The implementation of background checks is relatively new, stemming from the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. Launched by the FBI in 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is a system that determines the eligibility of a person to purchase firearms through a systematic computer screening of his name and birth year.

According to its website, the NRA opposes background checks because they “don’t stop serious criminals from getting guns and because the NRA opposes gun registration.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky on May 20, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association’s NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 20, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)

“Federal studies have shown that persons imprisoned for firearm crimes get firearms mostly through theft, the black market, or family members or friends, and that nearly half of illegally trafficked firearms originate with ‘straw purchasers’ — people who pass background checks and buy firearms for criminals,” according to the NRA.

Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research and a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, echoes the NRA’s statements on criminals obtaining guns in a lengthy June 2014 New Republic piece on the issue of background checks.

“When criminals get guns, they get them from friends, family, or from an underground market source,” said Webster. However, he added, “without universal background check requirements, there is little deterrent to selling guns to criminals or gun traffickers. State laws mandating universal background checks deter the diversion of guns to criminals. The most comprehensive screening and background check processes, where potential gun purchasers apply in person for permits to purchase handguns, are associated with lower homicide and suicide rates.”

‘State laws mandating universal background checks deter the diversion of guns to criminals’

Likewise, Webster supports stricter permit laws.

“In 2007, Missouri repealed its permit law. Afterwards, many more gun crimes involved firearms first purchased inside the state. At the time, the age-adjusted homicide rate from firearms in the rest of the country was slowly falling. In Missouri, it skyrocketed,” said Webster. (Perhaps, coincidentally, Missouri Senator Blunt topped the chart on donations from the NRA.)

What does the American public say?

Several opinion polls indicate widespread support for the requirement of background checks for all gun buyers — an extension of the current law. According to a July 2014 Quinnipiac University National Poll, 92% of all American voters support checks, including 92% of gun owners.

An August 13, 2015, Pew survey found that “85% of Americans — including large majorities of Democrats (88%) and Republicans (79%) — favor expanded background checks.”

What is interesting, however, is that 50% of Americans say “it is more important to control gun ownership,” while 47% say “it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.” The American public is almost deadlocked on these core issues.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor (photo credit: Courtesy of Menachem Creditor)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor (Courtesy Menachem Creditor)

Back in Berkeley, contemplating the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, Rabbi Creditor finds defense of gun ownership perplexing.

Referencing the story of Cain and Abel, he said, “Our sacred texts tell us that the blood of our brothers and sisters cries out from the earth.

‘What does God demand of us?’

“Our souls are bound up with our Christian sisters and brothers in Charleston, our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in Orlando, and every American affected by gun violence,” Creditor went on.

“I think we need the opportunity to ask any members of any faith community who are not active on this issue, ‘What does God demand of us?'” said Creditor.

“Every faith person and every elected official is called to answer that question,” he said.

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