Reform in the Crosshairs

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cover1Faith leaders, policymakers and experts in the greater Baltimore and Washington regions are refusing to stay silent more than one week after the largest mass shooting in recent history.

Whether or not Congress passes legislation this week restricting known terrorists from purchasing guns, the prevailing view among most Jews is that some form of restriction on gun purchases is in order when it comes to preventing tragedies such as the June 12 massacre in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub that left 50 dead, including the gunman.


Maryland currently has a state assault weapons ban in effect, but it is undergoing its second legal challenge in district court. Meanwhile, the Orlando attack has led many to call for the reinstatement of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban that prevented the manufacture and sale of semiautomatic weapons for civilian use. The ban expired in 2004, and while there have been attempts to reinstate it, none have been successful. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington in 2011 put out a policy statement calling for the reinstatement of this law following a rise in the number of mass shootings, said executive director Ron Halber.

“There was no reason why the man who committed that act of terror in Orlando should have been able to get his hands on [an assault weapon]” he said, referring to killer Omar Mateen’s purchase of the Sig Sauer MCX assault weapon two weeks prior to the shooting (Mateen also used a handgun that he had purchased at the time). “There is no reason at all that people on the terrorist list should have access to weaponry. That’s just illogical. I don’t know how anybody can defend that position.”

cover2Now is not the time to roll back any reasonable gun restrictions that are already in place. — BJC executive director Howard Libit

Halber said he detects frustration among members of the public who are desperate for action in the wake of the Orlando shooting and the many tragedies that preceded it. He emphasized that the JCRC is not calling for an outright ban on firearms for the use of protection or hunting, but the elimination of “military-grade” weapons from the public’s possession is a rational step.

Like the JCRC, the Baltimore Jewish Council also supports banning semiautomatic weapons. Executive director Howard Libit said the BJC has a history of supporting gun control legislation, including during the 2013 legislative session when the organization supported several new laws that were proposed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children.

“We certainly think that now is not the time to roll back any of the reasonable gun restrictions that are already in place in Maryland. That would be going the wrong direction,” he said. “And we’re paying close attention to what’s happening in Congress right now and certainly salute the efforts that a number of senators have made, including ours, to try and push for some greater federal steps.”

In addition to the Jewish advocacy arenas of both cities, rabbis are also speaking out. The rabbinic community as a whole has not taken one formal position on gun control, and it may be because, as Agudath Israel of Maryland director Rabbi Ariel Sadwin said, assault weapons haven’t been widely discussed in terms of Halachah.

Ariel Sadwin (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)
Ariel Sadwin (Photo by Justin Tsucalas)

[There are] definitely plenty of people in the community who feel strongly about the need for protection. — Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director, Agudath Israel of Maryland

“To say there is a position within the community here and even broader, Agudath Israel of America, I don’t believe they’ve had too many statements on gun control because it’s not like we are against all guns,” he said.

Sadwin said like with many hot-button issues, the Orthodox community often can see merit to both sides in the gun control debate.

“[There are] definitely plenty of people in the community who feel strongly about the need for protection especially in a period of time that the Jewish community has seen continued safety issues, and there are definitely people in the community who feel there should be added protections and stuff like that,” he said. “So it’s hard to go and take a position, as some in politics will say, to completely overhaul gun control. At the same time, the availability of an assault weapon, the likes of which can go carry out a disaster like happened in Orlando, is a real concern.”

But Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, who serves on the board of Jews United for Justice, believes Halachah can be interpreted to be against assault weapons.

“Halachah exists to guide us in how we’re to live our lives as Jews and how societies should be ordered,” he said. “We are to do just about everything we can in order to preserve life and save lives, so weapons that exist whose purpose is solely to take lives — that we know in the hands of civilians are much more likely to take innocent lives than they are to protect innocent lives — I think Halachah would frown on assault weapons in nonmilitary personal hands.”

He said that the United States’ obsession with gun ownership, as well as increasing xenophobic, racist, homophobic and misogynistic rhetoric, is a “dangerous and deadly cocktail.”

“One of the great tragedies of the current perspective that some Americans have on gun ownership is that instead of using, in moderation, weapons that are designed for sport, for hunting or even perhaps for protection, we have so fetishized weapon ownership and gun ownership in this country that when something tragic like this terrorist attack in Orlando occurs, we’re so conditioned as Americans to say, ‘Well, that has nothing to do with guns.’ But, of course, it has everything to do with guns,” Cotzin said. “Tel Aviv just had a shooting — a terrorist attack — a week and a half ago, and what was surprising about that attack was it was done with guns. Most of the terrorist attacks in Israel have been done with knives because in Israel it’s hard to get guns.”

Brian Frosh (Photo by Dayna Smith)
Brian Frosh (Photo by Dayna Smith)

The reason we banned [assault weapons] in Maryland is because they’re totally unnecessary or ill-suited for anything other than the police the military. The idea that you need to be able to fire off 15 shots really fast for hunting is crazy. It’s not necessary. It’s not sportsmanlike. — Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh

When Adas Israel Congregation Associate Rabbi Aaron Alexander arrived in Washington last year, one of his mandates was to better engage the congregation’s social action committee. He did so by first asking congregants what issues were most important to them, one of which was gun control.

“When the consequences are life or death we have an obligation to fight as hard as we can for policies that preserve life and dignity,” he said. “We’re going to have a voice, and our voice is not just going to be to scream or yell or pray. Our voice is going to be to change tragedies that happen in this country every day.”

Alexander is not yet sure what Adas Israel’s on-the-ground efforts will be, but he has experience in community organizing from a previous role in Los Angeles, where he served on the clergy caucus of LA Voice PICO — an interfaith advocacy group.

“We’re in the midst of training our leadership to be effective organizers,” he said. “There are a lot of people out in the world who want to do something and we have learned that groups are effective when they are part of something bigger.”

Alexander said it was “shocking” that Congress took no action related to gun legislation after the Sandy Hook shootings. He called last week’s 15-hour filibuster by Senate Democrats on gun control a “God-inspired act.”

“Sometimes, we get so bogged down in the intricacies of the Second Amendment, we’re no longer able to see beyond the forest to the bigger picture.”

Alexander acknowledged that the Torah does provide a case for owning a gun by spelling out a right to self-defense, but he said in today’s world the most well-intentioned gun owners can cause devastating side effects simply by being enablers.

“If you think about domestic violence and suicide, a gun in the home raises the possibility that someone will do harm to themselves or others,” he said. “If the gun is not in the home, there is a much better chance someone will survive either their lowest moment of depression or someone close to them.”

Bobby Zirkin (File photo)
Bobby Zirkin (File photo)

This is a no-brainer … You have somebody on a terror watch list, they shouldn’t have firearms. — State Sen. Bobby Zirkin

It is not directly from the Torah that the argument for gun ownership comes, but rather the history of persecution that Jews have faced, explained Edward Friedman, editor-in-chief of the NRA’s monthly magazine Shooting Illustrated.

“Part of what made me a believer in the Second Amendment was what the Jewish people have gone through and the fact that we were, until the creation of the State of Israel, actually until the creation of the United States, never able to protect ourselves,” he told Washington Jewish Week last year. “In the U.S. it is individually, and in Israel it’s more collectively … there are people out there who spew violent hatred toward Jews and all too often put that into action.”

The right to owning a handgun in the home has been upheld several times by the Supreme Court, including in the 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court determined 5-4 that banning the registration of handguns or requiring the use of trigger locks to store them in the home violated the Second Amendment. The late justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion.

Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney who has worked on a number of Supreme Court cases and knew Scalia, said he thinks there are limits on the latitude that the Heller decision gives gun owners.

“Beyond [handguns] I think courts have construed that as meaning that the legislature has the authority to go and regulate other forms of purchases, other forms of guns and ammunition,” he said.

Lewin said he thinks measures such as background checks and an assault weapons ban would be permitted under the Constitution.

While these measures may stand the test of the law, there may not be the political will to enact them, Lewin said, while noting the influence of the National Rifle Association on the political sphere.

“Although I’m not generally sympathetic to a lot of things the Obama Administration supports, I think legislation in this area is desirable,” he said, while noting that he thinks the larger issue is “Islamic terrorism.”

Maryland is currently fighting its own legal battle to uphold an assault weapons ban that took effect on Oct. 1, 2013. The law, which was based on the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, outlawed 45 different weapons including the AR-15, which is similar to the weapon Mateen used. Gun owners who purchased the banned weapons prior to this date were permitted to keep them. There is no estimate as to how many people this includes.

The ban faced its first legal challenge from the pro-gun community in 2014 and was upheld by U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake. But in February, they appealed the decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled by a 2-1 vote among three judges that the case should be reheard in the same lower court under the “strict scrutiny” standard, meaning that the ban must “further a compelling governmental interest” in order for it to trump the Second Amendment.

Attorney General Brian Frosh said he thinks the ban will withstand this latest court challenge after other circuit courts upheld similar laws in the states of New York and Connecticut.

“It’s not that difficult,” he said. “There are clear definitions as to what an assault weapon is in the law. If somebody brings us a case where you’ve got an AR-15 that’s sold in a store who’s not buying it for police purposes or military purposes, it’s a violation. …The reason we banned them in Maryland is because they’re totally unnecessary or ill-suited for anything other than the police, the military. The idea that you need to be able to fire off 15 shots really fast for hunting is crazy. It’s not necessary. It’s not sportsmanlike.”

Frosh said anyone carrying a banned weapon into Maryland from another state is subject to the same penalties as someone who obtained one illegally in state, which include a $5,000 fine and a prison sentence of three years or less for the first offense. The penalties increase for subsequent offenses and for criminals who use the illegally obtained weapon in carrying out the act.

Frosh said the country at large remains in danger due to the lack of a renewal of the federal ban, and that has to do with politicians being “more responsive to the NRA than to the citizens.”

“I think that in Maryland we’ve made ourselves safer by having an assault weapons ban, but until our neighbors do the same, everybody’s in peril,” he said.

Sandy Rosenberg (File photo)
Sandy Rosenberg (File photo)

We can impose reasonable restrictions. I think [Maryland’s] bill will be ultimately upheld. — Del. Sandy Rosenberg
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) was a co-sponsor of the original policy and said he does not see how the Second Amendment would include assault rifles since they are not used for hunting and there is “no rational basis” for their use. He regrets not including a mental health component at the time, which, he said, is “very hard to legislate.”

“You want to people to seek mental health counseling and so forth without limits, but at the same time you want to keep guns out of the hands of people who have the capacity to do harm. So how you define that prohibition is very challenging but important to do,” he said.

Zirkin also co-sponsored a bill last year that would have barred gun sales from suspected terrorists — something he thinks is seriously lacking at the federal level.

“You look at Washington and their failure to do even the most simple of things is embarrassing,” he said. “This is a no-brainer of an issue in my opinion. You have somebody on a terror watch list, they shouldn’t have firearms.”

The bill did not pass Maryland last year, but he expects it to come up again in the 2017 General Assembly session.

Adding to the problem, Zirkin said, is the lack of communication from the FBI to state and local police about who is on the watch list. He said it is “self-evident” that all police officers should have access to the list.

“I believe we will pass a bill, but again, unless the federal government does it, it doesn’t protect us,” he said. “It’s nothing more than a statement from the state.”

However, Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-District 41) believes passing a bill in Maryland would be more than a statement.

“It has the potential to make a difference in Maryland because it would make it more difficult for someone who is on that list who is a suspected terrorist to purchase a gun in this state,” he said. “Passing the law here could create momentum to do so in other states and hopefully eventually to do so at the federal level, where it would be most effective. And that’s the role that states often play.”

He also thinks the state’s assault weapons ban will stand.

“Justice Scalia’s opinion makes it clear when he said — when he struck down the D.C. law — that the Second Amendment right is not an absolute right,” Rosenberg said. “That’s the case with all the other Bill of Rights protections. These are not absolute rights. When we worked on this bill, as the legislature considered the bill, we were very aware of that — that we can impose reasonable restrictions — and I hope and think that the bill will be ultimately upheld by the courts.”

Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin said he too thinks the ban is in the public’s interest. Popkin, an Olney resident who attends Washington Hebrew Congregation and has served in law enforcement for more than 30 years, said the community he is in charge of is generally very safe. But over the years it has seen its share of gun violence, including a series of shootings near Westfield Montgomery Mall earlier this year. Popkin’s tactical team was also called into action during the sniper attacks of 2002 that left 17 people dead including six in Montgomery County.

“For anybody to think that an active shooter situation could not happen in our backyard is being naive,” he said.

Popkin said at the very least, there should be some additional background review of gun purchasers.

“No fly, no buy,” he said. “If you are being looked at as a person for potential violence, there should be some restriction for purchasing a firearm.”

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