Jews and guns: What’s our responsibility?

Jews and guns: What’s our responsibility?

Ben Bridge

By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
Mike Tobias lives on a boat in Ballard with his wife, their dogs, and two guns. On the back of his car are two bumper stickers: One has an image of a Star of David in American flag print, two rifles, and the unequivocal statement, “Gun control is NOT kosher”; the other has an X-ed out swastika and reads, “Gun control made the Holocaust possible. No more Nazi gun control laws.”
“What the anti-gun community frequently ignores is that every year, on average, guns are used 2 million times to stop crimes,” Tobias explained in his native Kentucky drawl. “You never see the headline, ‘Yesterday 88 million legal gun owners didn’t kill anyone.’”
Tobias, a security officer in downtown Seattle, is involved with Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit aimed at educating Jews about “the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed.”
Tobias is of the opinion that individuals are in charge of their own safety. Twice in the past two years, he’s been glad to have a gun on him when he encountered aggressive figures while out late at night. He’s in his 60s; he has a pacemaker. He can’t protect himself like he might have once been able to, he told me.
“If you’re a criminal and a lot of people have concealed weapons, you’re going to think twice,” he said.
Tobias will not be voting in favor of Initiative 594 in November, a ballot measure that, if passed, will require criminal background checks on all gun sales.
“It’s another law that won’t do any good,” he said.
The spate of recent shootings up the West Coast, not to mention the massacres in Colorado and Connecticut, have made it clear that something needs to be done, and whether that means more guns or fewer is a point of debate.
Much of the organized Jewish community, affected by the July 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, has gotten behind gun control in the form of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit formed in January 2013 advocating for the legislation, and the Center for Gun Responsibility, a 501(c)(3) that launched last month, which is looking beyond the November election.
According to Daniel Weiner, senior rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the alliance formed in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.
“Something needed to be done,” he said. About 60-70 leaders of different faith groups got together, and the result of their conversations became the alliance and the initiative. At this point, 16 Jewish organizations and congregations, including the Jewish Federation, the Stroum Jewish Community Center, and the Anti-Defamation League have signed on, plus a number of clergy.
I-594 will close the “gun show loophole” and require everyone who wishes to purchase a gun, even privately, to undergo a criminal background check. The state legislature was charged with addressing the initiative but declined to do so, thereby sending it to voters in the fall.
Though many recent shooters stole their guns from relatives, according to the alliance, mandatory background checks will make it harder for people who shouldn’t have access to guns to obtain them.
“There’s no single solution to ending gun violence,” said Cheryl Stumbo, the initiative’s citizen-sponsor and a survivor of the shooting at the Jewish Federation. “Background checks are the foundation piece to make anything happen.”
“We know states that do have criminal background checks experience lower levels of intimate partner violence and suicide by gun,” said Zach Carstensen, the Federation’s director of government relations and public affairs. “Missouri had a criminal background check. They repealed it. The homicide rate went through the roof.”
Carstensen and Stumbo assure that this is not an anti-Second Amendment initiative. Literature put out by the alliance notes that eight out of 10 Washington State residents support background checks.
“We have a number of responsible firearm owners who believe in background checks,” said Stumbo. “I am all for people with concealed carry permits being around me. You’re a good guy.”
Weiner points out that the Second Amendment is preceded by the First, which is the right to life, liberty, and happiness. “From a Jewish perspective, if this will save one life it’s already a success,” he said.
Rabbi Moshe Kletenik echoes this sentiment.
“Judaism recognizes the intrinsic value of life. There is an obligation to protect life,” he said. “There’s also an obligation of the government to protect its citizens. Background checks don’t infringe on anybody’s rights.”
Kletenik, the director of the Seattle Vaad HaRabanim, also testified before the legislature at the initiative’s hearing in January.
“The sources kind of speak for themselves,” said Rabbi Ben Hassan of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation. “I would say there should be tighter legislation for buying weapons based on a rabbinic tradition.”
In the same way a bartender should stop serving a customer who has had too much to drink, gun sellers have an obligation not to sell weapons to customers who might do harm, Hassan said.
“These things for me are quite clear,” he said. “If someone is spiritually blind we cannot allow them to stumble.”
Hassan received some critical feedback after a talk he gave on the subject earlier this year. Like Tobias, some congregants look to the Holocaust as a cautionary tale. (“We have 6 million reasons to carry guns,” Tobias said.)
“Those who want to have personal arms, [it's] because of what happened in the Holocaust, and they never want to be in a position where they are vulnerable,” said Hassan.
The Washington State Holocaust and Education Resource Center is part of the alliance, and according to the center’s director Dee Simon, its mission is to educate and help eliminate the causes of violence by encouraging students to call out injustice.
“By using the stories of rescuers we teach students that one person can make a difference,” she said. “We are concerned about all violence and work hard to help students navigate a complex world.”
But in the meantime, with neo-Nazis and others still out there who seek Jews harm — a lesson learned from the Federation and more recently the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City — some Jewish community firearms owners may be inclined to carry their weapons into synagogues and community institutions. (Most sources agree that carrying a gun on Shabbat is not prohibited.)
It’s a possibility Kletenik and Hassan are opposed to. Both prefer security protocols, like hosts and screeners.
“There should be no reason for anyone in Seattle to bring a weapon into synagogue,” said Hassan.
Jeffrey A. Slotnick of Tacoma-based security company OR3M advises that all institutions have an emergency plan in place for natural, technical, and man-made disasters.
“Bottom line is, have a plan, train your plan, and practice your plan,” he said. “When the emergency happens is not the time to figure out what you’re going to do.”
Slotnick consults widely on security measures, and frequently appears on television. He is opposed to the initiative, and believes most law enforcement officials are, too.
“It’s feel-good legislation at best,” he said. “We already have systems in place, and they work.”
According to Slotnick, membership to the Washington Arms Collectors requires a background check, and no one can walk in and buy a gun off the floor at a show.
“That’s not a loophole,” he said.
Slotnick wants people to be able to exercise their Second Amendment right, and if that means carrying a gun to synagogue, they should just assume liability for their actions. He is acutely aware of threats to the Jewish community worldwide, and he helped found Safe Washington, a consulting and emergency response network for local Jewish communities.
“If someone in Aurora, Colorado had a firearm, would that have stopped it?” he asked. “Very likely. As soon as the shooter is presented with opposition, they commit suicide or give up.”
This leads to an uncomfortable question. Had someone at the Federation been trained to shoot, would Naveed Haq have been stopped before he shot six women, killing one?
The Federation’s Carstensen refuses to speculate.
“It’s always easy to look back eight years and say maybe something would have made a difference,” he said. “Who knows?”
Carstensen is focused on the legislation, the future, and the community support.
“In the Jewish community, there is a recognition that the Second Amendment exists, and there’s a place for it,” he said. “There is also recognition that there is a serious problem and we need to find solutions.”

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