Eric H. Yoffie

NRA on the Ropes: Winning the Battle for Gun Control

After the killing last week of 17 people by a disturbed student in Parkland, Fla., there are two things to be said about gun control in America.

First, there is a glimmer of hope that things may be changing. It is at least possible that the day may be coming when the U.S. Congress will pass some commonsense gun control laws.

Second, if this happens, Jewish Americans will be in the forefront of this effort. And they will pay a price for their actions.

Many Americans, of course, doubt that progress will be made on limiting access to guns. Yes, now there is public outrage and demands to do something. And the NRA is mostly silent. But soon, a new crisis will appear, the outrage over Parkland will pass, and our fatalistic acceptance of inaction on firearms will reassert itself, as it has so many times before. Why should it be different this time?

But it is different.

In the first place, parents everywhere – including Trump-voting, red state, Republican parents – are deeply unsettled by the terrifying frequency of school shootings. Only six weeks into 2018, the school massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was the 11th school shooting this year.  Even the most conservative, second-amendment-loving parents are watching the images on TV and thinking: “This could happen here, this could be my child.” With schools being shot up every few days, the usual parental avoidance mechanisms – “it’s happening somewhere else, it’s not our problem” – are simply not working any more.

In the second place, teenage survivors of Parkland are joining the battle against guns, and urging teenagers elsewhere to join in. And many are, using the tools of social media with which they are so adept.

These survivors, it turns out, are extraordinarily effective champions of doing something about guns. Even the most experienced politicians advocating for gun control cannot compete in their speeches with the power and the passion of Emma Gonzalez or David Hogg. Motivated by the experience of fear, by the righteous anger of youth, and by an unwillingness to tolerate the do-nothing blather of President Trump, these young people are impressively blunt, direct, modestly profane, and brutally honest in making the case for action.

And they know the issues, in ways that adults do not.

Is the problem we face a “mental health crisis”? Hardly. Ms. Gonzalez dismisses this with contempt. Of course the shooter had mental issues, and they were noted by other students and reported regularly to school authorities. But the difficulty with this approach is that an angry, depressed, moody teenager is pretty much any teenager on a bad day and many teenagers on a good day. Figuring out who is dangerous is an immensely difficult and unreliable method of stopping shooters. The only effective way of dealing with potential killers, as Ms. Gonzalez makes clear, is to prevent them from getting guns.

And this means, as the teenage activists proclaim, standing up to NRA stooges. This means a take-no-prisoners, give-no-quarter campaign against the NRA. This means serious, comprehensive legislation that will make a significant dent in the easy availability of firearms.

And we may be finally ready for this. If we are not, the only alternative is to keep going as we have been, with kids dying ugly, public deaths, in greater numbers every month.

And so I am betting on the young activists and their newly worried parents.  Because I do not believe that Americans are prepared for murder and mayhem, carried out by an array of teenage misfits, to be the new normal in our public schools.  And because I think that apart from crooks, NRA diehards, and the my-soul-is-for-sale political types, most Americans are in fact willing to do something about it.

And there is evidence that the political tide is turning.  Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, has argued that what mostly makes the NRA a force is not voting strength or money but sheer fanaticism.  And in fact its strength is declining as is the number of gun owners.  He makes the case that pro-NRA candidates have done less well in recent years, and that once the organization’s aura of invincibility is punctured, liberal fatalism will give way to tougher gun laws. And perhaps, just perhaps, young people like Gonzalez and Hogg will begin this process and lead the way.

And what of the Jews?

They will stand, like they always have, with those who would regulate guns and against the criminals and the crazies who would not.  There is nothing new in this.  Jews live primarily in urban and suburban settings, are mostly liberally-oriented Democrats, and lack a culture of hunting and gun ownership.  They respect the gun-owning rights of others, to be sure, but it is fair to say that many have a personal revulsion of firearms.  When the Million Mom March was held in Washington in 2000, Jews attended in droves.  And they are both puzzled and distressed by the failure of their country to stop gang members, felons, and the insane from buying all the firearms they fancy.

Still, even with all this said, it is probably true that the Parkland massacres have especially horrified an already nervous Jewish community.  Out of the 17 killed, 5 were Jews, and the school was located in a heavily Jewish area.  And it did not escape the attention of Jewish leaders that the shooter, an adopted child, tweeted anti-Semitic messages and claimed that his birth mother was Jewish—both facts that are likely to be used by pro-gun extremists to stir up anti-Jewish feeling.

The NRA is assuredly not anti-Semitic, but cranks, racists, and fanatics of all sorts flock to its cause and its banner.  In the Trump era, white nationalists, encouraged by the sentiments of nativism and white identity that the President has done too little to quell, are already blaming the Jews for “leading” the gun control cause.  As the debate heats up in the months ahead, nothing is more certain than this:  When the backlash comes against the advocates of sane gun control, American Jews will be targeted by the race-baiters, the neo-Nazis, the nativists, and the alt-right.  .

But to be clear, we American Jews will not be deterred.  Like liberals everywhere, we are determined and energized on the gun issue.  And the simple fact is that if there is a price to be paid for our commitment, we are willing to pay it.




About the Author
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.
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