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Flip Side of Gun Debate

Politics aside, most acknowledge historic significance of pope's trip

by James D

March 23, 2000 | 7:00 pm

This week the debate over gun control -- already not a model of civil democratic dialogue -- reached new depths when the National Rifle Association (NRA) accused President Bill Clinton of tolerating gun violence to further his own narrow political ends.

The White House denounced the NRA's "sick rhetoric"; even some Republicans normally sympathetic to the pro-gun group seemed aghast.

A few Jewish groups jumped to Clinton's defense, including the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), which has made gun control a centerpiece of its domestic agenda.

That prompted a broadside from Aaron Zelman, director of the militantly pro-gun group Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO). Zelman said he expects Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the UAHC president, to "join the others dancing on the graves of murder victims to achieve the political goal of preventing people from defending themselves."

UAHC's strong position clearly reflects the views of a Jewish majority.

But the Reform group and the other Jewish organizations that have waded into the gun control swamp are revealingly quiet about the other part of the equation: the pervasive, graphic, unrestrained violence in everything from television movies to video games that the experts say has combined with the easy availability of guns to produce the acts of violence that have horrified the nation.

The reasons for that reticence tell a sobering story about how hard it will be to use public policy to go beyond Band-Aid solutions in the fight against gun violence.

One factor is that Jewish groups fear government remedies for violence in the popular media are likely to be ineffective and may have constitutionally catastrophic side effects.

Making it harder for criminals to get guns is something that can be translated into concrete legislation; making it harder for kids to have access to televised savagery does not lend itself to straightforward legislative responses, and it opens a constitutional can of worms civil liberties advocates would prefer remained closed.

Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a leader in the renewed push for tougher gun control, argued that he and others have spoken out about the cultural dimension, but that "we ought to be speaking even more."

But it's difficult to imagine government policy that won't run afoul of constitutional protections, he said -- protections that have always been a political article of faith for American Jews.

Secondly, many Jews are uncomfortable with the groups that have made the issue of media violence just another front in their much broader "culture wars."

The issue has been largely monopolized by religious right leaders who seem more eager to use it to discredit liberalism than to find solutions.

Many of the Christian crusaders, Jews fear, want to censor a broad range of ideas not to their liking, not just images of violence. Today, it's bloody video games, but tomorrow it may be non-Christian ideas.

And Jewish groups tend to see the problem of children's access to objectionable materials as a matter for families, not governments. Ironically, this time it's the right that wants the heavy hand of government in our lives -- and Jewish groups worry about the broader implications of that desire.

There's also uncertainty over the issue of Jewish involvement in the entertainment industry.

Can we address the question of runaway violence in the media without calling attention to the members of our own community who are top players in the industry? Won't our criticisms be used by the anti-Semites as confirmation of their outrageous claims of Jewish control?

Cumulatively, these factors have put Jewish leaders in a bind. They recognize that the cultural factors work together with the flood of guns to produce horrific violence. But in their public activism they feel most comfortable focusing on the gun part of the equation.

But in doing so, they forfeit the game to those who will not be nearly as respectful of the First Amendment.

That could be slowly changing.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has persistently raised the issue; Lieberman, widely respected across political and denominational lines in the Jewish community, has had a receptive audience.

At the recent plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, media critic and leading conservative Michael Medved talked about the relationship between violence in the media and mayhem in our streets and was well received, despite the strongly liberal slant of the group.

Last week the Orthodox Union weighed in with support for a series of gun control proposals by New York Gov. George Pataki. At the same time, the group has been speaking with growing vigor about violence in the media and its effect on our culture.

"Gun control is easier, because people see what they can do," said Reva Price, JCPA's Washington representative. "It's much harder to see solutions in terms of the cultural issues, and it's easy to see the dangers."

Still, she said, "people in our organization and others are starting to talk about it. It's no longer something we can ignore."

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