Picking up a loaded .357 Magnum revolver from his drawer, Joseph McNamara, then the San Jose chief of police, swiftly emptied the gun, put the bullets on his desk, and looked me in the eye.
“The NRA says, ‘Guns don’t kill people — people do.’ But if you had this and wanted to kill me, you could. Could you have done this without the gun? No. That’s where the NRA’s slogans fall down. The truth is, the presence of a lethal weapon changes an argument to a homicide.”
The year was 1987. I was a reporter for the Oakland Tribune, and I was writing about Handgun Control Inc., the forerunner to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The late McNamara, a best-selling novelist and longtime police officer, was a spokesman for the organization, taking on the National Rifle Association in full-page newspaper ads.
Another spokesperson was the late Sarah Brady, wife of Reagan press secretary James Brady, who was severely injured during the 1981 assassination attempt on the president. Sarah Brady had no quarrel with hunters. But she said the NRA was doing little to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands.
“For years, the NRA was thought of as a motherhood and apple pie organization,” she said during a phone interview. “But over the years, the leadership has gotten more extreme.” She said the NRA was, at one point, “supporting a waiting period. Now it’s a communist plot.”
Twenty-eight years ago, it looked like the tide was turning. But that was then. Although a groundswell of support for greater gun regulations rose after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Oikos University in Oakland, Aurora and Newtown, Congress did not budge.
Once again after the Charleston church massacre, there have been more speeches and more outrage. Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit, speaking at a service at Los Altos Hills’ Congregation Beth Am, decried the “idolatry of guns” among a segment of the American public. But it goes deeper than that. There is a continental divide between gun supporters and those who seek greater regulations. We don’t understand one another.
Nearly every major Jewish organization is on an NRA enemies list, which also includes former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Barbra Streisand, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was San Francisco Board of Supervisors president in 1978 when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered.
Why are Jews largely in favor of gun control? It may be because we are an urban people, who “lack a culture of hunting and gun ownership,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Union of Reform Judaism, wrote in a 2012 Haaretz column.
“The NRA is associated in the minds of many Jews with extremist positions that frighten Jews and from which they instinctively recoil,” wrote Yoffie, who is also on the NRA’s enemies list. “But — let’s tell the truth — the NRA supports the right of almost any terrorist suspect, wife-beater and crook to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked. And to Jews this just makes no sense.”
The gun debate — if one can call it that — yields no common ground because we don’t accept the same premises.
One side argues personal protection. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre argued after the Newtown shootings.
The other side says the presence of a gun in the home is an invitation to disaster. “What the NRA doesn’t realize is that if a criminal thinks you have a gun, he becomes more vicious,” said McNamara back in 1987.
Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, an organization of several thousand based in Bellevue, Washington, takes issues with such stances, emphasizing that Jews — of all people — must be able to defend themselves.
The group has a rabbinic director, New Jersey Orthodox Rabbi Dovid Bendory, who is also an NRA gun instructor. In a paper titled “Why Jews Hate Guns,” he and Alan Korwin of GunLaws.com offer their top 10 reasons, dismissing them one by one. High on the list is “a disproportional incidence of hoplophobia,” a term coined as a pejorative to claim that those who fear weapons (hoplon, in Greek) are somehow morbidly irrational.
But there’s nothing irrational about fearing a weapon in the wrong hands — and if, God forbid, those hands happened to be mine, how could I live with myself?