Jewish lobbyists take aim at stricter gun control laws

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WASHINGTON — After a summer marred by anti-Semitic violence, Jewish lobbyists are vowing to push lawmakers to enact stricter laws to combat hate crimes and control guns.

As Congress returned this week from its August recess, both efforts are likely to garner a high profile, although it remains unclear whether meaningful changes will be adopted.

On the domestic front, top concerns for the Jewish community include ensuring greater protections for free religious practice and maintaining current spending levels for social service programs.

In the international arena, the focus is on efforts to contain Iran and to secure funding for Israel and the Palestinians to implement the Wye River accord.

Gun control, meanwhile, is shaping up as the toughest battle.

One effort, being led by the American Jewish Congress, seeks to build grassroots support for sweeping federal gun control legislation.

The group hopes to gain support for proposals that require all gun buyers to pass background checks and all guns be licensed and registered, much like cars.

"The problem is that Congress has failed to enact effective gun control legislation and we believe, as many do, that there are a substantial number of lawmakers who would support meaningful gun control legislation if they had the chance to do so," said Matthew Dorf, director of the AJCongress' office in Washington.

The organized Jewish community has been calling for more stringent gun control measures for years, but what was once considered something of a low-priority issue has taken on a new sense of urgency.

"There were lots of members of the Jewish community who had glazed eyes when we talked about gun control and gun safety issues in the past,'' said Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League's Washington counsel. "Unfortunately, I think Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith have gotten the attention of the Jewish community as to why gun control is a Jewish issue."

Furrow and Smith are the white supremacists suspected in the shootings of Jews and other minorities in California and Illinois, respectively.

At the same time, recent hate crimes have also generated momentum for legislation aimed at strengthening the federal hate crimes statute. In July, the Senate unanimously approved the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes sparked by sexual orientation, gender and disability.

Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

The House has already held hearings on the measure, but it remains unclear whether there will be enough support to overcome opposition from conservative Republicans, who have argued that the bill applies to citizens who are already protected under existing state laws against violence.

On the religious freedom front, the Jewish community's long-standing goal of ensuring that Americans can practice their religion free from government intrusion faces an uncertain fate.

As the Religious Liberty Protection Act moved through the House earlier this year, support began breaking down among Democrats amid a dispute over whether religious liberty or civil rights laws should take precedence when the two come into conflict.

At issue is the question of whether the proposed legislation could be used to justify violations of state or local anti-discrimination laws. Opponents argue that landlords and employers in states and cities with laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals could invoke their religious principles as a defense for refusing to rent to or hire gays and lesbians.

"RLPA should be a shield for the religious liberty of all — not a sword against the civil rights of some," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), an original sponsor of the bill who ultimately voted against it.

Jewish activists, meanwhile, will also be focusing their attention on a host of other issues in the domestic and international arenas, among them:

*Social spending: Republican lawmakers have proposed scaling back social service block grants to the states and other programs that help fund local federation agencies, Jewish nursing homes, hospitals and various human services.

*The Ten Commandments: In June, the House adopted an amendment to the juvenile justice bill that permits states to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places. The move has drawn swift condemnation from Jewish groups and church-state watchdogs.

*Containment of Iran: Pro-Israel activists will be pushing for passage of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which halts some future U.S. payments to Russia if it helps Iran develop weapons of mass destruction.

*Aid to Israel and the Palestinians: Activists plan to urge Congress to approve the $1.2 billion in special aid for Israel and $400 million for the Palestinians that President Clinton promised last year in return for implementation of the Wye agreement.

*Holocaust assets: Jewish groups are supporting legislation that would exempt Holocaust survivors from paying federal income taxes on payments stemming from settlements of Holocaust-era claims.