After Newtown: Sandy Hook school massacre reignites the gun control debate

As soon as news broke of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Mindy Finkelstein crawled under a blanket and sobbed.

The savage shooting of 20 children and six adults last month in Newtown, Conn., brought back her darkest memories.

Finkelstein recalled the day she was shot, along with four others, at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. On Aug. 10, 1999, an anti-Semitic madman wielding a semi-automatic assault rifle burst into the JCC, intent on killing Jews.

A 16-year-old camp counselor at the time, Finkelstein took two bullets in the leg, one shattering her shinbone. Three children and an adult worker also lay wounded. A short time later, the shooter, Buford O. Furrow Jr., killed a postal worker in Chatsworth, a few miles away from the JCC he terrorized in Granada Hills. He is now serving two life terms for his crimes.

Though Finkelstein’s physical wounds healed, emotional scars remained. To cope with the trauma, she began volunteering for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Thirteen years later, Finkelstein, 30, is the coordinator of the organization’s San Francisco chapter.

“The only way I can cope is by responding not just with anger, but by making sure my voice can be used,” the San Francisco resident says. “Before I was shot, I didn’t have an opinion on guns. It took me getting shot to have one. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”

All Americans recoiled at the slaughter in Newtown, one of seven mass shootings in the United States in 2012 alone. According to the Coalition for Gun Control, the U.S. death rate by firearms is the highest of any developed nation — 10.2 per 100,000 people in 2009, compared with 4.7 in Finland in 2008, 2.5 in Canada in 2009 and a fraction of 1 percent in the United Kingdom in 2011.

Gun violence in the U.S. accounted for an average of 10,987 homicides per year from 2007 to 2009, according to data compiled by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime. And as of 2010, according to the National Rifle Association, the number of privately owned firearms in this country was about 270 million, among a population of roughly 314 million people. That’s more than 85 guns per 100 residents — by far the highest rate of any country in the world.

But as in the United States at large, there is a spectrum of opinion within the Jewish community on how best to deal with gun violence.

After the Newtown massacre, a range of Jewish groups — including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, B’nai B’rith International and the National Council of Jewish Women — threw their support behind measures to limit the availability of guns.

B’nai B’rith issued a statement that read in part: “There is no sane, acceptable, reasonable need in a civilian setting to fire off large rounds of ammunition. It’s time for lawmakers to change the vocabulary. Enact and enforce gun control measures.”

Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who is Jewish, this week launched with her husband, Mark Kelly, the political action committee Americans for Responsible Solutions. According to Giffords, who suffered a near-fatal gunshot wound to the head two years ago, the PAC will “raise funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has launched www.endgunviolencenow.org, an online petition calling for new limits on assault weapons and ammunition magazine capacity.

A man kneels at a makeshift memorial during a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 21, one week after the massacre in Newtown, Conn. photo/ap-julio cortez

The shooting at the Newtown school reignited the country’s longstanding debate over gun safety, pitting supporters of tighter restrictions against those who fear any infringement on Second Amendment rights.

But while the gun lobby has made clear it opposes any measures to further limit access to firearms, some Jewish gun owners say they are uncomfortable with the status quo and would like to see tougher controls.

Eric Schaefer, a 40-year-old real estate agent in Scottsdale, Ariz., wasn’t waiting for any new laws. When he learned that a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle — a type of gun he owned — was used in the Newtown killings, he got rid of his, selling it to local law enforcement.

Schaefer says he feels an unshakable feeling of shame and no longer wants his two children exposed to the many weapons he owns for sporting purposes — guns he keeps locked up and out of the house.

“There’s a sense of embarrassment now to being a gun owner; I don’t feel proud of it,” Schaefer says. “I have my guns as a personal enthusiast, but I can’t say I support all the language and laws associated with guns. It’s far too easy to come across them in this country.”

 Schaefer believes authorities should constantly check the mental state of gun owners, and he would like to see the waiting time for gun purchases extended.

“I feel like it ought to be excruciatingly difficult to own a gun, and those who really want one should be [subject to] a more rigorous, difficult process to get one,” Schaefer says.

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer is no gun nut. However, the assistant rabbi and education director at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa grew up learning to shoot in her native Houston, and today has guns in her home.

“I grew up with the understanding of how real guns were,” Kramer says, “and they weren’t toys. Even though they were around, there was a severity and seriousness to them.”

Kramer believes the gun issue is a thorny one for society to solve, but she also thinks the Newtown shootings changed everything.

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer

“I think we should focus on banning weapons with retractable magazines, especially those that hold 15 to 50 rounds and can kill at a horrendous rate,” she says. “That would limit civilian catastrophes.”

She also supports mandatory safety training for all gun owners, as well as a federal tax on ammunition. And though she supports the Second Amendment, she doesn’t think it provides carte blanche.

“The phrase ‘right to bear arms’ doesn’t mean the Constitution has given every single person the right to have a semi-automatic, military-style rifle,” Kramer says. “That’s not what it was intended for.”

Rabbi Jonathan Siger, a law enforcement chaplain and former NRA shooting instructor from Spring, Texas, says bearing arms is a God-given right. But he supports tighter controls, such as requiring a person to have two character witnesses before obtaining a carry permit, and closing the “gun show loophole” that enables buyers to circumvent federal background checks when buying at gun shows, through classified newspaper ads, via the Internet and from individuals.

“I don’t understand how some people get their hands on guns,” Siger says. “It seems to me the glaring problem is there is not enough control over who is selling what to whom.”

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, responded to Newtown by proposing a number of measures, such as placing armed guards in each of the nation’s public schools and focusing on mental health issues.

LaPierre was widely criticized, even by some noteworthy conservatives such as columnist Ann Coulter, who told Fox News  the NRA “needs a better spokesman.”

Bay Area attorney Eric Gorovitz, the former policy director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, also criticized LaPierre and the NRA in a column he wrote for the Huffington Post.

Mindy Finkelstein

Responding to LaPierre statements that we must “erect a cordon of protection around our kids right now” because they are at the mercy of “the monsters and predators of this world,” Gorovitz wrote: “If we must arm the schools to keep our kids safe, how can we extend the ‘cordon’ to protect them when they go to the movies, unless we post armed guards in every theater? How will we keep the ‘monsters and predators’ from the neighborhood playground, without an armed guard atop every slide? The armed schools proposal provides a terrifying glimpse into the NRA’s vision for America.”

LaPierre’s proposed solutions have also been criticized by some Jewish gun owners — for not going far enough.

“The NRA is way too soft on the issue,” says Charles Heller, the executive director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group. “We should be increasing the layers of security in our school[s] by training teachers and administrators who want to work also as security.”

Heller, whose organization has linked gun control to genocide, recommended offering tax breaks to veteran special-forces soldiers and retired policemen in exchange for protecting schools. A society with fewer guns, he said, would be more violent.

“Don’t punish the innocent for the acts of the guilty,” Heller says. “That’s not very Jewish.”

In making his arguments, LaPierre cited Israel as a model for keeping children safe in schools by using armed guards at schools. But some Israelis noted that guards are in place to stop terrorists, not deranged killers with easy access to guns.

In Israel, there is no such access and no equivalent to the Second Amendment.

Native Israeli Einat Bauman fired weapons during her army days, but as Israel co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley she strongly supports stricter gun control.

“In Israel [school shootings] don’t happen because people that have [guns] have to go through registration and lengthy testing — psychological, physical,” she says. “They usually can own only one and must explain why they own it. In Israel you cannot buy more than 100 rounds a year.”

Bauman cites classical Jewish texts to support the argument for stricter controls on guns, recounting a passage from the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th-century code of Jewish law. In it, owners of vicious guard dogs are forbidden to allow the dogs to be off a metal chain. The dog’s barking is considered sufficient to ward off potential robbers.

“It shows the balance from the Jewish point of view that people have the right to defend themselves, but it’s limited,” Bauman says.

photo/josh lopez via creative commons Gun control supporters protest outside National Rifle Association office in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 17.

To many Jewish gun enthusiasts,  history provides ample justification for arming civilians and refusing to rely solely on police protection. They invoke the powerlessness of Jews during the Holocaust and the current security threats to Jewish institutions, and are dumbfounded by Jews who favor gun control.

“It is one of the most frustrating feelings to watch those who have been and continue to be the most persecuted people on the planet deny themselves the inherent right of self-defense,” says Zev Nadler, an NRA-certified instructor in Arizona. “A firearm is a great equalizer in that those who wish to do a Jew harm know that they may be armed. And suddenly we are not the easy prey we used to be.”

Finkelstein could not disagree more. By working with the Brady Campaign for 13 years, she has devoted nearly half her life to passing much tougher gun laws.

And with good reason: That day in 1999, the San Fernando Valley native had just finished playing capture the flag with her JCC campers when shots rang out. She never saw the shooter’s face or his gun.

“I knew immediately I was hit,” she recalls. “Adrenaline kicked in because I was able to run. I was still under the assumption I would die at any moment. I was covered in blood.”

Finkelstein collapsed on the ground outside and played dead until she heard sirens. After four days in the hospital, she took months to recover. Nine months after being shot, she spoke to a vast outdoor crowd at the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C., railing against the easy access to guns.

“That [first] year, I pretended it didn’t happen and dealt with it any way a 16-year-old could,” she says. “I was supposed to go to college. I had a boyfriend; everything was great. Then I had a major breakdown, left college and took a year off. A few years later, after therapy, I was pretty good to go.”

But she says anytime there is a mass shooting, her post-traumatic stress disorder kicks into gear. It happened again after the Newtown shootings.

One big difference between that massacre and the incident that wounded Finkelstein was the motive. The JCC shooter was a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi out for Jews.

“I was a person very proud of my Jewish upbringing,” Finkelstein says. “I loved going to Jewish camp. That was, the JCC I’ve been going to since I was 5 years old. It’s beyond disgusting that a person can hate a group of people so much as to actually take them out. At 16, that was really awful to know.”

It opened her up to special sympathy. Shortly after the incident, still in a wheelchair, Finkelstein attended her cousin’s bat mitzvah, which was also attended by dozens of Holocaust survivors related to the bat mitzvah girl.

“They surrounded me in tears,” she remembers. “It was an intense moment because it was a reminder that despite how many years have passed, we as Jews may say ‘Never again,’ yet there I am, at 16 years old, a target.”

As a gun control activist, Finkelstein accepts and supports the Second Amendment. However, she does want to see tough legislation passed, such as mandating background checks at gun shows and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is poised to reintroduce such bans. She helped write the original federal assault weapons ban in 1994, which expired in 2004. In the weeks ahead, a commission chaired by Vice President Joe Biden will explore new legislative action and report back to President Barack Obama. There is a good chance, in the wake of Newtown, that new proposals will be enacted into law.

As a victim of gun violence, Finkelstein has an even bigger expectation.

“My biggest hope is that we don’t live in a society of fear,” she says. “Thinking ‘I need to arm myself’ is a fearful way of life.”


Dan Pine is the senior writer at j. Chavie Lieber is a JTA writer.



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photo/ ap-craig ruttle
The Rutter family on Christmas morning near memorials by the firehouse in Newtown, Conn.