Feeling moral indignation about gun violence is an important first step, and prayer is an activity that he values tremendously, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher said.
But those things, as fundamental as they are, simply are not enough.
Gun violence has become an epidemic in this country, he feels, and it must end.
Mosbacher is the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, a congregation whose principles lead it to a great deal of social activism. This week, he convened a group of local clergypeople to figure out strategies that could lead to real-world change.
Twenty clergy members – 17 from northern New Jersey and three from Rockland County – have joined the group; 15 of them came to the first meeting. The group includes Reform and Conservative rabbis and representatives from Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed churches and the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson.
“The purpose of the gathering is to explore some initial steps toward making an impact on gun legislation from a moral, ethical, and religious perspective,” Mosbacher said. “We feel that we could have a powerful voice because we come from religious traditions that speak powerfully about saving lives, and about our obligation not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors.
“The impetus for me, and I think for everyone there, was that we’ve all been at vigils,” he said. “Not only for Newtown” – the Connecticut village where 20 young children and six adults were killed by a gunman, fresh from murdering his mother, using his mother’s guns – “but for Aurora” – where a body-armored gunman opened fire in a movie theater, killing 12 and grievously wounding dozens – “and for Tucson” – where another crazed shooter killed six people and severely wounded others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords – “and for Columbine” – where two high school students shot up their school and killed 13 students, injuring two dozen more.
They have prayed, Mosbacher said, “and maybe it is an occupational hazard but I believe that prayer is important.
“But the question is what are we praying for? Can we act? Yes, prayer is an act, and expressing moral indignation is an act, but can we do more to effect change?”
Clearly, he believes that the answer to that last rhetorical question is yes.
“Our general goals are to work for the kinds of legislation that protect children and innocent citizens while respecting hunters and sportsmen who use guns in a responsible way for sporting purposes,” he said.
He stressed that the group is not trying to test the boundaries of the Second Amendment, much less work for its repeal. “I have congregants in my own congregation who are worried about legislative slips, who worry that banning 80-round clips will lead to banning all guns,” he said. “That is not my goal.” Nor would it be a realistic goal anyway, he added.
“We want to focus on change that would be real and meaningful, not on fruitless debates with diehard gun advocates. The battle is not with the NRA” – the National Rifle Association. “For now, we want to focus on closing the gun show loophole, limiting the number of guns people could buy in a month to one, passing legislation that would limit the number of bullets in a clip, let’s say to 10, and demanding universal background checks on gun buyers.” (The gun show loophole allows unlicensed vendors to sell guns without background checks.)
The goal “is to create a broad coalition on this issue,” he continued. “We don’t want it to be just of liberal progressive folks, but of people across the range of political and religious perspectives who think it is time to act.”
The group that met, as diverse as it was, was interestingly united in its understanding of the problem of gun violence, Mosbacher said. An entirely unscientific poll on the four issues the group wants to address drew unanimous agreement.
The meeting ended with a plan.
The New Jersey participants came from many legislative districts. “We’ve already done some research, and we know that five members of the New Jersey delegation to Washington historically have not been supportive of gun control legislation, so we’re trying to get meetings with them,” Mosbacher said “We’ve already asked for a meeting with [Rep. Scott] Garrett [R-Dist. 5]. A number of people there were from [Rep. Rodney] Freylinghausen’s [R-Dist. 11] district and will ask for a meeting with him. We would like to ask about their plans on how to limit gun violence in this county.
“The intention is to do that in private, with groups of clergy, across lines of race and faith and class and geography.
“That’s Step 1.
“Step 2 – we’re hoping to put together a public gathering in the next few weeks, where we would report back on those meetings, share stories from our members about how gun violence has affected us. In the ideal world, we’d have these legislators with us at the meetings, and we would ask them publicly the same questions we’d asked them privately.
“The public meeting is for everybody,” Mosbacher continued. “We would share stories about why this matters. We hope the legislators, if they could come, would be willing to support some of those things, and we’d publicly celebrate them. Or if not they could come and debate with us.”
This, Mosbacher said, is the group’s northern New Jersey strategy.
On the statewide level, “in the beginning of February, we are going to put together a clergy gathering, with the idea of trying to meet with all the members of the New Jersey delegation who historically have not been supportive of gun control legislation.”
The plan is to be bipartisan. Although Democrats are in favor of gun control legislation in New Jersey while Republicans tend to be against it, Mosbacher said, that pattern does not hold across the country. Many Democrats support the NRA. The issue of gun control ideally should not be bound by partisan politics, Mosbacher believes.
On the most ambitious level – the national stage – Mosbacher dreams of organizing a march on Washington “that might bring together an unlikely, diverse group of people ““ clergy, police officers, doctors, other health care workers. The goal is not just to bring the usual progressive coalition.
“If it’s just northeast progressives, we’ll feel good about it, but it won’t be as effective,” he said. “We want everyone there, in the same space.”
It is important to act now, he added, “because there is a limited window of time.” Why? Because people forget.
“They already are forgetting. The horror that we all felt after Newtown will fade, and soon the president and vice president will propose whatever legislation they propose, and heels will begin to dig in in Washington, as they always do.”
Mosbacher knows gun control isn’t the only issue. “We feel we can make a significant impact, but it will not completely resolve the problem of gun violence. Do we have to have a conversation about access to mental health care? Yes. Do we have to have a conversation about violence in the media? Yes.
“Right now, we’re trying to highlight or identify a few concrete, potentially winnable steps that could make an impact right away.”
Mosbacher is propelled into this work both by an abstract belief in its importance and a more personal understanding of the misery a gun can cause. “Fourteen years ago, my father was murdered,” he said. “He was a victim of gun violence ““ although the sad truth is that no legislation is likely to have saved him.”
Mosbacher’s father owned a small business on Chicago’s South Side. “He was held up, and it turned into a murder,” Mosbacher said.
“I’ve always known that nothing good could come out of his murder. He will never come back.
“We know the names of the victims of Newtown and the people who were at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the victims of Aurora and Columbine. And we should know them. But there are 30,000 victims of gun violence every year. Nobody knows their names.”
He was not the only person at the meeting to have been affected personally by gun violence, Mosbacher said. “It was amazing how many people have connections to it. We think that it’s an urban problem ““ that it doesn’t affect Jews, or people who live in the suburbs. We’re wrong.
“There are 300 million guns in private hands. I have to be clear. We are in no way saying that it is our goal to take back those guns.” Instead, he hopes for legislation that controls how they are bought, sold, and used.
Mosbacher knows that the problem is huge and seemingly intractable, but he is not daunted.
“This is a community organizational model,” he said. “People of faith who have organized money and organized people can be powerful. We hope that out of this gathering of people of faith will grow powerful efforts on a wide range of issues.