Working for smart guns
Mahwah rabbi forms coalition to help cut back on gun violence
It would have been entirely understandable if Rabbi Joel Mosbacher wanted to ban all guns. Just collect them all, melt them into a lump, and be done with it.
Rabbi Mosbacher’s father, Lester Mosbacher, was eulogized as a “gentle soul” in 1992; he died, at 52, after he was shot by a burglar who was holding up his store on Chicago’s South Side.
His murder was the textbook definition of pointless — Mr. Mosbacher was shot in the head and arm by a petty thief who got nothing from the robbery and was tried, convicted, and then released for retrial, which never happened. Nothing ever happened, except that Mr. Mosbacher remained dead.
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For years, Rabbi Mosbacher, the spiritual leader of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, bottled his rage. And then, just a few years ago, he took its distilled essence, nourished by news stories of other shootings, equally senseless, like his father’s murder causing sudden, catastrophic, and lifelong pain to survivors as their own lives had to reweave themselves around a gaping hole, to lead a new campaign.
And it is a careful, moderate, deliberate campaign, aimed not at raising the emotional temperature but at lowering it.
He is working not to ban guns, or to work on gun control, but to control gun violence.
“Do Not Stand Idly By,” an inter-religious campaign against gun violence, takes its name from the biblical verse in chapter 19 of Leviticus, which demands that we not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. Rabbi Mosbacher has taken that moral imperative seriously.
Metro IAF (which stands for Metropolitan Industrial Areas Foundation) is an organization that describes itself as “the nation’s first and largest network of multi-faith community organizations,” according to its website. “Drawing on the proven power of person-to-person organizing, our work transforms communities and builds the local power necessary to create national change,” the explanation continues.
Working with Metro IAF to create and fund “Do Not Stand Idly By,” Rabbi Mosbacher is spending this year working halftime at his shul and halftime on the campaign. (Beth Haverim Shir Shalom’s new assistant rabbi, Daniel Kirzane, has been overseeing the shul.)
Rabbi Mosbacher and his colleagues have talked with gun designers, visited gun shops, and most recently held a gun show. Their goal is to sidestep questions of gun control, replacing them with the less contentious promise of smart guns.
Smart guns, which do not yet exist in mass-producible form, can be fired only by their legal owners. Sophisticated devices now being created, tested, and in the most advanced cases prototyped by cutting-edge technologists and gun designers make that science-fiction-like premise possible. That technological step possibly could defang some of the critics who fear government control of their second-amendment-protected firearms but would like not to have to worry about those guns being stolen or otherwise turned on the wrong people.
If guns can be personalized so that only their owners could use them, then stolen guns would turn into hunks of metal; they could be used to bash other people, like short steel bats, but they could not shoot. If a police officer were carrying a personalized gun, he would not have to worry about that gun being turned on him during a struggle. It could be aimed but it would not shoot.
So there are two main goals for Rabbi Mosbacher and the campaign. One is to find or aid in the creation of the technology that makes the vision possible. The other is to convince the gun-buying public — and particularly the institutional gun-buying public, mainly local police and state and national armed forces — that the logic behind them is unassailable.
“We are trying to create an emerging market,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. Mostly, it is being done on a very local level; he tries to make his case with town mayors, each of whom oversees a fairly small police force, but little steps add up to large advances. And the campaign is taking place across the country. “It is important that we be geographically diverse,” he said. “We signed Atlanta and Durham for this effort. It will not be successful if it touches just the liberal Northeast. It will be too easy to write us off then.
“A lot of times, when we go to public meetings to talk about it, people think they are seeing another group of people who are going to try to roll back the Second Amendment,” he said. “We have to stay with them, stay in the conversation long enough for them to see that we are not saying that.
“There are places where you say the words ‘gun violence prevention’ and it is the end of the conversation.”
He thinks that there is much hope on both of his campaign fronts.
“Companies know how to innovate, and law enforcement can be convinced to change the weapons they carry if they are convinced that the weapons are safer and more reliable,” he said.
To that end, the group is holding gun shows, where they introduce gun buyers and enthusiasts to companies working on prototypes of smart guns. The first such show was held earlier this month in New Rochelle, N.Y.
“We know that there is a lot of skepticism in general, and among the police in particular, about reliability,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “We are not asking cops to compromise on their own safety, and we don’t feel best placed to know if they are reliable. That’s why we want to make the introduction, and let gun people speak to gun people, and let the gun people decide if it is safe and reliable technology.”
In May, a group of clergy from northern New Jersey “visited 12 gun stores, including in Paramus and Mahwah and Ramsey,” he said. “We got a range of reactions, but part of the question is ‘What do you know, you members of the clergy, about guns? What do you know about the process of acquiring guns?’
“We are trying to understand. We are trying to be smart and strategic. It would be good for me to at least understand the process of acquiring a handgun license.
“One of the stores we went to had a Jewish owner — in fact, two of the stores we visited were owned by Jewish guys. Not all of us were rabbis, but when he realized that he was talking to a rabbi, it was like when I meet a Jewish person on a plane, and they realize that they’re talking to a rabbi. They talk. So he spent much of the time that we were in the store pulling out the reams of paperwork he has to fill out to sell a gun. He was trying show us how onerous it was, and we were there thinking that if only every state had all that paperwork…
“There are about 400 gun sellers in New Jersey, which is a little bit below the national average. We sent a letter to each one of them, asking them to consider smart-gun technology. We got a range of reactions that we could have predicted, from hostile to skeptical but open.
“We were at a gun store, talking to an owner, and he said that the technology couldn’t work, that it couldn’t be reliable, and that no one would want it. One of my colleagues asked him if he had ever fired one. The answer was no. Someone else asked if it would be morally objectionable to have the store carry it, and he said no, but no one would want it. We are just saying that if you could make it available, maybe no one would want it, but then we’d know.
“We were just trying to open the conversation,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.
The question of smart guns is even more complicated in New Jersey than in other states, he said. About 12 years ago, the state passed the New Jersey smart gun mandate, which said that “once a smart gun is sold anywhere in the country, a clock starts, and within three years that is the only kind of gun that can be sold in New Jersey.” (Police officers are exempt from it, he added.)
State senator Loretta Weinberg was instrumental in passing the law, which is unique to this state, and entirely well intentioned. “But now, in our view, it is a big obstacle, because we have examples, one in California, one in Maryland, where stores announced that they would put a smart gun on the market, and within 24 hours they had gotten so many death threats from gun supremacists that they had to withdraw it.” But had the sales gone through, the mandate’s wire would have been tripped, despite the clear physical dangers it posed to store owners.
“Most of the people I’ve met who are gun owners are gun enthusiasts,” he added. “That’s people who own guns for protection or for sport. They are like the 70 percent of NRA members who believe that it is okay to have background checks. They are reasonable folks. Unlike me, they want to own a gun, but it is possible to have a conversation with them.
“And then there is a whole other group of people, who I call gun supremacists. Like any other supremacists, there is no discussion to be had with them. They are the kind of people like the one who wrote on a blog about me that if my grandparents had had guns in Germany in 1938, the Nazis wouldn’t have succeeded.
“It’s the gun supremacists who are making threats to gun stores,” he said.
“There is a paranoia among a fringe percentage of gun supremacists that says that the introduction of technology in this regard is a slippery slope leading to the government coming to take your guns away,” he said.
His solution to the mandate? “We have approached the New Jersey attorney general and proposed an alternative. We would not like to see the mandate repealed, but replaced with one that says that we would like to see the state police test the technology. If the state police say that it’s safe, then the mandate would be replaced with one that says that every gun store in New Jersey has to carry one model. It’s not the only one that would be sold, but it must be made available should it be determined to be safe.”
Meanwhile, he added, because the governor, given his ambitions, would just as soon dodge questions about gun control during the upcoming presidential election season, and he has managed to dance around the mandate. His administration has determined that the smart guns now being developed will not trigger the mandate, Rabbi Mosbacher said.
It is important for rabbis and other clergy people to get involved in the push for smart guns, he said. “Victims and their families, people of faith, mayors and police chiefs and sheriffs and governors and presidents — we all have our responsibilities in regard to gun violence prevention.
“Some of us have to have the violence, some of us have to bury the victims and console the bereaved. We all are playing our roles.
“We think that gun manufacturers have been left out of the roles they can play. We want to make the problem of gun violence their problem too.”
In early June, Rabbi Mosbacher went to the first gun show that displayed prototypes of smart guns. “It was great,” he said. “We’re going to do it again. We had people from nine police departments and five smart gun designers and 80 or so faith leaders from different religious traditions.
“It was the first to bring together designers and police departments, and it was enlightening for the police to see that the technology is for real. Probably it was the first time that any of them saw it. I think they were intrigued.
“And it was great for the designers too. Some light bulbs went off for them too I think that the designers didn’t necessarily realize that the police would be interested. They started thinking that this would be only for home use. I think that when they saw genuine interest from police, it was heartening and exciting for them.”
The designers come from a range of backgrounds, Rabbi Mosbacher added; one of them, “an 18-year-old, who lives in Colorado, was inspired by the tragedy there.” (He was talking about the 2012 shooting that killed 12 people and injured 70 others; the alleged gunman, James Holmes, is on trial now. Prosecutors have asked for a death sentence.)
Donald Sebastian is the senior vice president for research and development at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. He began to work on the problem of smart gun technology on July 1, 1999, “the first day of the fiscal year, and my first day in my position at NJIT,” he said.
The work came out of a grant from Jack Collins, the South Jersey Republican who then was president of the state’s General Assembly. He was against the smart gun mandate — “it was a politically fractious issue then as now,” Dr. Sebastian said — “so his dodge was to challenge the university. He gave us a million dollar grant to study whether the technology was real.
“Then, as today, you could hear opposing views. Is it science fiction, or is it possible? And if it didn’t exist, what would it take to get us there?
“None of the technologies were better than lock and key trigger locks, that I think already were required,” he said. Those were devices that a gun user had to carry if the gun was to work, but “if you left the key in the drawer, they were useless.
“Putting electronics in a gun is not simple,” he said. The gun manufacturer Colt had tried, but it “failed catastrophically in public” in the late 1990s. The gun overheated. It was a disaster, “and then they let it go.” The trouble, he said, was that the company tried to work with people who did not really know guns. “It was a shotgun marriage, and like most it didn’t really work,” he said.
When NJIT tackled the problem, its scientists decided that the way around “owner responsibility” was to use biometrics — to tie the gun to something on the user’s body, not something that can be lost or forgotten. “All that was available back then was fingerprint technology, and that was not reliable,” he said. He compared it to the fingerprint technology that unlocks today’s iPhones. It works most of the time, but if your finger is wet, forget it. “When water fills the grooves, you essentially have eradicated your fingerprints,” he said.
What to do? “Someone had a brilliant idea that has become our primary focus,” Dr. Sebastian said. “There is a whole new class of biometrics — behavioral biometrics. It’s not just fingerprints, but the way that you do things.
“It combines your physicality — say the size and length of the digits of your hand — and the way that you do a coordinated action. When you do something that is a learned behavior, it comes from a different part of the brain. When you pull on the trigger of a gun, the rest of your hand is performing too, and the pressure pattern that you create would be individual — it is yours and nobody else’s — and it is reproducible — you can do it over and over — and it is measureable.”
These patterns are learned when you first learn how to take the action, and because they are not conscious they are hard to change, Dr. Sebastian said.
“That was his premise — individual, reproducible, and measureable. His inspiration came out of handwriting analysis on the pads that just came into use in supermarkets. Its developers said they were not using the signature itself, but the dynamic character as it is signed — pressure and speed, how hard you are pushing on the pen and how fast you are moving it.”
It’s similar to the way voice recognition works, he continued. “It combines your vocal chords and breathing pattern, so it doesn’t matter if you muffle your voice or whisper or put on a fake accent. There is something about the way you’ve learned to speak when you were an infant that you retain.
“That’s the science we use. We put 32 pressure transducers — sensors — in the gun, and when you pull the trigger it analyzes the pressure pattern. We can make that measurement in the first tenth of a second,” so the gun’s response is immediate. There is no time delay if the shooter is matched properly with the gun.
The sensors now are part of the gun, he said; NJIT is working with researchers at the Picatinny Arsenal in Rockaway to make the electronic component even smaller than it is now, and to increase its battery life. (When it comes to this, the problems of the smart gun and the smart phone sound remarkably similar.)
“Why do we do this?” Dr. Sebastian answered the rhetorical question. “It is the right thing to do. The solution ultimately will be something that will be acceptable to gun users and enthusiasts. This is not some hair-brained academic scheme that the government will force on them.
“It is gun safety, not gun control.”
William Laforet is the mayor of Mahwah. He approves of Rabbi Mosbacher’s work.
He grew up in Mahwah, “and when I was a kid, deer hunting was something you just did,” he said. “It was many families’ tradition to go upstate to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere.”
Nonetheless, he did not try to shoot a rifle until he was an adult.
“When I had the opportunity to shoot a rifle, I remember how deeply it affected me. When I shot it, I hadn’t realized the magnitude of the weapon, the impact of the weapon.
“I remember what it did to me, how it affected me. I handed the gun to my wife’s cousin — it was a brand new gun — and I said I would never use it again.
“It often is a novelty to get a gun. People buy guns but never get to a range to get the proper training in how to shoot it. Boys will be boys, men will be men — I know, I’m one of them — so they go home, and say ‘Johnny has a gun, so I’ll go and get one too,’ and it nurtures this whole explosion in gun ownership.
“There is a whole segment of gun purchasers who keep them but don’t use them. God forbid they ever had a chance to shoot it. They would be devastated by it.”
So gun safety would not be Mr. Laforet’s personal issue, but he oversees a police department that has 51 officers. (“Mahwah is the size of Manhattan, 26 miles,” he said.)
“Joel Mosbacher is bringing a practical approach to the table,” he said. “These small accomplishments add to the sum total of the parts.
“When is enough enough? When a person sits in a church, contemplating what he will do — and then kills nine people? I can’t keep hearing that it’s some mental disorder or illness, because at what point do you not fix the problem? You would think that after Sandy Hook you would see a call to action.
“Unfortunately, we tend to want to forget something bad like that, but how many times can we as a society say well, it turned out to be a mental condition?
“If you can fix how guns are recycled, it would help. Protecting gun rights is important, but take a look at how we manage permits. You have to start to do something effective at some level.
“I can understand the notion of gun violence in the cities, but I never thought it would come to my town.” Last year, a SWAT team had to come to disarm a man “who was in his home, threatening to kill people,” Mr. Laforet said. “I never thought this would come to my door, but there is no more separation.
“Gun violence is not just in the inner cities. It’s in small towns. It’s all over.”
Rabbi Mosbacher “is so dedicated to the cause, and it is absolutely admirable,” Mr. Laforet added. “And I admire what he is doing. There are risks involved, and he is unconscious of the risks.
“He will speak out, he will get responses, and he will never look in the rearview mirror.”