Jewish groups commended President Barack Obama’s executive action to reduce gun violence across the nation, but in recognizing the limits of the president’s powers, called on Congress to pass comprehensive gun control reforms.
Surrounded by advocates, families of gun violence victims and survivors, including Jewish former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Obama delivered an emotional speech Tuesday from the East Room of the White House, outlining his executive actions to reduce gun violence.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in that room, including the president and top officials,” said Jared Feldman, vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “There was a tremendous amount of pain in that room and I think there was tremendous amount of resilience.”
Feldman said he kept thinking about how he was present in the East Room in 2013 after the Sandy Hook mass shooting. “We talked about the exact same issues … it would feel like déjà vu except it happened before and we just keep doing this.”
Using Congress’ “constant excuses for inaction” as his reasoning, Obama outlined a series of provisions to make America safer, including requiring gun sellers, specifically those who do business online and through gun shows, to be licensed; it would require those sellers to conduct background checks on would-be buyers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation would receive 230-plus additional examiners to process background checks 24/7. At present, if a background check takes longer than three days to complete, a gun dealer can sell the gun anyway, regardless of whether the potential buyer would or would not clear the check.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is dedicating $4 million and additional personnel to enhance the Integrated Ballistics Information Network. Obama proposed dedicating an additional $500 million in federal funds to treat mental illnesses.
Though Feldman said “there’s no question” that the president’s actions will be helpful — particularly in engaging the Department of Defense and other federal agencies in working to implement technology to make guns safer — he echoed the sentiments of other Jewish communal leaders that “to tackle this issue head-on, we’re going to need congressional action. Without that, we’ll never get to some of the root causes [of gun violence].”
“I think that as a Jewish community we are affected by this issue as all Americans are and we are also affected in a special way,” said Feldman. “We have security concerns that we need to be mindful of, as well.”
Bipartisan legislative action to combat gun violence is preferable, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement: “Yet, the ongoing obstinance among members of Congress make the steps announced today by President Obama necessary — even as we know more must be done to meet the scope of the crisis.”
Lori Weinstein, CEO of Jewish Women International, called it a powerful, reaffirming speech, especially in light of the work that JWI does as part of the Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
The coalition advocates closing what it sees as loopholes that put domestic violence victims and survivors at risk. According to statistics provided by JWI, more than half of all women murdered by an abusive partner killed with a gun.
“We can’t go back and undo the history of all the gun violence in our country over the last few years, but we can work to keep another incident from happening,” said Weinstein. “Congress has got to extract itself from the [National Rifle Association]. We have to enact sensible legislation that protects innocent victims from being killed.”
The NRA, a strident opponent of Obama, questioned the efficacy of the president’s plans in a series of tweets using the hashtag #2A to refer to the Second Amendment.
“The administration is simply restating the current law with the intent to chill lawful behavior by scaring law-abiding citizens who are hobbyists and collectors,” Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA’s legislative arm told The Washington Post. “This is political theater to distract from the president’s failed record,” she added.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) released a statement in response to the president’s announcement stating that Obama “has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that our nation has valued since its founding.”
Said Ryan, “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment. We will conduct vigilant oversight.”
Ultimately, Ryan and other Republicans believe that the president’s plans will be overturned should a Republican win the presidential race in November.
The president conceded that true gun reform “won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen during this Congress, it won’t happen during my presidency.”
“Once Congress gets on board with common-sense gun safety measures we can reduce gun violence a whole lot more. But we also can’t wait,” said Obama.
“Today’s announcement addressing an important aspect of preventing further gun violence makes these ideals more achievable,” Pesner said. “Jewish tradition teaches, ‘He who saves one life, it is as though he has saved the universe’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). This executive order has the potential to save countless lives and help repair some of what is broken in our world for the future.”