As the Black Lives Matter movement and mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino have brought renewed attention to gun violence, Washington-area Jews have focused on the more abstract parts of activism: building solidarity around the issue of gun violence and educating the community.
But recently, the nonprofit Jews United for Justice has given activists a concrete policy initiative to advocate for: keeping guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers in Maryland.
In Maryland, people convicted of felony and misdemeanor domestic violence are not allowed to own guns, said JUFJ organizer Laura Wallace. And while there is a system in place to prevent them from buying guns, there is no process to verify that they surrender guns they already have.
The statute that prevents domestic abusers from owning guns “is toothless without enforcement,” said Wallace. “This loophole puts victims and children in great danger, especially since many convicted abusers do not serve jail time and have easy access to their guns.”
Although JUFJ and its partner organizations have not yet determined exactly how abusers would surrender their weapons through a new system, JUFJ representatives testified about the issue before Montgomery County’s state legislators last month and the organization is now holding discussions about potential legislation with state lawmakers in partnership with local synagogues and other Jewish groups.
Cantor Rosalie Boxt of Temple Emanuel in Kensington said that her congregation’s year-old gun violence prevention task force will participate in JUFJ advocacy efforts. She said that she has taken a community organizing approach to advocacy around this issue, meaning that she and congregants are focused on telling personal stories about gun violence prevention.
“The task force started as a way for congregants to not feel alone in regard to this issue and to tap into the power of storytelling,” said Boxt.
In September, Boxt hosted a concert at Temple Emanuel as part of a nationwide series of concerts to raise support for gun violence prevention.
Steve Klitzman, a congregant at Temple Sinai in Washington, said that he became involved in February, when he attended an interfaith demonstration in front of a District Heights gun store. A 2010 Washington Post study found that the shop sells a significant number of the guns used in Washington-area gun crimes.
Since then, Klitzman, who had recently retired from a job at the Federal Communications Commission, has led a group at Temple Sinai to raise awareness around the issue and work on policy steps.
Over the High Holidays, Temple Sinai displayed on its lawn a traveling exhibit of T-shirts that represented the 202 victims of gun violence in the greater Washington area in 2015. Last month, the congregation organized a Shabbaton around gun violence prevention with Rep.-elect Jamie Raskin (D- Md.) as its keynote speaker. As a state senator, Raskin led a successful push in 2013 to pass a comprehensive gun control law.
Klitzman said that before the presidential election, he had hoped he would be advocating for gun reform legislation led by a Hillary Clinton administration. But the election of Donald Trump might mean that his group instead will work to preserve existing gun laws. These include fighting the National Rifle Association and its supporters should they push for a national concealed-carry law and working to preserve Washington’s gun laws.
Klitzman added that working on gun violence prevention has provided him with a useful outlet since the election.
“This work has energized a lot of us,” he said. “A lot of us are doing this to overcome the fear, anger and anxiety about a Trump administration.”
Many of those interviewed for this article emphasized that gun violence has been a longstanding issue in the country. Temple Micah in Washington has a Shabbat tradition that during the mourner’s Kaddish, clergy read the names of those in the local community who lost their lives due to violence.
“This is not always due to gun violence, but it has kept me aware,” said Rabbi Susan Landau. “What an important shock it is to be awoken in the middle of a service and remember that gun violence is an ongoing reality for so many of my neighbors.”