Is Change Possible? Continuing Thoughts on Gun Control

Of course I believe it’s possible for folks to change; I have no choice.

An old joke often told by clergy:

Of course I believe it’s possible for folks to change; I have no choice. (I said it was old; I didn’t say it was good.)

Most, though not all, religious traditions hold that it is possible—yea necessary—for human beings to change. In religious as well as philosophical circles the possibility of change is grounded in something called the doctrine of free will.

This notion though has come in for a rough time of late, as more and more scientific evidence builds up to suggest that decision making is, to a very great degree, an activity undertaken in the unconscious brain, for which our conscious brain then creates ex post facto rationalizations. (A very good book on this topic is Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational; for a related discussion see the book I mentioned last week, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.)

One reason it is so hard to change our thinking is that we don’t come to our ideas rationally in the first place. Once an idea forms in the mind we are, more or less, stuck with it. That’s also why it’s so difficult to change activities to which we have grown accustomed, especially if they give us pleasure, are activities at which we excel, and bring us not only self-satisfaction but peer group status. So is it possible to change?

I was eight years old when I first learned to shoot. The day camp I attended had a shooting range set up right near the woodworking hut, and so I spent a good deal of time either shooting 22’s or whittling tikis to the sound of other kids shooting.

And I was a very good shot. I remember the satisfaction when the counselor would pull the paper target in on the wire pulley and you could see up close just how many bulls-eyes, and close-to-bulls-eyes you’d made. It felt good. There was no way you could have told me I wouldn’t always love shooting.

Later at another camp, with BB guns, I continued to excel. I won awards. I was proud of my National Rifle Association certificates; was very happy when I got my Marksman First Class bar (which, if you’re not familiar, was hung between the Marksman bar and the medal itself; a work of art!). Had someone gotten preachy with me about shooting I know I would have turned a deaf ear.

In time my feelings grew ambivalent. Then a friend of mine from summer camp was shot to death in LA and the joy of shooting left me. My brother was accosted with a gun, and moved to another city only to survive a sniper attack on his building there. My feelings about guns darkened. Then I became a rabbi and within a few years a congregant’s beloved mother was gunned down, one of a number of victims in a gruesome mass murder in Binghampton, NY.  I strained to find words of solace for the family. And then 20 children and their teachers were massacred in Newtown; multiple wounds to each of the bodies, the body of the youngest riddled with eleven bullets. I felt nauseous; and ashamed that over all of these years I had not done more.

So do I believe change is possible? Yes, I do. But God help us if it takes this much heartache; and God help us if we don’t do something positive now with all of the heartache we’re all feeling.

Again, I want to emphasize that my purpose here is not to demonize—let alone disrespect—law-abiding gun owners. I hope that’s come across. Good people can disagree on many things. But we’re also finding that we agree on much more than we might have previously thought.

Consider: A Quinnipiac University survey released last week reports that 92% of respondents support expanding background checks to all gun sales. And in households with guns? The level of support is virtually the same… 91%.

Pro-Gun Control and Pro-Choice

The topic I’m blogging about is gun control. But the question has arisen, can one be both pro-gun control and also pro-choice? Most Americans would say yes. Nationwide, support for Roe v. Wade is at an all-time high. 70% of Americans now believe Roe v. Wade should stand. And at the same time the majority of Americans also support expanding gun control.

Folks representing many different faiths have come to their pro-choice positions grounded in their respective religious traditions. If you’re interested in learning about pro-choice from those perspectives I recommend you to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Member organizations include: the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist; as well as Judaism’s Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements; as well as caucuses and organizations such as: Catholics for Choice, Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Lutheran Women’s Caucus, Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options (PARO), and the YWCA. Click on the RCRC’s Perspectives link to read the perspectives.   

Why such widespread support?

One reason perhaps that so many Americans support both the Second Amendment and Roe v. Wade is that neither confers an unlimited right. President Clinton twice vetoed measures passed by Congress, in 1995 and 1997, because they did not “allow women to protect themselves from serious threats to their health.” Many of us supported him, and indeed in 2000 the Supreme Court, in Stenberg v. Carhart, struck down a Nebraska law which had been written using similarly “nebulous language” and deemed insufficiently protective of the mother. A more narrowly re-written version of the bill was signed into law in 2003, and was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007 in Gonzales v. Carhart, 2007 (although criticized by the Court’s minority for its lack of health exception).

Just as Roe v. Wade does not claim an unlimited right, neither does the Second Amendment under District of Columbia v. Heller. As Justice Scalia wrote:

“Like most rights the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…. [N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Get Involved

Please view (and forward to your friends) this new and moving ad for gun control by Gabby Giffords.

Please contact the White House to express your support for new gun control measures. Here’s the link:  

Please sign the petitions at Demand A Plan, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, One Million Moms for Gun Control, We The People, and Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Please read my previous posts on gun control: Repairing the World: The Truth About Ending Gun Violence Now (December 20);  There is No God: Continuing Thoughts on Gun Control (December 27); Sabbath to Stop Gun Violence (January 3);  Christina’s Letter: More Thoughts on Gun Violence (January 10); Bad News/Good News (January 24); Interfaith Call-In Event to Prevent Gun Violence (February 1); and The Challenge of Reasoned Debate:  Addressing the Issue of Gun Violence in America (February 7).

Your comments are welcome.

Rabbi Mark Sameth is the spiritual leader of Joyful Judaism: Pleasantville Community Synagogue an inclusive, progressive synagogue – with members from twenty towns, villages and cities all across Westchester and “A Hebrew School Your Kids Can Love.” Read The New York Timesarticle. Follow Rabbi Mark on Twitter . Weekly meditation at the synagogue every Saturday morning at 9 am is open to the public; everyone – without exception - is welcome and warmly invited. OUR MEMBERSHIP DRIVE IS ON. See “Top Ten Reasons to Join PCS” - as well as service times and events - at www.ShalomPCS.com.

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Theresa Flora February 14, 2013 at 10:05 PM
Wow, talk about apples & oranges. What happened to preaching about the "right to life" from your last piece? That only applies when you wanna justify disarming citizens, as though each of them is intent on indiscriminate killing. There are more than enough guns laws on the books. We don't need any more laws. In this country, there's a mental health problem being interpreted as a gun problem. Perhaps you should spend some time exploring that aspect instead of this outrageous anti-gun agenda and feebly trying to justify the murder of the unborn.
BHirsh February 15, 2013 at 04:51 PM
Times change, people change, but principles don't. The First Principle of this nation is that "[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends [guaranteeing and preserving the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it[.]" - Declaration of Independence The Supreme Court in 1939 held, "With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such [militia] forces the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.” - UNITED STATES v. MILLER, 307 U.S. 174 (1939) 307 U.S. 174 The Constitution's Second Amendment states, and the Suprme Court has held, that the people have a preexisting right to keep and bear arms, that the purpose of guaranteeing the right in the Bill of Rights is to insure that the people have access to the types of arms in common use that have militia utility. The amendment further states that the right "shall not be infringed". Of course, we should be having a legitimate debate about criminal and psychiatric violence in this country, but that discussion must begin with accepting that certain "options" are sacrosanct, and off-the-table.
John Gruber February 15, 2013 at 05:38 PM
There's no reason to prevent a normal healthy citizen to own a semi automatic weapon. I'm more worried about the criminals who procure weapons ILLEGALLY and the Soldiers who come back from war with PTSD and full access to an arsenal of weapons. You hear about the marine sniper and his friend who were shot and killed by a soldier they were helping who suffered from PTSD? So why aren't we looking to increase mental hygenie laws? Because its not PC to go after the mentally ill. Complete hypocrisy
White Feather February 15, 2013 at 06:23 PM
The only change necessary is to repeal all those laws that dont apply to the bad guys (Haynes vs US 390, 85, 1968 & the 5th amendment), and force the govt. to actually enforce the existing laws that do, and as noted, the mental health issue, which courtesy of the ACLU in the 1970's, main streamed the mentally ill into society. One doesnt wonder why wacko's killings increased from 1970 on, or that 50% of current 2.7 mil prison population is severely mentally ill, we dont wonder.
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 02:02 PM
Sholem Aleichem, Rabbi. Please check and READ the scholarly works on the JPFO.org site. Please READ the Framers arguments, the debates at the Constitutional Convention, the letters and discourse held when our Government was put together. I believe that you will change your mind. Old saying: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? History is replete with despots and rulers becoming dictatorial and maniacal. well: not here, not there, not anywhere - never again. There are plenty of other cases besides Heller that hold sway as well. Too, legislative rationales for law are admissible - the Framers' Debates and intent as gleaned from the writings. As much as we ALL would like a world where violence was erased, that is not available and not in our evolutionary DNA. So we contend and try and educate and co-exist as much as possible. But to take away and limit a right of self defense against a potentially despotic government? Don't tread on me. Gedenk!
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 02:06 PM
and what could be more Constitutionally valid than to start forming our well regulated militias? So far, 25 active in NYS (found thru corporation data base search). Time to make it 1000.
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 02:17 PM
PS: Rabbi: isn't your "argument" against guns a replay of the the same argument being had in the Warsaw Ghetto when the nazis were about to invade and eradicate the Jewish Fighting Organization? Be an Anielewicz, be an Edelman. Don't be a Soros. Don't feed us to the wolves.
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 04:52 PM
PPS: Rabbi: Please don't help Pesach come to ANY ghetto again..... http://forward.com/articles/8688/gedenk-remember/
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 05:10 PM
PPPS: (I promise no more...for now). What I talk about is a "doomsday" poison pill use of the Second Amendment, which I hope never comes to pass - ever. But, like another old saying goes: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. What I fear has already happened here, in 1946, Athens, Tenn and several other counties and towns. What you and too many others fail to recognize is that the Second Amendment is the American corporate poison pill. Watch the 13 minute video at the end of the documentation/time lines/witness statements and press reports. It's a dramatization, but effective nonetheless. I do not want to EVER get to that point, but it MAY happen. Maybe not in my lifetime, but maybe in my children's lifetime... or theirs. SO do not restrict fundamental, natural rights any further than they have already been. This is not a privilege of driving, these are essential human rights that are under attack. Genug. B'chol dor v'dor, right?
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 05:10 PM
http://jpfo.org/filegen-a-m/athens.htm Please watch and read.
Dan Seidel February 17, 2013 at 05:14 PM
OK: just a quote from the event: The deputies ranged themselves around the voting precinct and several, including one dressed like a character from a western movie, placed themselves on the steps where they could watch the entire corridor. Ex-servicemen regard the day's proceedings with varying attitudes but most of them displayed a bitterness seldom seen in the fighting lines. One ex-soldier watching the guarded vote counting before it was moved to the county jail said: "Over there we had something to fight back with." Another remarked, "We just aren't well enough organized and we haven't got guns. We haven't got a chance with this gestapo."
Ross Revira February 17, 2013 at 07:02 PM
You are brilliant. How can you stand being part of the Democrat party?
Racman63 February 17, 2013 at 08:32 PM
The rabbi said, "I felt nauseous; and ashamed that over all of these years I had not done more." The ashamed part really strikes me, because after I sorted through the despair and anger of Newtown, I was left feeling ashamed of myself. It is as though a consequence of my inaction on gun control helped contribute to this tragedy. Perhaps I'm in the minority. Maybe there's only a few of us who can make that connection, who understand that we are responsible for each and every life, but most particularly, for the lives of the most and innocent and vulnerable among us. There is no reason for a civilized people to be well armed. The pro-gun people are as wrong on this issue as the pro-slavery people were in the 1850's. History will prove it. It's got to stop.
Vlad The Impaler February 18, 2013 at 05:17 AM
Sorry Racman you will not disarm me, we are right and you and the rest of the "progressives are wrong. We will be proven right, how? because it is only a matter of time before this government turns on the citizens it considers a threat to them. Explain why the Dept of Homeland security have bought 1.5 Billion rounds of ammunition. That is more ammo that was used in the entire Iraq war...There is no doubt in my mind that you will be the first to turn in your neighbor like some informant in the old East Germany
Dan Seidel February 18, 2013 at 11:41 AM
TY! I just have a lot of time on my hands to read and then cry out with despair. It's getting to be extremely difficult, but I feel I can work within the party to cajole, coopt, change hearts and minds - bring back to center/sanity - very hard to pry myself from old "comrades". I'm thinking 3rd party now, like Mike Savage says, even Mark Levin. This is NOT the America I grew up with. I love the country too much to let it go, so we fight for Right. I'm glad to have allies like you.
Dan Seidel February 18, 2013 at 11:56 AM
So Racman, at what point would you take life? antibiotics? cancer therapy? radiation treatment of the cancer cells? That takes life as well - you just see it as lousy diseased life. WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR LIFE AND SOCIETY. Without a good society, a protected society, a FREE SOCIETY, life is kinda horrible, eh? Let's protect society so we can have life. Leave the guns alone - they are not the problem. What you TEACH your children is the flash point. Let's nail that one first. I was on a rifle team in high school - I'm law abiding because I VALUE the Law. I learned societal values well. I would never kill without necessity - now what is the necessity is the $64,000 question. I would hope never to have to find out. I would hope that my children and theirs and theirs never have to find out, BUT IF they do, they will be prepared... and well armed.
Bjorn Olsson February 18, 2013 at 01:56 PM
So, who sells weapons to the criminals? If there was better tracking of every sale, wouldn't it be easier to find out exactly where in the chain a legal weapon turns illegal?


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