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Think Our National Gun Control Debate is at an Impasse? Welcome to Chicago.

On both sides of the argument, passionate Jewish advocates in the Windy City hold firm to their positions, with little new movement made in either direction

Gretchen Rachel Hammond
October 11, 2017
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Demonstrators calling for an end to gun violence and the resignation of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel march through downtown on December 31, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Demonstrators calling for an end to gun violence and the resignation of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel march through downtown on December 31, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last week, the American mass-shooting cycle of thoughts, prayers, analysis and brief legislative arguing began again when another active shooter killed 58 innocent concert-goers in Las Vegas.

The numbers from this year’s deadliest shooting in American history are, in Chicago, not an anomaly: In 2016, for example, 720 people were shot dead in the Windy City-an average of 60 victims per month.

While the gun debate in the national media tends to ebb and flow with each horrific new massacre, in Chicago it’s becoming a growing part of the civic and political life, and the Jewish community is no exception.

On both sides of the argument, passionate Jewish advocates hold firm to their positions, with little new movement made in either direction.

In the wake of last year’s mass shooting in Orlando, the Reform Chicago Sinai Congregation offered its members various ways to take action whether as part of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign to reduce gun violence in communities, or through signing a then-White House petition to ban the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. In a June 17, 2016 sermon, Rabbi Amanda Greene included a list of definitions in her call for a solution through active love. Among those definitions: “signing petition after petition to advocate for gun safety.”

However, those Jews on the other side of the debate believe that responsible gun ownership is more in keeping with their faith.

Mike Weisman co-founded Chicago Guns Matter alongside Rhonda Ezell, who was the lead plaintiff in two high profile Second Amendment lawsuits against the city arguing that its ban on gun ranges was unconstitutional. In January 2017, the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Chicago’s arguments for the ban, which Ezell had fought in the courts for almost six years.

Meanwhile, Weisman has been one of the state’s most outspoken advocates for Concealed Carry. He succeeded in 2013 when Illinois became the latest state in the nation to permit Concealed Carry. Today, he actively boycotts businesses which place a gun prohibition sticker on their entrances.

“You have to choose life,” he said. “Being able to protect your family is a Mitzvah. Jewish organizations that want to push for the disarmament of people in America have short memories. They’re not able to think back to the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. But it can’t happen to people who are able to defend themselves. In Warsaw, a small number of Jews with captured firearms held off the Nazis and died on their feet not on their knees. As a planet, we’ve said ‘never again’ but The Holocaust was by no means the first or the last time people were killed by their own governments.”

Ensuring accurate messaging regarding Second Amendment protections against tyrannical governments or a home invasion are a significant part Chicago Guns Matter’s raison d’etre.

“We have been working on educating the urban community for years on exercising their fundamental Constitutional rights to keep and bear arms and there are people who have put their lives on the line to protect those rights,” Ezell said. “We want people to understand the difference between lawful gun ownership and those who commit crimes.”

“Where’s the monthly outrage?” Weisman wondered regarding the average death toll in Chicago. “These mass shootings cause everyone to jump from behind the curtain to demand gun control. Perhaps they feel they’re not going to get the same kind of traction when it’s people in the neighborhood shooting each other. This kind of crime, that occurs very rarely, gets all the attention and it the motivation for disarming the population. “

One of the most often-cited reasons for the proliferation of illegal weapons in Chicago are those individuals who travel less than 45 minutes to the State of Indiana, buy a stack of firearms, and return to the city’s South Side to make a tidy little profit from the trunk of their cars. Weisman reiterated a chorus of gun advocacy voices who argue that the “gun show loophole” is a myth.

“It certainly doesn’t exist in Illinois,” he said. “At a federal level, there are special laws that apply for people making purchases interstate. If you look at the guns in circulation that are used to commit crimes, they’re not acquired through legal means. There’s an illegal step somewhere along the line that doesn’t necessarily involve a gun show. A lot of it is theft like robberies in Chicago train yards. It doesn’t have any bearing on legal firearm ownership. The anti-gunners try to grab a hold of that and use that to restrict the rights of the law abiding.”

In another typical post-mass-shooting reaction, the gun debate which briefly ensues revolves around the type of weapon used and how it could have been much worse. In 2016, it was assault rifles. This year, the usual parade of faces belonging to both those politicians calling for stricter measures and those politicians accusing their political opponents of politicizing tragedy have been focused on two new bright, shiny objects: Bump Stock and Silencers.

Weisman was quick to point out that a Silencer is an outdated and misleading name.

“They’re called Suppressors,” he noted. “You can’t silence a firearm. You can reduce the volume some and make it less damaging standing nearby but you can always tell where the noise comes from. Bump Stock reduces accuracy. It’s a red herring.”

“Any time there’s a mass shooting, the Democratic party always jumps to gun control,” Ezell added. “They use it for their political agenda each and every time. Here in the State of Illinois, they do not want us to protect ourselves by exercising our fundamental right to keep and bear arms. When you start talking to the Democratic machine which has been corrupt for years in Illinois and city of Chicago, you’re talking to people whose constituents have voted them into office and they go down [to Springfield] and do something totally different.”

Yet it was the desire to see something different in Springfield which motivated Bob Morgan—a Deerfield attorney and Jewish Democrat—to campaign for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives 58th District which will be vacated by fellow Democrat Scott Drury as he makes a bid to replace Lisa Madigan as Illinois Attorney General.

Morgan is a Midwest Regional Board member of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and served as the Jewish Outreach Director for Hillary Clinton, former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and, in 2008, Barack Obama.

“I was raised with the concept that, when you see injustice, you stand up and fight against that,” he said adding that he saw injustice not only in the 2016 Presidential election but “the inaction in Springfield which has led to a lot of harm to human service agencies, to children and adults through seniors and the safety net in social services provided in Illinois.”

Morgan is determined to be a part of the solution particularly to seemingly irresolvable issues such as the State budget. Like Weisman, there’s a Mitzvah at the forefront of his mind.

“Judaism is a core part of my life,” he said. “The issues that I’m fighting for have been evoked from my faith and involvement in the Jewish community; the idea of Tikkun Olam and protecting those in the community who can’t support themselves. That is the very essence of my priorities and goals as a potential legislator

Should he prevail, gun violence will inevitably be an issue Morgan will have to address.

“My parents were Chicago Public School teachers on the South Side,” he said. “The neighborhoods most impacted by this violence are communities I’m familiar with. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the level and degree of the constant violence that we read and hear about in the news and the horror of what we are seeing. On the political level, I refuse to believe that we can’t do better to make life easier and safer for people in the inner city of Chicago and throughout the State. There are many levels to that; both the weapons themselves and the motivation for people to commit violence. There’s no reason for us to sit idly by as we see this happening.”

While Morgan wants to focus on addressing motivations such as “rampant feelings of hopelessness” among inner city youth, he added that he was “not aware of any personal story of someone who sought a gun for the protection of their family and followed the law in [that] purchase who did not have access to one.”

“Yet, it doesn’t really address the problem of rampant guns on the South Side of Chicago for anyone and everyone who wants one,” he said. “I think there is a way for us to address reasonable restrictions on access to weapons by those who have committed and continue to commit heinous crimes—something that I think a vast majority of the public would agree with. But that conversation is very raw on all sides. For example, in the inability to pass legislation to prevent the sale of guns for those on the terrorist watch list. The concern is what happens next and that it is an overreach by the Federal government.”

He noted that whether or not Suppressor or Bump Stock devices is addressed, the industry will, ultimately, have the last word.

“If we put a ban one particular type of Silencer and, literally the next day, a manufacturer creates a different type of Silencer that’s not captured by the definition of that law, then what was the point of that exercise?” Morgan wondered. “There are certainly things that can be done but are we able to have an honest conversation about it without the extreme fear that guns are being taken away from people which is not what anyone that I know is recommending. We have enough weapons in the United States to arm every man, woman and child. The idea that we might not have enough to protect us against a regime really falls outside of a rational argument.”

Still, Weisman and Ezell believe it’s an argument they are winning.

“We have fought the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago in litigation after litigation and we have been successful,” Ezell said.

“Now that the gloves are off, we are able to capitalize on the efforts of Rhonda and others and spread the word in the community,” Weisman added. “That’s on our plate for this year.”

Meanwhile, as the increasingly fickle news cycle locks the back and forth between ideologies, even within a faith, in an increasingly packed vault to collect dust alongside cell phone videos of people running from a hail of bullets at a music concert, a night club, a high school, the brief searches for an answer to the question of whether more guns or less will put a stop to the monthly death toll in Chicago or the loss of life in a single and more newsworthy act wait patiently for the next active shooter.

Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.