Las Vegas shooting brings debate over gun rights, regulations to the forefront

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is a former Navy Seal who made national headlines during his political campaign with  TV ads showing Greitens firing military weapons. Here he is shown at  United Hebrew  in January, the weekend before his inauguration.  File photo

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Mark Cantor and his son Zac were both wearing camouflage yarmulkes when they stood on the bimah at Zac’s bar mitzvah in early September at Congregation B’nai Amoona. 

“The Torah teaches us about morality and compassion and you have that,” Cantor said to his son. “Keep it up; use it for your entire life. I expect that you will continue to be a mensch.”

Cantor, a personal injury lawyer with billboards around St. Louis, went on to say, “But what I mostly want to talk to you about…is your survival and protecting you and all of us.” 

He referenced the week’s Torah portion, which tells of Amalek, an enemy of the Israelites. 

“Amalek was pure evil, like Hitler, who tried to kill us physically and ideologically,” Cantor said. “It is because of Amalek that I have always said, ‘Every Jew should own a gun.’” 

About a month later, on Sunday night, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his Las Vegas hotel room, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500 others. Police found at least 23 guns, including AR-15 assault rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his hotel room. They also found 19 more firearms at his residence in Mesquite, Nev., about 80 miles away. 

On Monday, when I called Cantor to ask about his remarks and whether mass shootings such as the one in Vegas changed his thinking on guns, he said the shooting “was absolutely terrible, and I’m sorry for our country.” 

Then he added, “I think it’s not the time for politics.” Cantor belongs to the National Rifle Association. 

His response was similar to the one the White House initially gave to reporters when asked about gun control; most Republican lawmakers offered condolences but did not comment on existing laws or proposed legislation. 

People who believe that tightening gun laws could help prevent mass shootings such as the ones in Las Vegas or Orlando or Newtown, Conn., say that now is precisely the time to act. 

American Jews largely vote Democrat — the party that typically supports stricter gun laws — but Cantor is not alone. There are other Jews in Missouri, including Gov. Eric Greitens, who are vocal about gun rights and gun ownership.


‘Jews uneducated about guns’

Missouri mirrors states like North Dakota, South Carolina and Oklahoma in terms of the lack of gun control laws. Meanwhile, Connecticut, the state where the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place, has bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines as well as laws that prohibit high-risk individuals — meaning people who have committed a violent crime or offenses such as stalking— from possessing firearms and mandatory universal background checks. Missouri only has the prohibition on high-risk individuals.

“In Missouri, guns are endemic; there is one population where guns are not endemic, and that’s the Jewish population,” said Cantor. “We as Jews are educated about science and medicine and everything else, but we are wholly uneducated about gun safety, and we are targets.”

Among Jewish gun owners is Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who during his gubernatorial campaign ran a television advertisement of him firing a machine gun. Such fully automatic weapons are highly regulated but police have indicated Paddock may have modified his rifles to make them fully automatic. 

Despite his affinity for guns, Cantor said, “I’m not going to ever take a position that there should be unfettered gun ownership. It’s ironic that we finally have a Jewish governor in Missouri” and yet the state in January implemented a law that allows citizens to carry a concealed weapon in public without a gun permit, meaning they also don’t need to get training. 

“I don’t think that’s smart,” added Cantor. (The law was passed under former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, when Republican state legislators used their supermajority to override Nixon’s veto.)

In January, Greitens announced a policy that would ban people from bringing concealed weapons into the Missouri Capitol. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had an op-ed with the headline, “With act of sanity, Greitens resets the gun debate in Missouri.” Then in February, the governor reversed his policy and signs were erected stating that concealed firearms were allowed in the building.  

On Monday Greitens tweeted, “Our prayers are with the people affected by last night’s tragic and evil violence in Las Vegas.”

Meanwhile, State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, tweeted, “It’s simple. You like gun violence fatality rates & not being safe anywhere?  Keep voting for gun lobby electeds (sic). #PrayersNoAction.”

Despite the historic number of casualties in the Vegas shooting, Newman, who is Jewish and a long-time advocate for gun control, does not think that efforts to change gun laws in a non-election year will be successful.  

“Leopards don’t change their spots; we can lobby until the cows come home, but everyone elected by the gun lobby” — such as the NRA — “once they are in office, are not going to change their vote,” said Newman. “What has to happen is that people have to convince themselves that gun violence is an important issue to vote on, on Election Day, and they have to demand (to find out) where their candidate stands.”

Newman is now paying attention to a proposed federal gun silencer bill that would make it easier for people to purchase gun silencers around the United States. 


Can the ‘bad guys’ be stopped?

After the Las Vegas shooting, Hillary Clinton wrote on Twitter, “The crowd fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer, which the NRA wants to make easier to get.”

In a story with the headline, “Why the debate over gun suppressors isn’t really relevant to what happened in Las Vegas,” the Washington Post quoted someone from a firearm training firm near St. Louis saying, “A suppressor wouldn’t have stopped anyone from doing what they did and definitely wouldn’t have hidden the noise of the gunfire.”

The in-house counsel for the firm, Asymmetric Solutions, is attorney Matthew Chase, who belongs to the Orthodox congregations U. City Shul and Young Israel of St. Louis.

“I have always been a politically interested guy,” said Chase. “I am kind of a constitutional purist, so I got interested in guns as an exercise of my God-given freedoms.” 

Chase does not see strengthening gun control laws as a tool for preventing mass shootings. Most gun-control activists, he said, “are in fact massively ignorant about firearms. The call for immediate action, however, is interesting because the one thing they refuse to ever consider —and frankly they look at me and my ilk as the insane people — is that you cannot stop the bad guys from getting a gun. Ever, no way.”

Gun-control advocates have pointed to Australia as an example of a place where strengthening gun laws reduced the number of mass shootings and total firearm deaths. After a mass shooting there in 1996, the federal government banned semi automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns and then purchased them from civilian owners at market value. More than 700,000 guns were removed from an adult population of more than 12 million. 

“Gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides,” according to a study by the University of Sydney in 2006. “Total homicide rates followed the same pattern.”

Chase says, “No matter the fantasies of leftists everywhere, they are not going to confiscate the guns of everyone in America. Ain’t going to happen.”

But gun-control advocates argue that increased regulation would reduce the number of gun deaths. In Missouri, the firearm homicide rate increased by 25 percent in the three years following the 2007 repeal of a requirement for comprehensive background checks and purchase permits, according to a widely-cited study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. 

The study concludes that there is “compelling evidence that the repeal” of the law “which required all handgun purchasers to pass a background check even for purchases from private sellers, contributed to a sharp increase in Missouri’s homicide rate.”

The Australia and Missouri studies “are evidence-based research that shows there is a correlation between what the gun laws look like and how many people die at the hands of a gun,” said Gail Wechsler, a Jewish volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Wechsler travels to Jefferson City regularly to lobby for stricter gun laws.

Still Chase and Cantor both argue that Jews should carry guns. Cantor sees Jews as vulnerable and does not like the signs outside synagogues, for example, that prohibit people from bringing in guns.

“I don’t think that’s smart,” said Cantor. “I think if you are trained and know how to use a gun, we ought to say, ‘Hey, look we have some amongst us that are knowledgeable about this, and let’s protect ourselves.’ ”