Here we are again. One week ago, we came to synagogue in shock and mourning over the massacre of eleven mostly elderly Jews who had come to synagogue to pray. Today, we are still reeling from the murder of 12 young adults who had gathered to dance for college night at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks. One of the victims had survived the Las Vegas shooting last October.
When I woke up to the news two days ago, I just felt nauseous. My heart is sick from this senseless violence. When will this end? What is wrong with our society?
There are indications that the shooter had a history of mental illness, and possibly PTSD from his service in the Marines.
What do these, and all of the other mass shootings have in common? Guns.
Every time there is another tragedy, we start arguing about gun control again.
Does Judaism have anything to say about gun ownership? As is typical, one can manipulate the sources to support any conclusion. We have gun enthusiasts in our congregation. My bias is definitely anti-gun. I grew up in a home in which there were no toy guns. We were not allowed to turn anything into a toy gun. So it is pretty ingrained in me.
I am not unique. The common wisdom is that Jews don’t own guns. In fact, there is data to support this. According to a 2005 study, Jews had the lowest rate of gun ownership among all religious groups in the United States. The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have repeatedly issued formal calls for increased gun control, turning to Jewish law and tradition to support their positions. That is something on which we all agree.
Where does this Jewish antipathy towards guns come from?
Since ancient times Jewish law has not looked favorably upon weapons. It is forbidden to sell weapons to idolaters, and to Jewish bandits. In other words, to someone who might use those weapons inappropriately.
A Mishnah (Shabbat 6:4) discusses whether the weapons that a soldier might carry during peacetime should be considered as decorations or tools. At the end of the discussion, the Sages declare that even though they must sometimes be used, weapons are inherently disgraceful. As proof, the Mishnah quotes the famous passage from Isaiah, describing a messianic vision of a world at peace. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4)
Finally, because the laws of kashrut require animals to be slaughtered in a specific fashion, hunting has never been popular in Judaism, for practical reasons. Plus, it is considered to be cruel to the animals. This disapproval for hunting is evident in the Torah itself. We find it in this morning’s parashah, Toldot.
Esau is one of two people whom the Torah describes as a hunter. The other is Nimrod. Neither of them are Israelites, and both are portrayed negatively.
In the beginning of the parashah, Rebecca gives birth to twin boys, Jacob and Esau, after a difficult pregnancy. Shortly after introducing them, the Torah summarizes their personalities: “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.” (Gen. 25:27)
Reading the text straightforwardly, we see the classic juxtaposition of the hunter vs. the shepherd. The commentators delve deeper into the contrast between the two brothers.
Rashi, citing the midrash, claims that Esau would hunt his father, Isaac, with his words, deceiving him into thinking that Esau was a kind, observant young man. He hid his true nature. Never mind that it is Jacob who is the one to do the actual deceiving.
Another commentator, Ibn Ezra, claims that hunting is by its nature a deceit-filled activity in which the hunter must trick his prey in order to catch it.
Esau, as depicted by the Rabbis, is a murderer, a brigand, and a rapist. In contrast to the violent, weapon-loving Esau is Jacob, the mild-mannered brother who uses his head instead of his hands. He is the one whom the Rabbis prefer, placing him in the Beit Midrash, the Academy, instead of the houses of idolatry.
The Midrashic depiction of these brothers reveals the Rabbis’ preferences for which kinds of behaviors to emulate and which to avoid. Their bias against physical violence and arms is abundantly clear.
On the other hand, the principle of pikuach nefesh directs us to do almost everything possible to save life. There are ancient sources which emphasize the permission, or even obligations, to defend oneself or an innocent person who is under attack. One might defend gun ownership for purposes of self-defense.
But there are clear limits. Despite acknowledging the permissibility of using force in certain circumstances, the Rabbis are always concerned with going too far. Someone who kills in self-defense, in a situation in which it would have been possible to only injure the assailant, is considered to liable under Jewish law.
It is fair to say that Judaism would support fairly rigorous gun regulations.
Over the last few years, the idea of “Common Sense Gun Laws” has been tossed around. Even though they are so “common sense,” they still generate opposition from the NRA. Practically, this means that nothing happens at the Federal level.
To be clear, there is no agreement on what “common sense” means. Here are some of the regulations that are typically described as “Common Sense Gun Laws.”
• A ban on semi-automatic weapons, or assault-style weapons
• A limit on the capacity of bullet magazines
• Red flag laws, in which a relative or police officer who is concerned about a gun owner’s mental state can go to a court to determine whether that person’s gun rights can be suspended.
• And of course, closing the gun show loophole, which permits gun sales from private owners or at gun shows without background checks.
But this week’s killings would not have been prevented by any of these measures. California already has the most restrictive gun laws in the country. We have enacted most of the “common sense,” provisions on a statewide level.
The shooter had a license for the handgun that he used. He also used a high capacity clip. Although these have recently been made illegal in California, the ban is currently held up in court. The shooter’s mother had reported her concerns over his mental health, and he had been evaluated earlier this year no decision was made to remove his weapons.
The shooter in Pittsburgh used three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, all purchased legally. Perhaps more restrictive laws might have made a difference, but I am skeptical.
Most gun deaths do not occur in mass shootings, but it is the mass shootings that tend to generate the most emotional reactions in us. Gun violence in America is an epidemic . In 2013, there were 33,636 deaths by firearms. Of those, 11,208 were homicides, and 21,175 were suicides.
It’s not the regulations that make the difference. It’s the guns. States with higher rates of gun ownership experience higher rates of firearm homicides, while non-firearm murder rates remain at normal levels.
Federal law prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from spending any money to study the public health aspect of gun violence, including mass shootings. This makes it very difficult to get usable data.
The National Firearms Act forbids “any system of registration of firearms, firearms owners, or firearms transactions or dispositions [to] be established.” This means that the government does not know where the guns are, who owns them, or even how many exist.
When we compare the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States to that of other countries, the contrast is shocking. According to the OECD, the U.S. has the 4th highest incidence of firearm homicides out of 34 developed nations, behind only Mexico, Turkey, and Estonia.
Compared to other countries, the United States does very little to restrict gun ownership. The result: there are a lot of guns. That is why we have so many gun-related suicides, murders, and mass shootings. If guns were not around, gun violence would not exist. That is common sense.
Do not expect this to change anytime soon. While it might only be a fraction of Americans who own guns, we have a national fascination. Why does the Second Amendment guarantee “the right to bear arms,” and why do people feel so passionate about it?
In America, the idea of private gun ownership is built on suspicion. Part of the American mythos is that we have a deep mistrust of the state. We need to be able to own guns to protect ourselves from a government that might become corrupt, or from other people when the government is unable to protect us.
Is gun ownership a God-given right? Of course not. It is a human-bestowed right. There are many countries in the world that come close to outlawing guns altogether. Would we say that they are violating God’s will?
Private handgun ownership is essentially illegal in Great Britain. Even the police do not typically carry guns. In the 12 months that ended in March 2016, the highest number of firearm deaths in four years was recorded: 26. This is consistent with other countries around the world.
But we in America like our guns. So we have to ask: Is it possible to have a society in which there are a lot of guns without high murder rates?
Let’s do a thought experiment.
Imagine a society in which, to own a gun, a person had to undergo extensive background checks. The government would look into criminal, physical and mental health history. The person would need to demonstrate a bona fide reason for needing a gun, such as living in an area that is particularly dangerous, or working as a civilian security guard. Anyone with a gun would need to take a training course on responsible gun ownership.
Because the disproportionate amount of gun deaths occur in young adults, a person would have to be at least 27 years old to be eligible for a license. If he or she had undergone combat training as a combat soldier in the military, the age would be 21.
The owner must demonstrate that there is a gun safe in the house. To maintain the gun license, a person would need to complete a refresher course every three years. Since a person’s mental state changes over time, the gun owner would receive a psychological evaluation every six years.
Finally, since the purpose of the gun is for self-defense, an owner would be limited to owning one handgun, and would be restricted to owning 50 bullets at any given time.
There could be some variations for those who use guns for sport or for hunting.
How does that sound?
I have just described the gun ownership laws of one country. Can you guess which one?
There is no “right to bear arms” in Israel. The private gun ownership rate in Israel is 7.3 guns per 100 people. In America, it is 88.8 guns per 100 people.
But wait, you are thinking. I have been to Israel. There are guns all over the place. It seems like everyone has a gun. Soldiers. Police. Guards outside of buildings. The vast majority of firearms in Israel are issued by the military, and fall under military jurisdiction, which has extremely tight rules. Anyone who violates those rules would have to face a military tribunal. Only 4% of guns in Israel are not issued by the military. So there are a lot of guns in Israel, but the regulations on those guns is extremely tight.
What is the result?
In 2009, the death rate in Israel from guns was 1.86 per 100,000 people. In the U.S. in the same year, it was 10.3 — 6 times higher.
In America, protection from the state underlies the obsession with guns. In Israel, the attitude is the opposite. Guns are seen as tools for the protection of the state.
I don’t know what it will take to change the culture of suspicion that pervades our nation. We need to do what we can to foster greater cooperation and trust among one another. That is the only way that we will be able to bring about Isaiah’s vision.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
May that dream become a reality speedily, in our day.