There are two camps in our debate about guns, and both are worshiping idols. That is the conclusion I came to while attending the gun control rally in Harrisburg on Jan. 23. The rally organizers argued for stronger laws, asserting that such laws could prevent tragedies like Newtown. For this camp, gun control is God. Meanwhile, at the counter-rally, gun-rights advocates contended that unfettered access to guns would have saved lives in Newtown. For this side, the right to bear arms is God.
Judaism warns against idolatry because it masks complexity, inhibits the discovery of truth and hinders the pursuit of the good. Those of us debating guns should heed this warning.
Those who champion expanded regulations tend to fall into one of two categories. The first are those who argue for “common sense” reforms to existing laws: universal background checks, closing certain sales and licensing loopholes, and banning certain weapons. These reforms will help get some of the most dangerous weapons out of circulation, and keep many others from some of the most dangerous people.
But banning assault weapons, while a noble step, does not address a critical issue: Most gun violence in the United States is carried out with handguns (including the bloody 2007 Virginia Tech massacre). The Supreme Court says handguns must remain legal. We also know that hunting rifles will not be banned.
A second category of gun control advocates argues for repealing the Second Amendment. But this would require not only the banning of all guns, but also confiscating the 300 million guns in circulation. Confiscation would be next to impossible. Plus, it would likely leave guns on the streets, and in criminals’ hands.
Gun rights advocates emphasize this reality, that “common sense” reforms are likely not strong enough to work, and that a ban could potentially be more dangerous for the law-abiding population. They see the solution as more guns, more people armed, trained and ready to defend against the “bad guys.”
But like the opposition, this camp, too, ignores crucial facts: that a gun in the home is more likely to harm the people inside than protect them; that there is a strong link between access to guns and gun deaths; that armed defense is not a guarantee of security; and that dangerous people with access to weapons are, well, markedly more dangerous.
Many ignore such facts, it seems, because their primary fear is not gun violence, but governmental tyranny. This might be understandable if it weren’t based on a misunderstanding of the Second Amendment. We are not afforded the right to engage in armed rebellion against the federal government.
According to historian Danielle Holtz, the Second Amendment intended to allow states armed, “well-regulated” militias to protect against the possibility of a tyrannical federal government. Thus, the Second Amendment might have aimed to give states the right of armed rebellion, but not individual citizens. Of course, none of this matters because the courts have limited gun rights to hunting and self-defense, and have never interpreted the amendment as permitting armed rebellion for anyone.
Thus, gun rights advocates have to come to realize that their right to keep and bear arms is limited, and therefore that the government can and should regulate it.
Both sides must admit that neither has a perfect solution. Holding up the idolatry of either extreme can distract us from other factors that contribute to gun violence: the expense, inaccessibility and stigmas of mental health treatment; the fact that kids in our broken education system become more likely to live lives of poverty, violence and crime; the link between rising poverty and deepening economic inequality and violent crime.
In addition, we glorify violence and equate masculinity with aggression. Our culture reinforces the notion that violence solves difficult problems, and is rewarded and celebrated. These issues are sometimes mentioned, but the right uses them as a dodge, and the left sees them as distractions. But we cannot solve the problem without seriously addressing these issues, too.
Jewish tradition reflects the complexity of the issue. Judaism emphasizes the obligation to save lives, and yet the Mishnah calls weapons “an embarrassment” for a person. Jewish law prohibits the hunting of animals, much less owning a weapon to do so.
At the same time, Judaism obligates self-defense, which implies the right to bear arms because self-defense means little if one’s assailant wields more sophisticated weapons. Meanwhile, the Torah is clear on our obligations to care for our society’s most disadvantaged, knowing that justice for the downtrodden is crucial to a peaceful society.
The Jewish tradition, then, invites us to avoid the idolatries of this debate and have a full conversation with each other about how to reduce gun violence, lift up the most vulnerable among us and defend ourselves. Judaism urges us to be open to arguments that soften our ideological predispositions, and resist simple solutions to complex problems.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple.