The Idolatry of Gun Rights and Gun Control

When the Children of Israel safely crossed the Sea of Reeds and witnessed Pharaoh's armies washed up dead on the shore, they burst out singing, "This is my God, whom I will exalt!"

These words reflect the propensity many of us have following traumatic events: to exalt the parties responsible for saving us and, by extension, to denigrate, as fully as possible, the parties responsible for putting us in harm's way. To do this is natural and understandable. Sometimes, it is even wise. Often, however, it blinds us to the complexity of the situation, leading us to erroneous, and potentially harmful, conclusions.

I fear that this describes the pattern that emerged following the horrific events in Newtown, Conn. late last year. Almost immediately, some argued for stronger gun control laws, asserting that, with them, the tragedy in Newtown could have been prevented. For this camp, gun control is our God, whom we will exalt. Others, with nearly equal speed and perhaps more ferocity, contended the opposite, that expanded access to guns, or more people trained and prepared to use guns in defense of the otherwise defenseless, would have saved lives in Newtown. For this side, the right to bear arms is our God, whom we will exalt.

The problem is that, to a degree, both sides are right and wrong, neither is prepared to listen to or learn from the other, and perhaps most importantly, both ignore crucial points that could reduce gun violence in the U.S.

Those who champion expanded gun regulation tend to fall into one of two categories. One category consists of those who argue for "common sense" reforms to existing gun laws: universal background checks, the closing of certain sales and licensure loopholes, and the banning of certain weapons and ammunition. There is no question that these reforms will help get some of the most dangerous weapons out of circulation, and keep many others out of the hands of some of the most dangerous people.

But banning assault weapons and other successfully-tabooed firearms, while a noble step, does not address a critical issue: most gun violence in the U.S. is carried out with weapons that will remain legal under even the strictest proposals. Handguns cause most U.S. gun deaths (and, it must be noted, nearly half of all homicides and a high percentage of suicides). Moreover, the murderers who carried out some of the worst mass shootings in American history, including the very worst (in terms of number of fatalities), the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, did so with handguns. One cannot address the epidemic of gun violence unless one bans handguns. Yet no one advocating "common sense" reforms is proposing the ban of handguns, because the Supreme Court has already ruled that banning such weapons is unconstitutional. The situation is even more complicated when one acknowledges that hunting rifles will not be banned, either.

Thus, a second category of gun control advocates argue for repealing the Second Amendment altogether. However, this would require not only the banning of all guns, but also the mass confiscation of guns and the regulation of the black market. There is nearly one gun per person in circulation in the U.S. Confiscation would be difficult, if not impossible, inevitably leaving some guns on the streets, and likely in the hands of the most criminal people, those who deliberately try to hide their guns from the government. The ubiquity of guns in America today is not unlike that of liquor prior to the 18th Amendment's passing. How successful was the U.S. government in enforcing Prohibition in the 1920's? Do we who are horrified by gun violence in the U.S. really want today's Al Capones to be the only ones on the streets with firearms?

Simply put, it seems unlikely, if not impossible, that we can solve the problem of gun violence in America simply by restricting access to or even banning firearms.

Gun rights advocates frequently echo these arguments, that "common sense" reforms are likely not strong enough to work, and that a ban would potentially be more dangerous for the law-abiding population. For these reasons, they argue that the solution is more guns, more people armed, trained, and ready to defend against the inevitable "bad guy with a gun." But like their opposition, this camp too ignores some crucial facts: that a gun in the home is more likely to harm the people inside than it is to 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 these facts, it seems, because they fear governmental tyranny more than gun violence. This might be understandable were it not for the fact that it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Second Amendment, that, it grants the right to engage in armed rebellion against the federal government. The inconvenient truth, however, is that this was never the purpose of the Second Amendment. According to historian Danielle Holtz, to protect against the possibility of a tyrannical federal government - to ensure "the security of a free state" - the Second Amendment enabled states to keep their own armed, "well-regulated" militias. Thus, the Second Amendment might have been drafted to secure the right of armed rebellion, but it was a right of the states, and not of individual citizens.

Of course, none of this really matters because the courts have never interpreted the Amendment as permitting armed rebellion. The Supreme Court limits gun rights to hunting and self-defense.

And even if the Second Amendment were to afford Americans the right to defend themselves against governmental abuse, historical evidence suggests that even a well-armed population cannot always topple tyrants, and many sparsely-armed populations have been able to cast off the yoke of brutal regimes.

Thus, gun rights advocates have to come to terms with the fact that their right to keep and bear arms is limited, and therefore that the government can and should regulate it.

Ultimately, neither side has a perfect solution. And holding up the idolatry of either extreme can distract us from some factors that do indeed contribute to gun violence besides guns: 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. Additionally, we glorify violence and equate masculinity with aggression. Art does not cause violence, but 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 the truth is that 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 its adherents from hunting animals, no less owning a weapon to do so. At the same time, Judaism obligates the individual to defend himself, even if doing so means killing an assailant before he kills you. This obligation implies the right to bear arms, for one's ability to defend himself means little if the other person who threatens him wields more sophisticated weaponry.

For these reasons, we should strive to avoid the twin idolatries of gun rights and gun control. The Jewish tradition invites us to have a full conversation with each other about how to reduce gun violence, lift up the most vulnerable among us, and defend ourselves. Our challenge is to listen to each other, to be open to arguments that soften our ideological predispositions, and refuse simple solutions to complex problems. Only by breaking free from our ideological entrenchments will our "pathways will be made straight" (Psalm 3:6), our union and our world more perfect.