The Weapon's Shame: A Case for Gun Control in Jewish Law

Newtown, Auruora, Tuscon, Littleton: hearing the names of these picturesque American cities once evoked images of the American dream. Now they evoke an American nightmare -- mass gun violence. The wounds in Newtown are the freshest and probably the most horrific, but the scars of gun violence run deep throughout our country. Sometimes the media pays attention, bringing light to this horrific problem. Sometimes not: just last Friday afternoon and evening, hours after the Newtown shootings, at least 10 people in my hometown of Chicago were wounded by gunfire.

As we search for solutions in the aftermath, we turn to research, pundits and, for some of us, the wisdom of our faiths for guidance.

Jewish law, or halacha (the path), is a spiritual system that seeks to make our world a holier place by binding the loftiest values to the most practical realities. It offers guidance on every aspect of life, from working on prayer to paying workers, and everything in between. Though the majority of the halachic literature was composed before the invention of firearms, it contains several principles that can be directly applied to the current debates around guns.

The Mishna, a text of Jewish law codified in the second century C.E., frames the conversation powerfully. In a discussion of what clothes and jewelry may or may not be worn on the Sabbath, the Mishnah says the following:

A man must not go out with a sword, bow, shield, lance, or spear [on the Sabbath]; and if he goes out, he must bring a sin-offering. Rabbi Eliezer said: They are ornaments for him. But the sages maintain they are merely shameful, for it is said, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift sword up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 63a)

What a powerful idea. Contrary to what the latest movie or video game tells us, weapons are not glamorous. They are reminders of fear, weakness and of our unredeemed world. In our culture, the gun is fetishized; its sexy, powerful portrayal unavoidable if one consumes any media: print, television, film, game, music. For the rabbis of the Mishna, it is ugly, shameful, not worthy of the holy Sabbath.

The weapon's shame does not render it forbidden though. Jewish law does affirm the right to defend oneself, to own weapons and even to sell weapons, so long as the purchaser is not a threat to others. Maimonides, the brilliant 12th century Jewish philosopher and legal scholar, ruled that one may not sell "knives, manacles, iron chains, bears, lions, or any object which can endanger the public" to those who might cause the public harm. (Mishneh Torah, Laws Pertaining to Murder, 12:12).

The value of minimizing public harm is central to the Jewish case for gun control, though it is rooted in an unlikely source: stumbling blocks before the blind. Leviticus 19:14 states, "You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind." This verse has been understood by generations of rabbis that one should not put unnecessary dangers or temptations in front of others.

The medieval code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, writes:

And for every stumbling block that threatens lives, one must remove it, protect oneself from it, and be exceedingly careful in its regard; as it says: "You shall guard and protect your lives," (Deuteronomy 4:9). And if the stumbling block is not removed and is placed in front of those who come to danger, one has violated a positive commandment. (Choshen Mishpat, 427:8)

For someone filled with hatred or uncontrolled mental illness, what more dangerous stumbling block could there be then an automatic or semiautomatic weapon, like the Bushmaster .223 used in Friday's shooting?

We must be honest: better gun policies are not a complete solution and will not end killing. Many factors go into gun violence, including a media that glorifies guns, poor schools, broken families, inadequate mental health services and more. Put them all together, and we have a massive, deadly stumbling block for someone with evil in their heart or a disease in their head. But so long as we allow weapons designed to hunt human beings to be freely sold in our marketplace we amplify the potential damage these killers can do. We can change this. My faith issues the following call: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." How much more blood must be spilt before we stop standing by?