Who By Bullet: A Message for the Jewish High Holy Days on Gun Violence

Hand Firing Gun
Hand Firing Gun

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews in synagogue read a disturbing prayer entitled Unetaneh Tokef containing the famous passage, "who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water." This prayer asks us to recognize our mortality and how much of life is beyond our control.

It is therefore all the more mind-boggling when there are dangers that are within our power to avoid, and we ignore them. Reflecting on this past year, to me the most obvious needless danger that we tolerate in America is gun violence. In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of 2015, we could easily add the phrases: "who by bullet and who by negligence, who by semi-automatic weapon and who by unlicensed handgun, who by lack of background check and who by accident." We as a society have no one else to blame but our sick culture and our lack of political will. The death toll from both criminal and accidental gun violence is astounding.

Judaism is not a pacifist religion. Jewish tradition says we are entitled to defend ourselves and even take a life to save our own or someone else. If someone comes to kill you, kill them first (Berachot 58a) is a fundamental principle in the Talmud.

However, Jewish tradition also recognizes the danger of negligent possession of a weapon or a weapon in the wrong hands. The Talmud teaches (Avodah Zarah 15b): "One should not sell [those of criminal intentions] either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one make any weapon for them." Further, in the Talmud says (Bava Kama 46a): "From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog or keep a damaged ladder in his house? From the verse [Deuteronomy 24:8], "You shall not bring blood upon your house."" If things that are inherently dangerous, like rabid dogs or broken ladders, are forbidden, all the more so should gun safety be maintained. An excellent summary of Jewish law on gun control by Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe can be read here.

There is a Jewish opinion that holds we should all be armed, for if the Jews of Germany had guns, then the Nazis would have never been able to take them away. We are, however, far more endangered by the all-too-common instances of domestic violence, someone thinking of suicide having access to a firearm, or an accident than the relatively rare instance of an armed intruder much less a genocidal regime in our streets.

Guns are part of American recreation and culture, and many people want them for home defense. My grandfather, of blessed memory, grew up in Pennsylvania and was part of that culture. He hunted regularly and belonged to the National Rifle Association. He told me he canceled his membership when the NRA insisted on the right to own assault weapons. He explained to me, "If you shoot an assault weapon in home defense, you'll take out a wall of your house. If you shoot a deer with it, there will be nothing left of the deer to bring home. It just doesn't make any sense."

I believe we are talking about basic health and safety legislation, the same way we have laws for cars or medicines. While no gun legislation will prevent all shootings, we know that strong gun safety laws do reduce the incidents of gun violence. Gun safety legislation saves lives, unequivocally. States with more gun control have less gun violence, and states with less gun control have more gun violence.

Consider the 2014 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which looked at how gun deaths in two states correlated with the repeal or enactment of permit-to-purchase (PTP) laws. After Missouri repealed its PTP regulations in 2007, it saw a 25 percent increase in homicides by firearm. When Connecticut enacted PTP laws in 1995, over the following decade it experienced a 40 percent reduction in firearm homicides. In other words, a 25% increase in one state and a 40% decline in another occurred solely because of a change in their laws. These laws did not forbid owning a gun but required a background check to see if you were a violent criminal or mentally unstable.

People sometimes point out that new legislation would not have prevented most of the major gun massacres. They also like to say the slogan, guns don't kill people, people kill people. As one of my high school classmates cleverly wrote on Facebook, "You don't blame a pencil for spelling mistakes or a car for traffic accidents; why should you blame a gun for shootings?" The difference is that a pencil is made for writing and a car is made for taking people from one place to another. An assault weapon is only made for killing a lot of people at once.

Even if you believe you do need a gun for safety, why on earth should there be no background checks at gun shows the same as at gun stores? Why should assault weapons be permitted? Why shouldn't we develop and promote available smart gun technology that recognizes fingerprints in order to fire, much like a smartphone, so a child cannot shoot another child? We must learn to say: "Your right to own a gun ends with my family's right to live safely."

So what can you do? A bipartisan bill has been introduced into Congress called the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act (H.R. 3130). The bill will close a loophole in federal law that allows some perpetrators of domestic violence to access firearms. Obviously this is a small step, pitiful even, but at least it is a step we can take. Please take the time to write to anyone and everyone that known domestic abusers should not be able to buy a gun anywhere and there ought to be a background check.