With President Obama's executive action on gun control, we have yet another round in the gun debate. On Rosh Hashanah last September, I gave a sermon on Jewish ethics and gun control, which was subsequently published in the Huffington Post. Since that publication, I have heard from advocates both for and against gun control. I have learned a great deal through dialogue, and my optimism says that if I can learn, then perhaps we as a society can hear each other and make progress on this issue.
I come to ethical issues from my own particular tradition that I believe has a universal message. In that sermon, I outlined that Judaism has a strong ethic of self-defense, including being able to have a weapon (Berachot 58a). It also, however, has an equally strong stance that you should not have an unnecessary dangerous object in your home (Bava Kamma 46a), and you are also forbidden to provide a weapon to a dangerous person (Avodah Zarah 15b). In general, classic Jewish sources accept weapons as necessary evils (Shabbat 63a).
How do we apply this balance of ethics in the gun debate today? My conclusion was and remains that, according to Jewish law, people have the right to own a gun for self-defense, which accords with the Second Amendment. However, every effort should be made to deny guns to dangerous people or not to create a hazard in the home, which goes along with a comprehensive system of background checks, safety requirements and education. And, in direct conflict with much of American culture, Jewish tradition doesn't see weapons as part of recreation or sport.
I did make a mistake in my sermon. I used the very murky term "assault weapon," which can mean any semi-automatic gun with cosmetic changes and often a low caliber ammunition, confusing it with an "assault rifle," which is a fully automatic gun that is currently banned and has been for years. Also by mentioning assault weapons, I drew attention away from the that fact that 99% of crimes are committed with handguns, which are the real problem. And while much ink has been spilled by the gun control community about gun shows, "cop-killer bullets," and high-capacity magazines, those aspects account for a very small percentage of gun violence.
In defense of gun control advocates, however, most of our first-hand experience has been as victims or friends of victims of gun violence. That is more experience than we want to have. While some factors like high capacity magazines or clips may contribute to a small percentage of gun violence, it hard to see a justification for their existence in a non-military setting at all, no matter how small their influence. And even if the number of guns bought legally in America without a background check is not 40% - as many gun control advocates have claimed - but actually closer to approximately 15%, that is still an awful lot of unchecked guns and in my opinion ought to be zero. Finally, smart-gun technology, including tracers for lost or stolen guns, should not be dismissed because the technology is currently imperfect and undeveloped; the technology of the future needs our investment and promotion. More than 30,000 people die from gun violence each year in the United States. We have to do something to reduce this number and save lives.
If we truly care about reducing gun violence, gun control advocates, myself included, need to be more precise and careful with our terms and data. We need to actually address the larger problem: easy access to handguns that are either stolen, bought on the black market (both of which are already illegal) or acquired privately and legally without a background check. We also need to talk about education: are you really safer having a gun in your home?
People tend to be irrationally afraid of many things. We can be scared of spiders and snakes but not of cars or alcohol, even though the latter is more likely to be part of what kills you. Similarly, we can be irrationally afraid of both guns themselves as objects or of intruders into your home or store. It is in fact the government's job to make a safer society through traffic laws, airport security screening, and gun legislation, and that includes making it more difficult for people contemplating suicide, who are abusive to their partners, the mentally ill, stalkers, and children to get their hands on guns. There is a consensus in the scientific community - no matter how fervently it is denied by people who often profit from the gun industry - that gun control does make society safer.
There has to be a way to reduce gun violence through smart gun legislation that applies to every state, and I am willing to give up some of my rights to make that happen. As was the main point in my original sermon, there is a large correlation between states with strong gun control laws and a reduction of gun violence. I would like to see gun control laws such as in my home state of Massachusetts become federal law because I believe it will make us safer while protecting our freedoms. It will not eliminate but will at least reduce gun violence. I believe this as a rabbi through Jewish ethics and as an American citizen. We have an ethical obligation as a country to do better.