I’d first like to state that I am not here to explain Halachah’s stance on gun control. The Jewish/Halachik approach to gun control is complicated, and I would urge all those interested to speak to qualified Rabbis on the matter, or listen to one of the many relevant lectures that have been given by respectable and knowledgable Rabbis.
But in deference to the holiday of Purim, I would like to highlight an important event from Megillas Esther, and how it relates to a hot contemporary political issue, namely, gun control. This event is really the most important one in the Megillah, in that it is the reason we continue to celebrate Purim to this day. This, of course, is the successful self-defense campaign of the Persian Empire’s Jewish community. On the 13th of Adar, the enemies of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire were ready to carry out the orders of Haman and exterminate the Jewish communities. Instead, the Jews successfully defended themselves, killing tens of thousands of their enemies in a glorious manifestation of “va’nahafoch hu,” or a complete 180 (9:1). Mordechai and Esther decided that this merited a celebration for generations to come.
What many people fail to realize is that when Esther asks King Achashverosh to rescind Haman’s decree, she is denied. He explains that any decree sealed with the King’s seal is irrevocable. Instead, he issues a new edict, and this one states that the Jews shall have the right “l’hikahel v’la’amod al nafsham,” which translates to the right “to assemble and stand for their lives/ protect themselves” (8:11).
What did the King introduce here with this decree that did not exist beforehand? Seemingly, the Jews, at any time of distress or danger, could have assembled and protected themselves! Now, I cannot say for certain what the exact meaning of this decree was, but I can attempt to propose an answer based on history.
We know that authoritarian governments have been keen on systemically disarming the public in an attempt to concentrate power and thwart any possible armed rebellion. In our own day and age, we’ve seen this grim reality come to fruition during the horror years of Europe, when the German governments of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi dictatorship instituted such vicious gun control that those citizens found with guns were executed (See Stephen Halbrook’s Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State”). Here at home, numerous restrictions on gun ownership existed for Blacks in the South for much of the Jim Crow era, ensuring Blacks would not pose a threat to the White-dominated governments. (The connection between gun control and racism in the US is well documented).
I would not at all be surprised to learn that certain populations in the Persian Empire, especially ethnic minorities such as the Jews, would have been banned from owning weapons. It fits with the actions of any smart, authoritarian government. Thus, the reality speaks to gravity of the situation created by Haman’s edict. The Jews would not have had the means to protect themselves from a governmental order of genocide. It was only when the King allowed the Jews to protect themselves (meaning, arm themselves) were they able to be victorious.
Another element to keep in mind throughout this story is the possibility of a relatively friendly government turning genocidal very quickly. Our Sages stress the point that the Jews were well-integrated into Persian society, and indeed, even in the higher echelons of the government. The Jews even took part in the feast described in the first chapter of the Megillah. (The Sages, of course, go on and condemn the jovial actions and attitudes of the Jews present, stressing that their complicity in galut and lack of concern for their brethren in Israel and the situation concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, was highly inappropriate and indeed the cause for the grave situation). But we mustn’t forget that it took only one man to instantly introduce a new policy of antisemitism, and a new grim reality of possible genocide.
Thank G-d we live in the United States, a country that has provided an incredibly safe and prosperous setting for Jews over the last couple of centuries. Indeed, the US government has seldom ever acted tyrannical, especially when we compare it to other world governments throughout the years. Nonetheless, our founders inserted the 2nd amendment into the Bill of Rights in order to make sure the population was able to arm itself, to act as a check against tyrannical government.
History is replete, especially as of late, with examples of tyrannical governments disarming its citizens (Castro’s Cuba, Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR to name a few). Our founders were well aware of the threat that government, as an institution in it of itself, always posed.
The American left constantly brushes aside the argument for an armed populace against the threat of tyranny as paranoid, naïve, and just plain comical. For some reason, they believe that relatively friendly governments can never go awry. For some reason, they fail to study the events of recent history in Germany, Italy, France, Spain etc. Let them not forget the events concerning 5th century BCE Persian Empire: the Purim Story. Let the Purim story and the policies of Achashverosh’s government be a keen reminder of the threat of genocidal tyranny, and the absolute necessity for an armed populace.
Our founders understood this. Many conservatives understand this. Why can’t liberals?