CNN recently published an article stating that there have been 23 school shootings so far this year, which averages out to more than one shooting per week. These school shootings have raised the intensity of the gun control debate, the tension between the right to bear arms and the potential danger that it causes. It is an apt time to ask, what is the Torah’s position on this issue? What does the Torah have to say about gun control?
First, it should be noted that notwithstanding the fact that there is a second amendment right to bear arms, it does not mean that there is a halachic right to bear arms. The principle of “dina d’malchuta dina” means that we must abide by the laws of the land. It does not mean that all rights that are permitted by the United States Constitution are permitted to us, halachically.
That being said, it seems very difficult to say with accuracy what the Torah’s stance is regarding whether in any given location, individuals should be allowed to have weapons to protect themselves. The Gemara in Masechet Avoda Zara states that we shouldn’t sell weapons to idolaters out of a concern that they might use the weapons to harm others. However, the Gemara concludes by stating that we do sell weapons to Persians because they protect us. So it is clear that we may sell and certainly own weapons for protection, while at the same time there is a Torah prohibition of “lo tasim damim b’veitecha,” that you may not allow a hazardous situation or item remain in your house. How do we balance these two values?
Rabbenu Nissim (14th century Spain) writes that when evaluating the prohibition of whether to sell weapons, we need to look at the total result. If more harm than good will result from the sale of weapons, then we should not sell the weapons. In contrast, Rav Yosef Ibn Habib (the Nimukei Yosef, 14th-15th century Spain) writes that we may sell weapons to protectors because they will certainly protect us, while the concern that they might use the weapons for murder is only a doubtful possibility.
It would seem to me that Rabbenu Nissim cares about statistics, i.e., do more guns in your neighborhood lead to more deaths or fewer deaths. How we balance the amount of protection afforded by having guns and the potential for harm caused by having guns around is probably a facts-based question and both sides of the gun control debate probably have a different set of statistics to support their perspectives. It should be noted that when we talk about potential harm caused by guns, most gun deaths are actually caused by suicide and those who attempt suicide without a gun are far less likely to succeed than those who attempt suicide with a gun.
Based on this perspective, it would certainly be reasonable to conclude that a Jew living in Judea-Samaria would have more of a halachic basis to own a gun than a Jew living on Long Island. However, according to Rav Yosef Ibn Habib, even if statistically having a gun is linked to more deaths, it would seem that a responsible individual may still own a gun since a gun definitely has a protective function, with only a possible risk of harm.
What does seem clear is that halachic values reject the “recreational gun culture” that is prevalent among some in this country. At best, halacha understands that weapons sometimes are necessary for protection but, as the Mishna in Shabbat (6:4) states, weapons should never be glorified or viewed as adornments even when their possession is justified. Furthermore, when Rav Yechezkel Landau, one of the preeminent 18th century halachic authorities, was asked about the halachic permissibility of hunting for sport, he responded by saying, among other things: “I am very surprised at the whole subject; we don’t find any hunters [in our tradition] besides Nimrod and Esau, and this is not the way of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . . There is an unseemly element in it, namely cruelty, and also a measure of danger. . . Therefore, one who listens to me will dwell securely and placidly in his house and not waste his time with such things”. Rav Yechezkel Landau strongly discourages this practice as it risks cultivating a person’s tendency to cruelty or aggression.
Rav Landau’s concern about hunting for sport should also alert us to the potential danger of cultural media, like movies and video games, which glorify guns and violence and the potential impact that they have on cultivating a tendency to cruelty or aggression. Clearly, the Biblical ideal regarding gun control is the verse in Yeshayahu (2:4) that foretells a messianic era when the nations of the world “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war.”