Gun violence in America — Orlando is not the story

What happened in Orlando this week shocked the nation.

It was, after all, the worst mass shooting in US history. It made the front pages of our newspapers; it dominated the airwaves; it sent politicians rushing to the microphones; it caused organizations on both sides of the gun debate to issue their predictable press releases.

Forty-nine people died in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, and people are justifiably horrified. Even more horrifying, however, is this: So far this year, there have been slightly more than 6,000 gun deaths in the United States, including 257 children who were 11-years-old and under, and 1,282 children from 12 to 17. In fact, in the United States every year, more than 3,000 children and teenagers die by the gun.

That is a rate of 8.22 children a day.

In all, so far this year, there have been nearly 23,500 incidents of gun violence reported since New Year’s Day.

Here is another statistic that should horrify, but there are no screaming headlines calling attention to it. In the 164 days from January 1 until I sat down to write this column on Tuesday morning, there were 137 mass shootings in the United States, almost one a day. A “mass shooting” is defined as an act of gun violence in which four or more people are shot, although not necessarily killed. This number includes the Orlando horror, and the 15 mass shootings that occurred from then until Tuesday morning, but that went either unreported or woefully underreported.

True, no law can be written that would prevent a madman such as Omar Mateen from committing a monstrous act of violence, by gun or other means.

Most of the death toll from gun violence can be avoided, however, especially deaths of children.

Here are some other statistics to consider:

• One-third of all households with children younger than 18 have a firearm.

• More than 40 percent of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked.

• One-fourth of homes with children and guns have a loaded firearm.

• Among gun-owning parents who claimed their children had never handled their firearms at home, 22 percent of the children said they had.

• Gun death rates are seven times higher in those states with the highest household gun ownership.

Because this column views issues through the prism of halachah, how do these facts and statistics inform Jewish law on the issue of gun manufacture and ownership? As I have noted in previous columns on this issue, there are four basic questions here, as I see it:

1. Is it permissible to manufacture a weapon intended for self-defense that does not have state-of-the-art protective devices to prevent accidental firing, or the firing of the gun by an unauthorized user?

2. Is it permissible to buy a gun without such state-of-the-art protective devices?

3. Is it permissible to buy such a gun if no other gun is available, and there is a need for a weapon of self defense?

4. If it is permissible, what degree of care must the gun owner take?

The Torah’s “law of the parapet” (Deuteronomy 22:8) answers Questions 1 and 2. When building a house, a person must build a parapet around the roof, “that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there.”

This mitzvah, this commandment, is subject to the broadest interpretation. (See the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kama 15b.) Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 11:4, explains, for example, that this includes “everything that is inherently dangerous and could, in normal circumstances, cause a person to die.” Anything that fits that bill requires a “parapet” around it, meaning every effort must be extended to prevent the item from causing unintentional harm.

Other commentators also note, as does Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, that this mitzvah even requires “local civil authorities to intervene to have anything at all which might be dangerous removed” from a person’s premises. (See his commentary on the verse.)

Distinction must be made between the offensive weapon required by military and police personnel, and the defensive one that alone should be permissible to ordinary civilians. While a “parapet” is required for both, the nature of the protective device is necessarily different for each. The offensive weapon must be safe enough to reasonably protect against mishaps, but not so encumbered that it is virtually useless in the field. The defensive weapon must also be able to be used if the need arises, but the degree of protection against mishaps must be greater.

Simply stated, then, guns intended for self-defense must have the best available protection against accidental or unauthorized use, or else they may not be brought into the home.

The third question is more difficult. What if no one manufactures a weapon of self-defense that uses the best available protection against accidental or unauthorized use? If there is a perceived or well-established need for self-defense weapons, does the “parapet” requirement prohibit obtaining such a weapon despite the need?

The simple answer is no. Preservation of life takes precedence over virtually everything else. (See especially BT Yoma 84b.)

The more complicated answer requires evaluating a variety of factors (including providing the answer to question 4). Among these are whether the danger is real or imagined; whether other modes of defense would accomplish the same end; and whether the degree of protection the gun owner must provide against mishaps is so great that it renders gun ownership moot in any case; and so forth.

Obviously, once it is in the house, the gun must be kept in a place secure enough that it is absolutely — not virtually — childproof. If that is not possible, then halachically perhaps gun ownership is not possible in homes with children.

If you need an additional incentive, consider this: Between the time I began writing this column on Tuesday morning and it arrives in your mailbox midday Friday, at least 28 children will have died in an act of gun violence. Four more will die before kiddush is recited. Shabbat shalom?

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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