Guns and evil and the Second Amendment

This certainly has been a complicated week to be an American Jew.

We have completed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in all their white-draped abstraction, and turned to the physicality of Sukkot, with its harvest symbols and waving branches and the delicate yellow scent of the etrog, with all the meals, often heavy and rich to ward off the October chill. Beyond that, we turn to the joyous physicality of Simchat Torah, with its dancing and joy, and its knowledge that this is it, the last of the holidays, and the turn toward winter.

That’s the Jewish part.

In the outside world, there seems to be nothing but devastation. Puerto Rico — a place many of us have been to and can visualize in its prelapsarian state — is demolished. It makes the destruction of Houston and Florida, which was bad, seem to be not such a big deal, at least by comparison. (I know, it’s easy to say that from the safety of the Northeast. Superstorm Sandy was a big problem for us, but not nearly as huge a problem as Maria, and anyway it was five years ago.) As our president has reminded us, it is hard to help Puerto Rico because, as he put it, it is “surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.” Who knew?

And then the impossible-to-assimilate evil of Las Vegas, of a man so unimaginably devoid of humanity that he was able to shoot through a 32nd-floor window to the happy unsuspecting crowd below as if he were playing a video game.

So far we have no idea why he did what he did. All we know is that there is no obvious reason. We might never be able to understand his diseased thinking well enough to understand it, and we might not want to be able to enter that putrid stinking brain long enough to try.

But we do know that he had an arsenal. News reports tell us that he had 23 guns with him in the hotel room; 12 could fire automatically. He had 19 other weapons at home, as well as ammunition and explosives. His truck held “ammonium nitrate, a chemical that can be used in bombmaking,” the Washington Post said. And then there’s the bump stock, something new that we had no need ever to have heard about, a grotesque but cheap way of turning a semiautomatic gun into a virtual automatic. (Guns outfitted with bump stocks apparently cannot aim well – but who needs to aim at a crowd of 22,000? And they overheat quickly – so why not have 12 of them, and move from gun to gun?)

Even if we do not and cannot know why the murderer wanted this devil’s cache, we do know why he was able to have it. We do not know if all of it was legal, but we do know that the gun lobby has made sure that guns are never far from the hot, imprudent hands of almost anyone who wants them.


It’s the Second Amendment, we’re told.

This is the Second Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I understand that as time passes, the kernel of a law often gains accretions, ways of understanding it, and putting it into practice. Halacha, Jewish law, works that way. Over the course of millennia, the original Torah prescriptions, against, say, boiling a kid in its mother’s milk have become the elaborate laws of kashrut that govern what and when and how observant Jews eat. The connection between the Torah law and the dinner plate may not always be clear, but it always is traceable.

So what about the Second Amendment? It is newer by millennia than Torah law, but it seems to bear about as much resemblance to the Las Vegas mass murderer’s cache as the Torah law does to halacha.

I am not a lawyer. I don’t know how legal reasoning works. But I do understand close reading of text, and I do not see what a well regulated militia has to do with that monstrous arsenal.

It is time to rethink our blind allegiance to the accretions on the Second Amendment and to restore our clear-sighted allegiance to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — none of which you can have if you are mown down by an assault rifle — by stripping those accretions away.

The NRA should not have the final word. That should belong to we, the people.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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