Will we ever get serious about guns?

Illustrative: Danish soldiers guard the synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX DENMARK / Mads Claus Rasmussen)
Illustrative: Danish soldiers guard the synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX DENMARK / Mads Claus Rasmussen)

A caveat: Do not assume you know how this column will end from the way it begins.

That said, let us do the numbers: In the first 45 days of 2018, there were 30 mass shootings in the United States (meaning incidents in which four or more people were shot). Of these, at least seven and as many as 18 were “school shootings,” depending on how you define “school shootings.” Of the seven cases everyone accepts, there were 20 deaths (mostly children) and 33 injuries. This includes last Wednesday’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which the mentally disturbed teenage shooter shot off at least 150 rounds within six minutes.

In 2016, the American Journal of Medicine provided some truly frightening statistics, based on a study of mortality data from 23 highly developed nations. Here is some of what the AJM reported. The United States accounted for

• 82% of all firearm deaths;

• 90% of all firearm deaths among women;

• 91% of all firearm deaths among children up to 14-years-old;

• 92% of all firearm deaths among youths aged 15 to 24 years.

As high as these numbers are, they become more frightening when we take this statistic into consideration: The United States has only half the population of the other 22 high-income nations combined.

When do we stop dragging out the Constitution as an excuse for allowing weapons designed for the battlefield to be purchased for the euphemistically called recreational use? Does anyone truly believe its Framers would have written the Second Amendment as they did if they could have envisioned the above statistics? Does anyone believe they would have done so if they could have conceived of rapid-fire weapons, or of high-capacity ammunition magazines, or of “bump stocks,” which effectively turn semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic ones?

When do we stop allowing our politicians to put the will of the National Rifle Association ahead of the welfare of America’s citizens of every age?

As for us Jews, when do we start acknowledging that Jewish law, which puts life above almost everything else, requires us to be in the forefront of any movement to keep military-style weapons and accessories out of civilian hands, and to prevent anyone who is mentally ill, or is an abuser of any kind — spousal, child, or otherwise — or who has a history of violence of all other kinds, from owning any kind of gun that has the ability to kill?

I know what some readers are saying about now: “There he goes again, spewing his leftist bleeding heart liberal hogwash because he wants to take our guns away. Everyone knows guns do not kill people, people kill people.”

Yes, people do kill people, but how many people a gun can kill depends on the gun being used. A six-bullet revolver can kill six people within minutes, before the shooter has to stop to reload. Compare that to how many people an AR-15 can kill within one minute, given that it can fire 40 rounds every three seconds.

Do not misunderstand. I am not advocating taking away all guns. There are times when guns are needed for protection, and even Jewish law would permit owning a gun for that purpose.

Jewish law requires us to protect ourselves, and also to act to protect others. We are not to stand idly by the blood of our fellows (see Levitievs 19:16; also, for an extensive discussion of how this verse applies to protecting others, see the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 73a).

However, Jewish law also would require a strict and effective training regimen in the use of such weapons, as well as better safety features, such as those found on the “smart guns” on the market. This is based on the “law of the parapet” found in Deuteronomy 22:8. Rabbinic decisions make clear that this law is subject to the broadest interpretation possible. Thus, in BT Bava Kama 15b, we are told that this verse is the source for the rule “that no one should breed a bad dog in his house, or keep a damaged ladder in his house.”

Maimonides, the Rambam, prohibits owning anything “that is inherently dangerous and could, in normal circumstances, cause a person to die.” (See his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 11:4.)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says the “parapet” 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.)

Is it so terrible, for example, for a fingerprint verification device to be added to a weapon to prevent it from being used by someone other than its owner? How many children would be protected by that simple safety device — a device even police officers have endorsed but the NRA opposes?

That brings me to a controversial proposal making the rounds locally that would seek to arm some synagogue volunteers with police-style handguns in order to protect their community’s religious institutions. They would be trained similarly to the process used by the Community Security Service, or CSS, which has been providing general security training to more than 4,000 volunteers in Jewish communities throughout the United States, including in our area. Given the climate of racist hatred, including anti-Semitism, that seems to be getting only worse, turning to community-based armed volunteers would seem to be both prudent and perhaps even halachically sound.

To my mind, this is safer (at least in theory) than hiring armed strangers whom we do not know and have to take someone else’s word that they are suitable.

I have reviewed the plans for this proposed initiative. The volunteers would be local community members who know the people and institutions they are signing up to protect. The CSS model works because familiarity, passion for the community’s safety, and routine continued training with experienced instructors help keep the volunteers ready, informed, and interested. In this case, each would-be volunteer would be given at least six months of weapons training before being allowed by the State of New Jersey to carry a gun.

I would want to see more than that, however, before I could support such a proposal. I would want these volunteers also undergo a rigorous psychological workup, and a thorough background check to determine whether there is any hint of domestic abuse or violence, or other issues that would prevent them from being eligible. I also would want the synagogue’s rabbi to give each volunteer several hours of study in the laws of self-defense, unintentional homicide, the sanctity of life, and any other relevant issues, and to then sign a document certifying that the candidate is acceptable to be an armed volunteer guard.

Frankly, I also would prefer that the weapons be visible at all times, but New Jersey does not allow open carry.

I hate the whole idea, but I would hate even more for synagogues to be turned into shooting galleries the way some churches and schools have been.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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