Jews and Gun Control

I am writing to comment on the Op-Ed by Avi Shafran concerning more and stricter gun control for Americans.

I believe that Rabbi Shafran makes two errors which I would like to address:

  1. He cherry-picks statistics to make his argument.
  2. Gun control does not apply to Jews.

Let’s talk about the first point. Rabbi Shafran states that the gun homicide rate in the U.S. is 33 per million whereas in Canada it is 5 per million and in England it is 0.7 per million. He attributes this to the large number of guns in the U.S.

I think it is important to point out that Canada is a sparsely populated country, with most of the population living near the U.S. border. Its coastlines are in remote wilderness areas that are hard to navigate and extremely hostile during winter. Its only international border is with a secure, prosperous nation to its south, namely the U.S. It is very difficult to smuggle illegal weapons into the country. England is a tiny island country, only accessible by air or sea (including the Chunnel). It is much easier to patrol and enforce border security for such a small country.

The U.S. has a few different circumstances. First, we have thousands of miles of coastline, most of which are adjacent to highways and other infrastructure. Much of our coast is accessible year-round, making it easy to smuggle in illegal substances and weapons. We also have a failed nation to our south called Mexico, which is largely controlled by hyper-violent cartels who do most of their business in the U.S. In addition, let us not forget that our legacy of slavery has led to many social problems with rehabilitating the black population and integrating them successfully into society. Most of the gun homicides cited by Rabbi Shafran occur in the black community. So Canada and England are not fair comparisons. Apples and oranges.

Then there is that pesky Constitution and its Second Amendment, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions to guarantee the individual the right to own firearms. Rabbi Shafran may not appreciate this, but the United States is the first country in the history of the entire universe to guarantee its citizens the right to arm themselves. This is a great and precious right, one which Jews, of all people, should appreciate most of all.

This leads me to the second point.

We Jews have suffered greatly in the Galut. A good deal of our suffering has been due to our inability to defend ourselves against those who would do us harm. Throughout this long Galut, the Jew-haters in whose countries we have lived have, above all, legislated gun control (or sword control) against the Jews. We should welcome the great privilege of living in the U.S. where we finally have the opportunity to purchase firearms, own them, train with them, carry them on the street, and otherwise learn to use them safely, responsibly and accurately. There are several mitzvot which require firearms: self-defense (u’shmartem me’od lenafshoteichem), killing the home intruder (ha’ba b’machteret), killing the rodef, etc. How can we prepare for these mitzvot without a knowledge of firearms?

Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that we are living in a world in which the toxic cancer of Islamic terrorism is spreading without check due to the liberal values of Western society, which blind it to the dangers of Islam because they call their belief system a “religion.” Wherever you have Islam, and we have Islam growing in the U.S., you have attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions. We need to stand ready to defend our lives and our institutions.

Because of our history, therefore, gun control does not apply to Jews.

Avraham Sonenthal

Rabbi Shafran’s response:

I’m baffled by Mr. Sonenthal’s argument that the reason there are proportionately so many less gun homicides in Canada and England than in the U.S. is because the former is “a sparsely populated country” and “difficult to smuggle” guns into; and the latter, a “tiny island” easy to patrol.

The comparison I made was proportionate — homicides per million residents — and so sparseness of population is of no import. And if guns are hard to import to England, well, that only bolsters the argument that fewer guns means less gun violence.

Whether or not the right to own a gun is “great and precious,” like every right, it is a limited one. One cannot, despite our freedom of speech, falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. One cannot, despite our freedom of religion, offer human sacrifices. Reasonable curbs on gun ownership, like universal background checks and outlawing bump stocks, are entirely constitutional. And, I believe, eminently rational.

How much Jewish suffering over history is attributable to Jews’ inability to defend themselves is not something I think can really be known. But I think it’s safe to say that, while armed Jews might have killed a few Cossacks during pogroms or Germans on Kristallnacht, it’s unlikely that any fewer Jews would have perished.

I have no objection to knowing how to use a firearm, or to owning one (I do). But I don’t think any posek would require Jews to own guns in anticipation of the mitzvos Mr. Sonenthal cites.

And if the writer fears all Muslims, he might mull the fact that the world has 1.6 billion of them, and 14 million Jews. A billion is one thousand millions. If the Muslim world should, chalilah, decide to wage war on Jews, no number of guns will be able to protect us, only Hashem.

It is precisely the denial of firearms to criminals and the (violent) mentally ill, which Mr. Wetstein says “all agree” about, that the universal background check I advocated would accomplish. So I’m not sure what exercised him about my column.

As to Chicago, it does not, in fact, have “the strictest gun laws in the country,” despite what President Trump and his spokesperson have asserted. Seven states receive higher grades than Illinois in the latest Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ratings. The gun laws governing that violence-plagued city, however, are indeed strong.

But a particular state’s strict gun laws are meaningless if residents can just drive over to the next state and buy weapons to their hearts’ content. Wisconsin and Indiana, neighbors of Illinois, have relatively weak gun laws. What I advocate is a federal requirement that all purchasers of guns, anywhere in the country, whether from dealers or individuals, undergo strict background checks.

Mr. Wetstein is welcome to see that as a dangerous encroachment on the Second Amendment.

To me, though, it just seems like common sense.