Do Guns Really Keep Us Safer?

orthodox jews guns

Stats, personal accounts, and a hashkafic perspective

Aaron M* is a 27-year-old father of two. He does property management, learns the daf every evening with his chavrusa, recently celebrated his first siyum on Shas, volunteers for Bikur Cholim on Thursdays, and goes to shooting ranges to practice his shot every other Sunday.

“My mother could not handle it when I told her I was buying a gun,” Aaron says. “She was horrified, but I really think otherwise.”

Noting that his interactions with renters at various properties sometimes get hostile, and that he often has to travel through neighborhoods that feel increasingly unsafe, Aaron believes he is justified in owning a gun, despite his mother’s opposition. “There has been enough cause in the past couple years for frum people to gain experience and learn self-protection.”

Aaron’s perspective on gun ownership may sound shocking to many members of the Orthodox community, but it’s a perspective that has been gaining more adherents over the past number of months.

I doubt there is any data on how many Orthodox Jews currently own or are attempting to purchase weapons, but of the five religious males I asked, all five of them knew of not just one but of a few others who owned a gun. So with that highly informal, tiny-sampled survey, it’s likely there are more guns in our community than we think.

While it may seem understandable to some to buy firearms due to the current social and political climate, it bears remembering that there is a tremendous responsibility, there is potential for harm, and there is a spiritual toll caused by bringing a weapon into our homes and neighborhoods.

THE DANGER

Child Shootings

The data collected and promulgated by CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) regarding child shootings is chilling.

In 2015, nearly 3,000 children died by gunshot, and nearly 14,000 were injured.

To make that number more personal, Dr. Josh Bauman shares the following story.

“I was on shift in the E.R. when an incoming ambulance called with a pediatric VSA [Vital Signs Absent], CPR ongoing. The paramedics arrived with a young boy — 4 years old — who had been accidentally shot by his 10-year-old brother. Apparently, the boys’ father had left his firearm on the table and the kids had been playing around with it. We worked on this child for half an hour, although we all knew after the first few minutes that he was dead. I can still hear the mother’s shrieks echoing through the hospital. We had to pry her off of the child’s gurney and give her a sedative.

orthodox jews guns

“This story really needs no elaboration. The potential harm to children when firearms are in the house is significant. One in three homes with children in the U.S. have a firearm, and very often children know where that firearm is, they want to play with it, and they know how to use it.”

This story is not an anomaly. The CHOP report states: “The vast majority of accidental firearm deaths among children are related to child access to firearms — either self-inflicted or at the hands of another child.” And with 1.7 million children living with unlocked, loaded weapons, the potential for harm is devastating to contemplate.

There are more studies and more data resources that indicate the same thing.

While most gun owners reassure themselves that they have a foolproof way of ensuring that their gun is safely stored and out of reach, the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that “the absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents.”

In other words, no method is foolproof.

Mistaken Shootings

While there is certainly a contingent of Orthodox-Jewish gun owners who are responsible and cognizant of the proper role of a firearm, as well as the necessary safety steps, there are almost just as certainly a contingent of young men who think it is exciting and daring to own a weapon, and who are animated by an online/group chat/social media culture to “call out anti-Semitism” and “push back against anti-Semites.”

In that environment, it’s far too possible for a skittish person to impulsively shoot a perceived assailant, or for a hotheaded person to aggressively threaten one.

It is only too easy to imagine a mild insult from some passerby on the street escalating into a potentially violent interaction. The “weapons effect” has long established that people are more likely to act aggressively when in the presence of a firearm, which begs the question — will young men with guns embrace conflict rather than back away from it should it come their way?

Reasonable, mature people can debate the value or benefits of owning a weapon, but it’s likely all would agree that weapons belong only in the hands of reasonable, mature people.

Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center claims that where there are more guns there are more accidental shootings; the many headlines on the subject should make us all wary.

On January 12, 2016, 14-year-old Georta Mack snuck back into his house through the basement so he could play hooky. His 72-year-old father heard noises down below and took up his gun to assess the situation, opened the door to the basement, was startled by a loud noise, and his handgun discharged.

“I just shot my son by accident,” Mack’s father told a 911 operator through sobs. “He scared me. I thought he was in school. I heard noise and then I went downstairs looking. He jumped out at me. I shot him.”

The operator instructed Mack’s father to put pressure on the boy’s neck wound, and in the background, you can hear the father say chokingly, “Oh G-d…why didn’t you go to school?”

The boy struggled to breathe and died shortly after, upon arrival at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

An incident like this occurs every month in the United States.

“Mom Shoots Would-be Intruder Through Glass But It’s Her Son” (Detroit, Sept. 2, 2019), “Rural Soldier Woman Mistaken for Intruder Shot by Husband” (Soldier, Iowa, May 21, 2019), “Neighbor Heartbroken as Wife Mistakes Husband for Intruder and Kills Him” (Cabell County, West Virginia, March 7, 2019). The reports pile up.

As to the broader question of the benefits vs. costs of the Jewish community arming itself, Hamodia spoke with Dr. James Jacobs, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Professor of Law at NYU, and director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice.

“The research on the cost/benefit of firearms for the individual, much less the community [for self-defense], is mixed,” Dr. Jacobs says. “Having a firearm in the home creates a risk of accident and may raise the risk of suicide. The magnitude of those risks varies with the magnitude of the threat and the carefulness and mental stability of the firearm-owning household.”

When it comes to the community cost/benefit analysis, the results are somewhat different, but the overriding theme is the same: It depends on the magnitude of the threat, and who possesses the firearms.

“A neighborhood or community enhances its deterrence and defensive capacity when it increases the presence of armed police, public and/or private,” he notes. “While such armed defenders cannot be perfect with respect to accidental and mistaken use of deadly force, their deployment in the U.S. is generally considered advantageous for communities.”

A community can be vocal about who should carry and under what circumstances by influencing local gun policy.

“If the community has a say in who else plays an armed protective role, it could approve firearm ownership and, depending on the state’s public carry law, by persons the community deems competently trained and responsible. In a sense, this would be like adding to the number of trained private police,” he says. “Where the community has no say on which community members are armed, the risk of mistaken and inadvertent shootings increases.”

While many like to say that “only a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun,” data reveal that the majority of guns are used to intimidate and threaten, rather than to defend oneself. And even among the self-defense cases, the majority of those are the result of escalating arguments on both sides, rather than one person being attacked, unprovoked. (Harvard Injury Control Research Center)

THE RATIONALE

Despite the significant bulk of data which suggest guns and gun ownership do not make people safer, there are still some in our community who feel compelled to purchase firearms.

“You’d be surprised how many Jews have firearms,” says Chaim D., 38, of New Jersey. “My father was a firearm owner and I [am] as well. He had one always locked away, but we occasionally went to shooting ranges. Honestly, a lot of frum people own, but it’s just not spoken about. A lot more than you know.”

orthodox jews guns

Chaim believes there is nothing wrong with owning, and that it is the illegal element of gun use which gives the concept a bad reputation. “Pain medication abusers give pain medication a bad name, when it is a lifesaver for people who need it. Owning a firearm illegally gives legal firearm owners a bad name as well,” he says.

Owning one as a security measure may seem far-fetched to some, but others argue that these are times of literal pikuach nefesh.

His motivation for owning a gun is bifurcated. He’s used to the concept because of his family’s upbringing; he sees it as a safety device as well as a hobby.

Owning a firearm as a hobby may seem paradoxical to our essence as Jews, who avoid violent pursuits; however, Chaim doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think there is anything paradoxical about owning a firearm; on the contrary I think it shows a hishtadlus. Yaakov Avinu prepared himself for three things when meeting his brother Esav … war was one of them and that included arming himself with sword and daggers and [whatever weapons] they used back then. … There is nothing wrong with being prepared … taking martial arts and being on the offensive when something arises I don’t think is not in line with being a Yid. Just because we are Yidden doesn’t mean we have to let the other side win. Standing up for oneself isn’t not in line with Judaism.”

Under what circumstances would he actually use his gun?

“If I felt I had to,” he says. “If I heard that there was someone in my house and it turned out to be an intruder who I felt was putting my life or any family member’s life in danger.”

However, he acknowledges that most people would probably never have what it takes to pull the trigger on another human being, and that pointing a gun at an intruder is protection enough.

Recognizing the potential hazards of owning a firearm, Chaim has a security protocol in place.

“My guns have different levels of protection,” he says. “They are in a safe which can be accessed with a key or a combination. There is also a trigger guard that goes around the trigger and locks with a key, and then there are some holsters with additional protections.”

Overall, Chaim is pleased that others in the frum community are choosing to arm themselves. Although the likelihood of using a weapon against an intruder or attacker is slim, and the potential for self-harm or harming others is more likely, Chaim still believes owning a firearm is a positive development.

“Everything depends on whose hands it’s in,” he says. “A teenager who doesn’t know how to drive, then a car is a danger.

“I think it’s important for firearms to be in the right hands, with proper training. I think it’s important for us to not only have them, but for the authorities to be aware that there’s a diversity of people owning firearms. They should know we’re not sitting ducks, and that if an individual has an intruder in their home they can hold the intruder until the proper authorities come to take them away, and hopefully make our streets a safer place.”

For Yoni Tesser, of New Jersey, 26, his sole motivation for purchasing a handgun is home security. “I don’t own one yet, but I applied for a gun license and I intend to buy a handgun,” he says. While the recent anti-Semitic attacks are a factor in his decision, he is not looking to carry a weapon but to keep it locked in his home. Because he has young children, he intends to have a safety protocol in place.

“I actually do not want my kids to be aware of it,” he says. He plans to go to shooting ranges occasionally to practice.

If the views on gun ownership espoused by Chaim and Yoni are becoming increasingly more common, this is certainly an opportune time to explore the Torah perspective on gun ownership and gun use.

A TORAH PERSPECTIVE ON GUN OWNERSHIP

Harav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, responded to the question of owning a gun if one works in a dangerous neighborhood long before the recent catalyst for firearm possession emerged. (Rav Avigdor Miller, Q & A, Tape #714)

The Rav’s answer: “I won’t answer the question.”

First, he advises that there are many ways to get by with a substitute for firearms.

“If somebody … is fresh and insults you, become an anav. It pays to be an anav — you’ll live longer if you’re an anav. But when you have a gun in your pocket, you might forget yourself and answer back something rash. And then, it’s not so certain that he doesn’t have a gun. And he might know how to use it better than you.”

Rav Miller said that when he was much younger, he was walking in the street in a dangerous neighborhood carrying a large, heavy stick for protection. His friend said, “Don’t do that! It’s dangerous to carry a stick here.”

orthodox jews guns

Rav Avigdor Miller explained that it is risky to carry a stick because the assailant can grab the stick away from you and hit you with it, and, secondly, carrying a stick may make a person reckless. “Without a stick, you’ll stay home. You’re safer. And it’s better always to avoid trouble. I’ve [said] this many times. The Chinese say, ‘Who is a hero? The one who knows how to run away.’ That’s a hero. It’s always better to avoid any possibility of danger, but carrying a gun sometimes makes you reckless and you go into places where you [otherwise] wouldn’t go.”

Rabbi Avraham Fridman, an experienced mechanech in the Five Towns, NYS Certified School Leader and a school psychologist with extensive training in school security, shares his perspective with Hamodia.

“After being exposed to a number of people who own guns, I think it can be a potentially dangerous culture for a ben Torah,” he says. “People get swept up in it, they lose sight of the proper purpose, they think it’s all about hishtadlus, and they get involved in gun ranges.

“Dr. David Pelcovitz says about a smartphone — what do people get drawn into? The power. You have so much power, more power than NASA had when they sent a rocket ship to the moon. The same is true for guns. The power from the shots, the power when hitting your target, it can really take you in.”

This is not to say that being a gun owner is inherently incongruous with being a ben Torah, but it does mean that purchasing a gun should go hand-in-hand with seeking daas Torah.

“There are certainly people getting proper hadrachah when making the decision,” says Rabbi Fridman, “and there are administrators and even Rebbis getting guns for school protection, but they don’t brag about it, they don’t talk about it; they see it only as a tool with a very specific purpose. No one knows they own one. But a bunch of frum people are getting swept up in it, and it’s becoming an avodah which detracts from our true avodas Hashem.

“People need to look into themselves, be introspective, do a cheshbon hanefesh. Why am I getting a gun? Is my Rebbi behind this? Just as a child will pick up if his father goes to a shalom zachar or a Kiddush and has one drink in honor of the simchah, or if he goes to get drunk, a child will pick up on why his father has a gun. People need to explore their motives and know why they are doing something.”

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STATS ON GUNS

Guns are certainly now more identified with America than they are with most other nationalities. As is gun death. (Compared to other developed, wealthy countries.)

In 2017, 39,773 people died by gunfire, 60% by suicide, 37% by murder, and 3% by accident. (CDC)

As with many things, public perception is often skewed when it comes to gun violence. People bemoan mass shootings, which only account for about 100 gun-violence victims each year, while the bulk of harm comes from suicide and individual homicides.

And while the AR-15 and the AK-47 are similarly lamented for their weapons-of-war character, according to the FBI, rifles were responsible for only 4% of gun murders in 2017. Handguns, at 64%, were the weapon of choice.

On another note, the total number of gun deaths, which includes suicides, murders and accidents, is roughly the same as the number of motor vehicle deaths — 38,659. (CDC, 2017)

As for American gun violence as compared to other nations, a study of 195 countries and territories, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (University of Washington) documents that the U.S. gun death rate is 10.6 per 100,000 people (2016) as compared to 2.1 in Canada, 1.0 in Australia, 2.7 in France and 0.9 in Germany.

The U.S. gun death rate is still significantly lower than nations like El Salvador (39.2 per 100,000 people), Venezuela (38.7), Guatemala (32.3), and Colombia (25.9). Globally, the U.S. ranked 20th in gun fatality rates.

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A CONVERSATION WITH HARAV MOSHE TUVIA LIEFF

Rav, Agudas Yisroel, Bais Binyomin, Brooklyn, NY

What are the Rav’s thoughts on the move by some in the frum community to purchase guns as a means of self-defense, due to the increase in anti-Semitism?

First of all, anti-Semitism has been around since Avraham Avinu; that’s a given. Let’s not assume this is a new phenomenon, even here in the United States. I grew up in the medinah of Flatbush, and every Friday we would have a baseball game in the park. Each week the gentiles would pick on us; they even broke the nose of one of my friends. You tried to avoid them; you did what you could.

In many ways we need to be careful not to expose ourselves and not to draw attention; however, that having been said, if someone spits on you, you don’t need to say that it’s raining. No one believes a dangerous situation shouldn’t be dealt with responsibly. But again, sometimes you have to be careful not to stand out and be ostentatious. As an example, the Chasam Sofer even paskens that we shouldn’t put the menorah outside because it’s provoking the gentiles! Today we think it’s our right to march our religion through the street. It’s an important balance to bear in mind. This is galus and we need to respect the gentiles in their land.

As for the question of frum Yidden buying guns, for that you have to follow daas Torah. We have a history of Jews arming themselves for thousands of years, but on the other hand, to have young people owning weapons doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re not mature enough or trained enough to ensure that there are no accidents, chas v’shalom. In my day they had the Jewish Defense League, but there were no guns; the boys learned karate!

As a Rav for 19 years in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a lot of questions about firearms came up, especially after 9/11, but even if it was permitted to carry weapons in shul, it was really always limited to two or three professionals who had real training, either in the Israeli army or the American one, and no one knew about it.

While the current political/social climate is a source of concern, and while we should adopt every form of safety measure, we should leave those measures in the hands of professionals, former policemen, etc., who are best capable of providing the security.

We don’t want to live like hermits and be terrified of going out into society, but we need to be careful with firearms, and speak to daas Torah. Every neighborhood, every community, every shul is different, and the threat of each area is different. Political leaders and askanim should continue to consult with the Rabbanim. They should be the ones to manage the situation and offer direction.

There is concern, but there shouldn’t be vigilantism. And again, as a community, we need to be less visible, less in the public eye.

Over the years people would ask me she’eilos about carrying firearms on Shabbos. I went to my Rebbi, Hagaon Harav Shmuel Berenbaum, zt”l, and he said it’s not sakanas nefashos to walk the streets of New York. If it is, you can’t go out to daven, it’s against halachah.

Some of the people buying guns are concerned about protection at home, particularly in the Lakewood suburbs where there is tension with the locals. What’s the Rav’s reaction to people purchasing guns for home safety?

I would not make this decision independently; rather, consult with your Rav. Don’t pick and choose soundbites. Pick someone who will guide your life, you and your family, halachically and hashkafically. It’s not against halachah to own a gun, but you need to do it carefully. People cannot just make these decisions on their own. Klal Yisrael, baruch Hashem, has many learned Rabbanim, talmidei chachamim, and they should lead us. There needs to be daas Torah. It’s not the Wild West. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu protect his am hanivchar; may we be safe … and share only simchos.

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WE ARE MISSING THE MESSAGE

In the weeks following the tragic attacks in Monsey and Jersey City, against the backdrop of rising violence against Jews in New York City as well, some in the Orthodox community have responded by encouraging people to purchase and carry firearms for their protection.

In a recent shiur given in his shul, Harav Yisroel Dovid Schlesinger, Mara d’Asra of Khal Shaarei Tefillah in Monsey, expressed his feeling that this approach — and others being taken in the public arena — both distract from the inherent message of these events and lead Klal Yisrael away from hashkafas haTorah.

The following was adapted from his shiur, by Rafael Hoffman.

The Ribbono shel Olam calls to Klal Yisrael through phenomenal events that occur in the world. These days, there is no need to go into detail about what this means, especially here in Monsey.

The shame of this situation is, unfortunately, that the hisorerus we are supposed to get from these tragedies has been totally watered down by those focusing their attention on reactions that are anathema to Torah hashkafah.

Hashem does not want us to make press conferences and to give speeches in front of the world demanding things from the government and insisting on our rights. This approach only leads to more hatred against Jews, chas v’shalom. It reflects the extent to which we have lost our concept of how a Jew is supposed to conduct himself in galus.

Of course there is hishtadlus to do, but there is a Torah way to make those efforts, and learning what people call “self-defense” and forming security squads is far from what we should be doing. In fact, it is the opposite of what a Jew should be doing in such times. Weapons never had any place in the life of a Jew, and they should not now.

The only case in which a Jew is correct to take such an approach is if he has clear instructions from Gedolei Yisrael to do so. By real instruction I mean: not something that you manage to squeeze out of a Gadol and then publicize to the entire world to justify what you think is right, while the Gadol himself did not mean anything remotely close to what you are presenting.

I feel this is a point that must be made, even though I am really too small of a person to make it, because the truth of what should be coming out of these tragedies is getting lost. I fear that, chas v’shalom, that could lead to a terrible anger in Shamayim. The truth of the Torah reaction to these events is getting weakened and lost, and the result is chillul Shem Shamayim in the world. People begin to question why Hashem does these things, and we as maaminim know, all judgment from Above is not done without careful judgment.

What should be our hishtadlus? Maybe we should stop talking in shuls and batei medrash. Maybe we should make a greater effort to conduct ourselves the way that Jews in exile should, and try not to make ourselves so conspicuous to the world around us.

Where is the Jew who changed his daily schedule to have more time for Torah and avodah because of what happened? Where is the Jew who gave up something that he should not have had at home in the first place because of these tragedies? Where is the Jew who accepted on himself to improve in bein adam lachaveiro or in shemiras halashon?

Instead, our focus has been on efforts that are completely non-Jewish and that only make the problem worse.

We cannot forget the fact that, yes, we are in galus, and until Moshiach comes and reveals kvod Shamayim to the world, there will be many people who do not like Jews. When tragedies like these happen, the focus should not be on what the world should be doing for us or how we can better physically protect ourselves, but on what we should be doing to improve ourselves.

Weapons have no place in Klal Yisrael except with an explicit instruction from a true Gadol b’Yisrael. Our task is to listen carefully for what it is that Hashem truly wants of us, and in that merit we should be saved from all the danger that we face.