An open letter to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism:
I grew up attending a Conservative schul, but as a member of the military on active duty, I have found a wonderful home at both Reform and Conservative synagogues through many different duty stations. I also became a gun owner partly as a response to an act of vandalism against my synagogue that featured pro-Nazi propaganda. As a practical matter, it reminded me that as wonderful a country as we have in America, we remain a religious minority. Gun ownership and further study of the basic human right to carry the weapon of your choice have had a positive impact on my life . . .
Thus, I was disappointed to see both the Conservative and Reform movement recently come out strongly in favor of gun control. It seems paradoxical at first blush, but laws restricting gun ownership go against two critical Jewish principles: Pikuach Nefesh, the idea that to save a human life is a critical responsibility, and Tikkun Olam, our obligation to build a better world.
Although it might not be one’s first assumption, restricting gun ownership will not save lives. We must consider both sides of the coin, the improper use of firearms to commit crimes as well as the lawful (both in secular and Jewish terms) uses that defend life. According to the US Department of Justice Special Report on Firearms Violence from 1993 to 2011, there were 11,101 firearm homicides in 2011. (This was a drop of 39% from a high of 18,253 in 1993). It is not an insignificant number.
Yet, these homicides are dwarfed by even the most conservative estimates for annual defensive gun uses (DGUs) in the United States. Clinton’s Justice Department conducted a phone survey in 1994 that put the number at 1.5 million per year. But, to support the Jewish ideal of the sanctity of human life, we should really want to know how many of these DGUs actually saved a life instead of merely defended property.
Criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz published a paper that helps answer this question: “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun.” They asked those respondents who had a DGU how likely it was that they themselves or another innocent person would have been killed if they had not used a gun for protection. The most conservative answer from this survey was 161,650 incidents per year.
This is an order of magnitude more lives saved by the gun per year than murdered by the gun.
Still, these numbers should not be a Jew’s main concern with gun control. The real issue is that it obsesses over controlling simple mechanical objects with no will of their own – the “how” of the crime. When we focus on the mechanical, we ignore the “why” of the crime. This inevitably leads to much more difficult questions than “how many bullets do you really need?” or even the inevitable post mass-shooting, “how do we keep mentally defective people from obtaining guns?”
Instead, we should ask what is the state of our mental healthcare system? What will it take to improve it? How do we balance the rights of an individual to be free with the needs of a patient who refuses to seek help? What do we need to do culturally to reduce the stigma of seeking medical help for mental health issues?
The bulk of firearms homicides are not mass shootings. The Department of Justice’s Special Report on Firearms Violence shows that African-American males age 18-24 suffer three times the homicide rate of the rest of the population. It is incumbent upon us to ask why this is so. I certainly don’t have a complete answer, but I suspect that in seeking one, we will find ourselves working to break the cycle of poverty, combating institutional racism, and finding ways to reduce or eliminate the economic incentives of the drug trade.
In short, when we ask the harder questions, we re-focus ourselves on Tikkun Olam. And in a world of limited attention spans and more tightly limited budgets, every second and every dollar we waste on gun control is that much less available to repair the world.