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Guns, God, and Virginia Tech

Tragedy is the right time for introspection, and so after the massacre of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech I’d like to reverse a position I’ve taken in the past, including in this web space. I believe I was … Read More

By / April 17, 2007

Tragedy is the right time for introspection, and so after the massacre of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech I’d like to reverse a position I’ve taken in the past, including in this web space. I believe I was wrong about gun control. On this point, the liberals may be right. In a previous article in Jewcy I briefly noted my former view that the problem with gun control is that it assumes people lack the moral power to make free choices, so they can’t be given the responsibility of owning a weapon. Whereas the Biblical and Jewish worldview emphasizes our freedom to act morally if we choose to do so, gun-control advocates think it’s a material object, a gun, that causes the shooter to commit his crime. The New York Times headline said it all: “Gun Rampage is Nation’s Worst,” as if it were the Glock 9 mm handgun that rampaged through an engineering building, dragging the helpless suspect, Cho Seung-Hui, along behind it. The Times editorial put this even more clearly: “What is needed, urgently, is stronger controls over the lethal weapons that cause such wasteful carnage and such unbearable loss.” There you have it. Weapons, not people, cause carnage. Could there be a clearer statement of the materialist worldview? I still think that, in general, conservatives are right to hold people responsible for poor choices, rather than claiming, as liberals do, that they never had a choice at all. But when it comes to weapon ownership, I’m coming around to the opinion that our culture isn’t fit for that kind of responsibility. For guidance on public policy, I look to the Bible. That’s not because I’m some kind of a theocrat. Clearly, American government is secular by design. Rather, Scripture encapsulates wisdom which you can regard as either divine in origin, or simply the product of millennia of human thought and experience brought to bear on ultimate questions. There’s nothing theocratic about applying such wisdom to secular legal issues. At the same time, simply quoting a verse doesn’t tell you how the Biblical worldview would apply to a given policy question. The text is too cryptic and allusive for that. Instead, you need to see what the classic codifiers of Biblical tradition say. The challenge is to extract the general principle from the Scriptural text and then translate it into practical terms, applicable to the government of our public and private lives. That’s what the Talmud does. Legal codifiers like Maimonides then clarify the issues further. As for the merchandising of weaponry, the book of Leviticus makes the essential point when it says, “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind” (19:14). Obviously the verse isn’t meant literally. Do we really need to be warned against tormenting the handicapped?
No, it’s telling us to take into account the weaknesses of a person in our dealings with him. Don’t pour liquor for someone with a propensity to drink and drive. The verse doesn’t contradict my previously stated principle that the Bible gives us liberty to screw up. But that principle is very broad. There are certain circumstances—metaphorically speaking, conditions of “blindness”—where a society should remove temptations and causes for stumbling from before people who are likely to stumble. In its tractate Avodah Zarah (page 15b), the Talmud indicates how this would apply in a Jew’s relationship with idolaters: “We may not sell to them weapons or accessories of weapons. Nor may we sharpen weapons for them. We may not sell to them stocks [for securing feet] or [prisoners’] collars, nor shackles, nor chains of iron.” Maimonides codifies this as practical law in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Murder and the Guarding of Life, 12:12-14), forbidding the sale of “all weapons of war” or any “object that poses a threat to the public,” and citing Leviticus 19:14. He makes an exception for selling armaments to the nation’s military (or presumably its local police units). That would appear to seal the matter. From the perspective of Jewish law, there seems to be very solid ground for restricting weapon sales. The only point of ambiguity arises from the fact that the Talmud in Avodah Zarah (meaning literally, “Foreign Worship”) is concerned with “idolaters,” heathens of a particularly nasty kind. A spokesman for the National Rifle Association, if he were also a Talmud enthusiast, could respond: That was then. This is now. We don’t live in the grotesquely immoral idolatrous society that the rabbis of the Talmud were familiar with. There is no analogy between selling swords to their heathen neighbors and selling handguns to the much more civilized American citizenry. My reply would be that it depends on how you define “idolater.” Many of the laws in Avodah Zarah haven’t been applied for centuries. Partly, this is owing to the definition of idolatry advanced by an important Medieval Talmudist, Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri, who lived in southern France. Ha-Meiri defined the characteristics of idolatrous and non-idolatrous societies—or as he put it, “nations not restricted by the ways of religion” and “nations restricted by the ways of religion.” Provocatively, his definition of idolatry was based not on standards of Jewish religious dogma but on a more general consideration of whether the culture in question is secular or religious. A secular nation would be considered barbarous, therefore “idolatrous.” We should not sell deadly weapons to members of a society “not restricted by the ways of religion.” It is simply too dangerous to entrust them with this responsibility. On the other hand, living in medieval Catholic Frances, Ha-Meiri considered his own Christian neighbors
to be “religious” rather than “idolatrous.” To sell them armaments, for private or other use, would not violate the Talmud’s rule. Nor at a Biblical level would it be the equivalent of “placing a stumbling block before the blind.” The issue of gun control comes down, then, to a question about the nature of our society. Is it “religious” enough to merit free access to fire arms? Can Americans be trusted? Some can, of course. But the Bible also advises, in evaluating the spiritual health of a society, that we look to the majority of citizens. A law in Deuteronomy (13:13-19) has it that if more than half of a city’s population has embraced idolatry, it is to be considered a “wayward city” and destroyed. Because someone is bound to misunderstand what I’m saying, let me repeat. I’m not a theocrat calling for America’s increasingly secular society to be subjected to Biblical-style destruction. In fact there’s good evidence that no “wayward city” was ever identified and laid waste in Israel. Instead, the Bible is simply offering us a yardstick for judging cultures. It is saying there is a tipping point, beyond which the character of a society changes so much that new rules must be applied in dealing with its population. Has America reached that point? Conservatives prefer to think of the United States as a Christian country, which historically it is. And indeed, according to the Pew Research Council, in 2002, some 82 percent of Americans claimed to be Christian. But I wonder how much that actually means. Liberals and secularists will not like the direction I’m heading. But I also take note of a much more worrisome statistic from the respected Glenmary Research Center in Nashville. Their data is based on polling that asked people not merely how they identify but how they practice religion. As of 2000, the percentage of American “church adherents” stood at only 47.4 percent. If you add Jews, you get another 2.2 percent, for a total of 49.6 percent. So Bible-believing Americans who actually practice a religion appear to be less than half the country. We should take that into account when deciding if ours is a civilized and religious society or, instead, an increasingly secular and wayward one. The tragedy at Virginia Tech raises the question, while polling data and the wisdom of the Bible offer the troubling if tentative answer. Perhaps the time has come to review the laws that grant our nation such freedom of gun ownership. I don't relish admitting this, especially in the context of such sorrowful news, but liberals may indeed be right about this. Just not for the reasons they think.

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