Guns and Jewish Ethics | Deborah Wilfond

The American Problem
with Guns Through
a Jewish Ethical Lens

As a new immigrant to the USA, I am deeply disturbed by the magnitude of gun incidents, in which 100,000 Americans are killed or maimed every year. Coming from Europe, where guns are not a major problem, I wonder why there is not more moral outrage in the States.

Pistol Man
Kai Stachowiak

Context is crucial, whether we’re examining the ideals of the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution or the Torah in deciding what is useful to us today in addressing ethical issues. In the West, our established ways of thinking about ethics are very much based in Greek, Christian and Enlightenment thought, which means Jewish perspectives can introduce alternative modes of exploring current issues, particularly in relation to collective responsibility, the value of human life, resisting oppression, the will towards a more just and peaceful society, compassion and care and the avoidance of harm.

In preparation for the Days of Awe this September, when Jews endeavor to attend to the most important spiritual matters of our lives—our relationships with each other and with the divine—I am advocating for a necessary return to greater collective responsibility. It is both intrinsic to Jewish values and, I argue, to the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

Gun deaths in the US feel all the more tragic because they are largely avoidable. The root of the problem lies in easy access to firearms. There is a direct correlation between ease of access to weapons and the high numbers of gun-related deaths.

Countries with the lowest rates of gun violence have legislation to decrease the number of firearms in circulation.[1] The United States desperately needs such measures but is prevented from instituting them by the gun industry and its supporters in politics and government.

Compared with other high-income countries with populations over 10 million, the US has the highest number of firearm homicides in the world.[2] Already this year, there have been 30,000 gun deaths, of which 1,100 were children.[3] Many tens of thousands more are suffering the physiological and psychological consequences of gun-related injuries.

Anyone would have thought these horrifying statistics would be enough to galvanize a sea-change in American attitudes towards stricter controls. It seems nearly every American I speak with is just as appalled but there is despair and a sense of impotence in the face of the power of the gun lobby.

Deaths by guns are often blamed on those at the margins, on criminals and the mentally ill, and on ineffective security measures. The conversation tends to focus on how to better defend ourselves (often entailing more guns), rather than looking at where the problem originates.

According to many legal and health experts, we should be examining the role of the firearms industry rather than focusing on a criminal justice or mental health angle.[4] Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on tort law and firearms at Georgia State University says, “The real problem in gun violence we should focus on is the firearm industry’s sales, marketing and distribution practices.”[5]


Just a handful of companies dominate the $19.5 billion firearms market and encourage the glorification of guns as a symbol of supposed empowerment by a culture that is increasingly insecure. Gun purchasing is exponentially on the rise[6] with Americans purchasing more than 20 million guns every year[7] and the industry profits massively each time a mass shooting hits public consciousness. Within hours of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, shares in gun companies were up by as much as 8%.[8]

The industry capitalizes on fearful Americans who lack trust in public institutions to keep them safe[9] and are now navigating mass anxiety generated by social, health and economic pressures.[10] In the last decade, buyers cited security as their primary reason for purchase rather than hunting or recreation.[11]

Fear also fuels the market for services and products aimed to protect us against guns, such as: security guards and trainings, domestic and school security measures, alarm and door locking systems, bullet-proof paraphernalia and more. A Forbes article published in 2018 pointed out that the security industry is worth many times more than the firearms one.[12]  Both industries employ hundreds of thousands of people and contribute billions in tax revenues.

The gun lobby’s reach into politics and government is deep and it is wide. A recent survey by the New York Times shows that 49 of the current 50 Republican Senators have received money from the NRA over the course of their careers, many of them receiving millions of dollars each—up to $13.6 million in the case of Mitt Romney. In 2016, the NRA donated a record $30 million to Trump’s campaign[13] and last year, according to OpenSecrets, five gun lobbying organizations donated almost $16 million to Republican politicians.[14]

The NRA claims to advocate for the rights of ordinary gun owners[15] but, in reality, it is a trade association whose sacred cow is the industry’s profit margins. According to Josh Sugarmann, Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center, “it’s very important to understand the political battle in terms of the interests of the industry and in terms of marketing.”[16]

“Anthropocene”
Bullet Hole Shattering Glass
©2017 Karen M Crosby

Parents of school shooting victims are challenging the industry’s irresponsible marketing practices. They argue gun companies have targeted young, at-risk males with ads such as “Consider Your Man Card Reissued”[17] and that they produce ads resembling video games appealing to young men attracted to thrill-seeking behavior.[18]

In the course of writing this article, algorithms detected that I was researching firearms and a plethora of advertisements for guns started popping up on my screen. It seems purchasing a gun these days is as easy as ordering household items from Amazon.

Since 2004, there has been a proliferation of semi-automatic weapons and other types of firearms that are more deadly and those that are easier to conceal.[19][20] Lytton has compared trends in the market with the type and volume of firearms recovered in crime and has found a clear connection.[21] 

Yet gun companies adopt a willfully blind approach to the supply chain, denying evidence linking the industry to gun deaths, lobbying to remove obstacles to easy purchase and persisting in mass production of ever deadlier weapons.[22] Dealers often engage in practices that facilitate diversion of gun products into the illegal market by selling guns off the books and failing to prevent illegal sales to buyers acting on behalf of others.


Clearly, in American culture today, the pendulum has swung in the direction of extreme individualist defenses of ‘freedoms’ overriding the notion of collective ‘responsibilities.’ Such individualistic thinking and its exploitation by the gun lobby have given rise to a situation of widespread loss of life, injury and moral harm to American society, which flies in the face of Jewish ethics as well as other faith and secular ethics traditions.

The gun lobby presents individual rights and collective responsibilities as if they are mutually exclusive, that a right to have a gun overrules our collective responsibility to ensure gun safety for all. There is also the implied suggestion that the individual right to have guns is Constitutional while a collective right to safety arising from gun control is not. But both perspectives—individual and collective—must be balanced for the common good, an idea in fact enshrined in the Constitution.

Both individualistic and collective priorities can be found in the original spirit and purpose of the Second Amendment, which was to provide for the security and the right of citizens to resist a tyrannical government. The Supreme Court’s recent interpretations of the Second Amendment divorce individual and collective needs so that the debate becomes an either/or discussion—either we look after our own needs or we band together as a society. This was never the intention of the Founding Fathers.[23]

Jewish values seek to look after individual needs through collective responsibility. From a Jewish ethical standpoint, we must take responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. We should try to love our neighbor as our self because it is our moral duty.[24] We must work towards a peaceful and orderly society in which human life is protected.

We have a right to personally defend ourselves,[25] however we must not go out and cause harm to others directly or indirectly. If we cause one life to be lost, it is as if we have destroyed the entire world, and if we save one life, it is as if we have preserved an entire world.[26]

In fact, saving life (pikuach nefesh) supersedes all other obligations, and laws can be overruled or interpreted anew if they incur harm between human beings.[27] Each generation reinterprets Jewish teachings according to context and circumstance. It is not a fixed, didactic system but a discussion with multiple voices and opinions and we can add our own as new issues arise. So too, the American legal system must evolve to serve current needs.[28]


Upon closer inspection, extreme American individualism appears at odds with any genuine concern for the wellbeing of actual individuals. Whilst writing this, I met Dr Michael Wolf, an MD from Tennessee specializing in pediatric critical injuries. He said that one of the saddest parts of his job is treating children with catastrophic gun injuries whose parents originally believed that keeping guns in the home was a good thing but, after their child was hurt, expressed immense regret for not having understood the risks.

Gun-related suffering is widespread in the US but suppressed in the American psyche. When horrific mass shootings occur, short-term outrage arises but soon sinks below consciousness again, whilst gun usage is an intrinsic part of film and video game fantasy. The parents of Dr Wolf’s patients were not fully awake to the real and devastating experiences of other victims’ families who turn out to be just like them. The lack of visibility of the suffering is a major problem—its hiddenness exploited by the gun industry in treating humans as tools for its own ends.


Ancient Jewish texts as well as modern Jewish thinkers speak of the importance of acknowledging the full humanness of others. Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas wrote that responsibility towards each other follows from ‘face-to-face’ encounters. Meaningful social change requires consciousness-raising about people’s suffering.

In many ways, the Torah provided the basis for modern ethics of the social contract.[29] The idea that we must relinquish some aspects of personal autonomy in exchange for the protection of our rights by the governing body is found in the laws accepted by the people at Sinai.

In the Mishna there is a discussion of laws of the social contract between people and their neighbors, and of laws that link a person to the divine. The only path to God is through keeping our ethical obligations towards other human beings.[30]

We are not allowed to put a stumbling block before the blind nor cause another person to transgress, meaning gun manufacturers and dealers are accountable even if indirectly.[31] They must not profit by the blood of others or engage in corporate sponsorship of politicians as to do so is tantamount to bribes and perverting justice.[32]

The Rabbis said we must put safety measures in place so as to avoid potential harm.[33]  In this spirit, legislation could be enacted to force the firearms industry to put monitoring systems in place to prevent firearms from being diverted into illegal markets and to require credit companies to track firearms sales.[34]

Guns are idolized in American culture, yet Jews are warned not to worship idols. The Rabbis considered weapons to be an indignity, a disgrace even.[35]


Public Domain Image

The free rein given to the gun industry flies in the face of our collective responsibility not to stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is shed.[36] Every life is sacred, each one of us being made in the image of the divine. When a person dies, holiness in our world is diminished so we are compelled to act against a system that trivializes human life and results in its wanton destruction.[37] We must act to counter the dehumanization inherent in prioritizing profits at the expense of human life.

Ironically, the tyranny that the Second Amendment was designed to resist appears to have been re-created in new forms. As Jews we are particularly sensitive to oppression and must work to free society of systemic abuses—from political corruption to judicial decisions that are unrepresentative of the views of the majority of Americans. We must speak up about the Supreme Court eroding the powers of local governments to regulate firearms.[38]

Many of us feel overwhelmed at taking on the gun industry but we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed. We can take heart from progress being made whilst engaging more at both grassroots and policy levels.


The US can learn a lot from successes abroad, such as Australia’s firearms amnesty and corporate manslaughter penalties in various countries. International measures taken against the tobacco industry have been effective at reducing smoking-related deaths and a similar strategy could be applied to firearms with the goal of making guns less socially acceptable.

Supporting campaigns and lawsuits brought by organizations such as Everytown, Brady and Giffords will prompt insurers and financial backers to pressure the industry. Just a few gun manufacturing companies wield enormous power in driving market practices so if one or two are made to act more responsibly, it will reap dramatic benefits.

We can raise consciousness about the risks of guns, teach our children about civic values, democracy and about healthy constructions of strength and masculinity. As individuals we can sign petitions, vote, write to members of Congress and Senators about gun industry practices, and examine our pensions and investments to ensure that we do not hold shares in firearms companies unwittingly.

It is incumbent upon us to pursue justice for our ourselves, our children and the whole of society.[39] We need more transparency about the extent of the interests of the firearms industry and the reach of its power. We need to tackle its economic might through a longterm strategy in governance, law and the financial sector. And we need to vote and choose leaders who represent all of our views.

Rabbi Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”[40]

If each of us takes action, we can face the collective challenge together. In taking action, we support each other as holy reflections of the divine in trying to stem the flow of unnecessary bloodshed of our brothers, sisters and children.


Here are actions you can take to help
rein in guns
and prevent gun violence.


©2022 Deborah Wilfond
All rights reserved


Deborah Wilfond

…grew up in London and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University in Scotland.  After completing legal training at the University of Law, she worked in family law in London for a few years. During this time, Deborah went to Jerusalem on a ten-day trip where she met and fell in love with her husband, who happens to be a Rabbi.  They got married and Deborah moved to Jerusalem. There she worked as a yoga and mindfulness teacher while mothering their three rambunctious children. Since 2020, Deborah has been living in New York. She is currently teaching mindfulness and pursuing graduate Jewish Studies with Spertus Institute.




Footnotes

[1] The Australian National Firearms Agreement restricts the use of firearms by civilians. This legislation has been credited with ending mass shootings and reducing firearm suicides in Australia according to a study published by JAMA. In South Africa, rates of violent deaths decreased after the enactment of the Firearms Control Act of 2000 according to The South African Medical Journal. See www.healthdata.org/acting-data/gun-violence-united-states-outler

[2] According to www.healthdata.org/acting-data/gun-violence-united-states-outlier.

See also statistics on https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gun-deaths-by-country

[3] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org

[4] https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/crossroads-addressing-gun-violence-public-health-crisis

Also see www.psychiatrictimes.com/couch-crisis/moving-beyond-motives-mass-shootings “There is no credible evidence that most mass shootings are carried out by “deranged individuals with identifiable mental illness.” Scapegoating people with mental illness is an easy evasion of the underlying problem in the US—namely, the unconscionable ease with which rage-filled, alienated young men can acquire weapons of mass killing.”  Dr Ronald W.Pies, MD 8/8/2019

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/nyregion/judge-dismisses-suit-against-gun-maker-by-newtown-victims-families.html

[6]https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-25/how-many-guns-in-the-us-buying-spree-bolsters-lead-as-most-armed-country

[7] http://www.zippia.com/advice/largest-gun-brands/

[8] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-25/how-many-guns-in-the-us-buying-spree-bolsters-lead-as-most-armed-country

[9] According to Scott Bach, board member of the NRA, on June 27, 2016 in a statement to the Asbury Park Press:  “In an emergency, you’re on your own. Some of us have made the decision to be lawfully armed to own firearms for the purpose of self-protection in the gravest extreme.” He also stated to WKXW-FM on May 9, 2016 that “the [State] government has abandoned its obligation” to protect citizens and provide for their safety in certain jurisdictions in New Jersey.

[10] Americans went on a frenzy of gun purchasing at the height of the pandemic  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-25/how-many-guns-in-the-us-buying-spree-bolsters-lead-as-most-armed-country

[11] In 2021, 88% of gun owners reported self-defense as their primary motivation. news.gallup.com/poll/357329/gun-owners-increasingly-cite-crime-reason-ownership.aspx

Recent increases in purchases of firearms are also a result of the widespread introduction of ‘stand your ground’ laws, permitting people to shoot as a first resort if they perceive a physical threat. These laws have been adopted across more than half of the US after intense lobbying by the NRA (National Rifle Association). They have assisted in normalizing the ownership of firearms for self-defense.

[12] www.forbes.com/sites/elizabethmacbride/2018/11/25/americas-gun-violence-business-is-bigger/?sh+2b0d9fd23ae8

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/01/nra-russia-investigations-gun-lobby

[14] https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=Q13  OpenSecrets is a non-partisan, independent and non-profit research group tracking money in US politics.

[15]www.npr.org/2018/03/13/593255356/how-americas-gun-industry-is-tied-to-the-nra

[16] www.npr.org/2018/03/13/593255356/how-americas-gun-industry-is-tied-to-the-nra

[17] https://apnews.com/article/sandy-hook-school-shooting-remington-settlement-e53b95d398ee9b838afc06275a4df403

[18] https://everytownlaw.org/case/everytown-calls-on-the-ftc-to-investigate-smith-wessons-dangerous-assault-rifle-marketing-practices/

[19] https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30258-1/fulltext quoting NYT articlewww.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/nyregion/judge-dismisses-suit-against-gun-maker-by-newtown-victims-families.html?_r=0

[20] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/analysis-how-firearm-manufacturers-influence-american-gun-culture-in-6-charts

[21] Increased production and retail in a given year equate with larger numbers of gun homicides in subsequent years—the same types of weapons reach illegal circulation within a year or two of being sold ‘legally’.

https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(17)30258-1/fulltext

[22] in the civil action case of National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc v. Leticia James NY AG giffords.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/NSSF-v.-Leticia-James-1.pdf

[23] District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) which overturned 200 years of jurisprudence in 2008 by a slim majority that interpreted the Second Amendment as an absolute individual right to arms. That decision was, and is, highly controversial, contested by anti-gun activists, lawyers, constitutional scholars and many others. It prioritizes individual rights over collective responsibility. It should have balanced the individual right with the ‘well-regulated militia’ clause, which was supposed to guarantee the safety of all through a well-regulated, collective system. The previous stance agreed by SCOTUS in United States v. Miller 1939 was that “the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have ‘some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia’.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Second-Amendment/Origins-and-historical-antecedents

[24] Leviticus 19:18

[25] Rashi Bereshit 32:3-14

[26] Bavli Sanhedrin 37a

[27] Yoma 84b and 85b

[28] The Second Amendment was adopted at a time when the tyranny of the British monarchy was a recent memory and there were no well-trained, disciplined State-run security forces. It was based on an English law that protected Parliament from a tyrannical crown and was never designed to allow private individuals to arm themselves for personal self-defense. Its convoluted language is confusing and has been exploited by the gun lobby to serve its own vested interests at the expense of ordinary citizens.

[29] see Locke and Rousseau www.britannica.com/topic/social-contract/The-social-contract-in-Rousseau

[30] Yoma 8

[31] Leviticus 19:14 “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am יהוה.”  This is a consequentialist approach; its aim is to avoid a situation resulting in harm.

[32] Exodus 23:2, Leviticus 19:15, Deuteronomy 16:19

[33] Shulkhan Arukh (Joseph Caro 16th C): Choshen Mishpat 427

[34] Rambam: Mishneh Torah: “Murderer and the Preservation of Life” Chap 11 on Deuteronomy 22:8

[35] Exodus 20:4. Also see the Talmudic discussion in Shabbat 63a

[36] Leviticus 19:16

[37] “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it” Pirkei Avot 2:16

[38] The approach of the current Supreme Court is out of step with democratic principles. Governor Kathy Hochul called the recent decision to overturn a one-hundred year old New York law restricting concealed firearms “reckless” pointing out that it puts the people of New York in greater danger and that the ruling goes directly against the wishes of the majority of New Yorkers. According to a Siena College Research Institute poll in June 2022, 79% of New Yorkers favored upholding the New York law restricting concealed carry www.politico.com/amp/news/2022/06/23/new-york-hochul-supreme-court-gun-00041715

[39] “Justice, justice you shall pursue” Deuteronomy 16:20

[40] in Mishnah Avot 1:14



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