From an early age, I was moved by the principle of “purity of arms” stated clearly in the Israel Defense Forces’ ethical guidelines. To me, it outlines a philosophy for valuing fragile human life in a violent and unpredictable world. While different in intent from the Second Amendment, I often look at the matter of gun violence in the United States through the lens of this statement. It reads:
“The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.”
These words have been the overlay as I search for a personal ethic grounded in Jewish tradition that enables me to both stand behind the Second Amendment and respond to the epidemic of gun violence in this country. I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “purity of arms” in private gun ownership in the United States anymore.
While the carnage that assault weapons cause is devastating, they make up a small percentage of the firearms used in gun crimes. Handguns are overwhelmingly used to perpetrate violence, including domestic violence, suicide, and daily gun violence. Even if a weapon is acquired with the understanding that it is for self-defense, sport or hunting – which many average gunowners do – when it is used to take another human life, it is no longer acceptable.
Now, on top of the 90 Americans killed by guns every single day, there is another threat that has been introduced into our terrorized society during the last few years. The high-profile rhetoric of public figures, amplified by social media and the press, has enveloped firearms in a layer of aggressive divisiveness and fear. When we allow white nationalism, bigotry, and gun accessibility to converge, even more Americans are in the line of fire.
It does not matter what flavor of prejudice motivates perpetrators ― white supremacy, racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Hispanic sentiment, anti-elitism, anger towards either side of the political spectrum, xenophobia and, of course, anti-Semitism all play the same role in persuading a man with a gun from taking the lives of his “enemies.” The near-constant weaponization of rhetoric become fatally literal in describing hatred.
Never in my life have I heard so much volatile language being flung across the political spectrum and other differences. And never have we seen so many mass shootings in our country – more than one a day so far in 2019. We watch with alarm as leaders have resorted to the same kind of name-calling and denigration that augments the anger and division they decry, in a never ending cycle. And for an entire generation now, we have seen thousands of Americans die from gun violence every year, with close to no federal action ever taken.
That said, calling on people to watch their words and speak with civility, even if it were effective, will not remove the stain from the millions of firearms owned with no purpose other than to take human life. Indeed, there are more guns in circulation in American than there are Americans. A gun acquired with the intention to take a life proactively can never be pure, and in the age we live in, a gun acquired with the intention to take a life reactively can never be separated from the fear and apprehension about people unlike one’s self that has been cultivated by the polluters of our beloved communities.
The Jewish conversation on this matter often pits the ancient ruling (Mishnah Shabbat 6:4) that weapons of battle are shameful as unnecessary adornments against the more contemporary concern that we should never be powerless before our enemies. But our problem in America right now is with the proliferation of guns and the veneration of the Second Amendment as if it were divinely mandated.
The obstinate resistance of leaders and lobbyists to the danger posed by hate-filled people with guns shows that they have no real concern with the purity of their arms; they are concerned only with the arms themselves. Perhaps the distinction between the IDF guidelines and the Second Amendment is the difference between responsibilities and rights. It is not a new dilemma for the United States, but it is now in a context we cannot afford to overlook.
Rabbi Jack Moline is president of Interfaith Alliance.