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How to have a rational Jewish discussion about guns

There’s only one serious argument to be had about gun control, but broaching it demonstrates a cultural divide that can’t seem to be bridged.

Israelis practice shooting handguns at the Olympic Shooting Range in Herzliya. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Israelis practice shooting handguns at the Olympic Shooting Range in Herzliya. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the wake of the latest mass shootings that have plagued the United States, some Americans are once again discussing what to do about gun violence. But the argument between those who advocate changes in the laws to make it harder to obtain weapons and those who oppose them in defense of the constitutional right to bear arms remains deadlocked. The intractable nature of this debate is such that no one expects anything to change in the foreseeable future.

Interestingly, though the American Jewish community is divided on many issues, there is something of a consensus in the organized Jewish world about guns. Even more centrist and right-leaning Jewish organizations don’t generally dissent from a stand in favor of stricter gun laws.

Israelis practice shooting handguns at the Olympic Shooting Range in Herzliya. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

After the horrific slaughter in which 11 Jews worshipping at a Shabbat-morning service in a Pittsburgh synagogue, support for that consensus is, if anything, likely to be even more solid. The position adopted last winter by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs—the umbrella group for Jewish community relations councils around the country—after the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., probably represented the views of the overwhelming majority of Jews. It demanded legislation to halt or limit access to the most dangerous firearms available to Americans, such as assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, more background checks and other measures to make the purchase of firearms more onerous. The general consensus also expressed opposition to open and concealed carry laws that allow guns to be more accessible.

The JCPA also expressed support for the right of “law-abiding Americans to own handguns and rifles for legitimate purposes.” Yet this nod in the direction of the Second Amendment to the Constitution that protects the right to bear arms isn’t liable to persuade gun-rights defenders to change their minds. It also frustrates liberals, who feel that the carnage from gun violence demands a more radical stand.

An example of the latter is Rabbi Joshua Bolton, an educator at the Jewish Renaissance Project, an initiative of the Hillel organization at the University of Pennsylvania. In a Facebook post that was shared by others associated with Hillel, Bolton took a far bolder stance than that embraced by the JCPA. He advocated for a complete repeal of the Second Amendment, in which “every single weapon be confiscated (even forcibly) and destroyed or turned into pruning hooks.” He also went on to say that “religious people must acknowledge that the killing of animals for sport represents a spiritual deficiency, to be overcome with time.” If that wasn’t enough, he also declared that any “national right to arms groups must be framed as agents of darkness.”

While acknowledging that his position would be considered “unreasonable,” he asserted that “religious people should take unreasonable, aspirational positions,” and that after the latest mass shootings, “we’re living through insanity and the only sane position is to #repealthe2nd.”

He’s right that his position is a political nonstarter, which is why even the most ardent advocates of gun control—such as President Barack Obama—always argue that, contrary to the fears of groups like the National Rifle Association, he wasn’t interested in taking away anyone’s guns.

But we ought to give Rabbi Bolton credit for cutting to the heart of the issue in a way that more pragmatic thinkers have avoided. I don’t agree with him about changing the Constitution, let alone his eagerness for confiscating legally obtained weapons in a manner that rightly strikes most Americans as more in keeping with the actions of a totalitarian state than that of a free country. Yet he’s right that the only honest argument to be had about gun control must begin with a discussion about the Second Amendment.

Like almost all of the legislation proposed by gun-control advocates, the ideas put forward by the JCPA about the issue are distractions rather than a solution. None of the bills labeled “common-sense” gun control would have done a thing to stop any of the mass shootings. Though well-intentioned, they merely nibble around the edges of the issue and would do nothing more than inconvenience citizens who wish to legally purchase guns. Moreover, the differences between the scary-looking weapons that many wish to ban and more prosaic rifles are minimal. Limiting high-capacity magazines might do something to slow down killers, but those deranged enough to commit such crimes usually have more than one weapon and plenty of ammunition.

Gun ownership and hunting are alien to most of us who grow up in urban and suburban areas. But owning weapons and hunting for sport or food is deeply embedded in the culture of much of the rest of the country.

More to the point, the right to own guns is linked to the very beginning of America as a nation when a rabble in arms defended their liberty against those who wished to take it away, even if many of us don’t see the issue from that perspective.

That is why we live in a country in which there are about as many guns as people.

A radical proposal such as that proposed by Bolton is the only way to be sure of making gun violence less likely to happen. The problem is that as long as a critical mass of Americans believes that the misuse of weapons by lunatics is a price they are willing to pay in order to hold onto their rights, nothing will change. It also why the many millions of Americans who support gun rights fear that even anodyne measures are merely the thin edge of the wedge that will ultimately lead to the government taking away their guns.

Bolton’s proposal will never be adopted, and his attempt to demonize the many millions of Americans who hunt or who support gun rights illustrates that the debate about guns is as much about culture as it is about policy. But it’s also true that any discussion about the issue that attempts to bypass a debate about the Second Amendment is a waste of everyone’s time.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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