All the Help We Can Get

After each tragic mass shooting, politicians and people on traditional and social media go to their respective corners and offer the same phrases and arguments that have been made over and over again. They would argue that they must continue to say the same things because nothing has changed. It has been 23 years since Columbine, 10 years since Newtown, CT and yet disasters like the school shooting in Uvalde, TX continue to occur.

So what can be done? Perhaps there is no possibility of political compromise in our polarized society. After previous mass murders I wrote about the mystery of motive. We want to know why the perpetrators do it so that perhaps we can stop similar situations in the future, but often we are left with more questions than answers.

I have also written about potential comprehensive solutions. As a compromise, why not take the answers proposed by all sides and roll them into a proposal. Let’s add more funding for mental health and help schools hire armed guards to secure a single entry point, but let’s also improve background checks for guns, limit assault rifle sales, and impose waiting periods.

While I might find this kind of kitchen-sink solution compelling, there is very little chance it will succeed. Most likely, the Uvalde shooting will fade in the news cycle as we move on to other issues like high gas prices and the impending abortion decision at the Supreme Court. While our attention is focused on this issue, however, perhaps it is worthwhile to look to Jewish tradition to see if there are ways of approaching gun control that may cut through the partisanship.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 15b – 16a), the rabbis prohibit selling weapons to gentiles, on the principle that these weapons will be used for violence, especially directed at the Jewish community. Before you protest that this law demonstrates Jewish chauvinism, know that the rabbis also prohibited the selling of weapons to Jewish violent criminals and even to Jewish non-violent criminals, under the assumption that either they would use the weapons to commit crimes or use them in self-defense, which would lead to harm for others.

The rabbis did, however, permit the selling of weapons to the Persians. They were, after all, living in the Persian empire and had a vested interest in serving a government that was tolerant of the Jewish community and protected it. One could boil down the Talmudic debate to the conclusion that selling weapons to law enforcement and responsible civilians is allowed while selling to criminals or anyone with the potential to do violence is not.

From the rabbinic perspective we have an obligation to protect society from harm and must do everything possible to prevent weapons from getting into the wrong hands, even if it means blocking sales to those who have never been violent before. While this Jewish approach does not include an American style right to bear arms, it certainly is not inconsistent with the Second Amendment. Many of the rights enshrined in the constitution are circumscribed by regulations designed to protect the public. If we are not allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theater despite the First Amendment, then certainly we can tighten the rules on who can and can’t own which kind of guns.

While Jewish law is applicable to only a small segment of America, there is no reason why its principles and values cannot be of use in the great debates of our time. Perhaps this 3,000-year-old tradition has the power to break through the stalemate and lead to some commonsense approaches to the issue of gun safety and mass shootings. No one wants to have to hear about another senseless tragedy, and we need all the help we can get to prevent it.

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