12/18/2012 04:57 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Preventing Gun Violence: A Jewish Moral Imperative

The teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., dedicated their lives to preparing children to realize their dreams.

Those children had their lives before them: graduations, weddings, children, grandchildren.

On Dec. 14, a man shot his way into their school. He killed 20 children and six adults in just a few minutes of carnage. He also killed the dreams of the children and teachers who were his victims and the dreams of their families.

We mourn these innocent victims. Our hearts and prayers go out to their families.

How else to respond? As Jews, we consider how Jewish law and tradition help us answer the question of how a society should protect itself against such attacks.

Our ancient biblical and rabbinic forebears did not have guns. But they knew about threats to life. They established clear rules for preserving life, rules that can help us gain control over the easy availability of weapons and ammunition capable of such devastating harm. These rules are discussed in an article by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz available here that I briefly summarize (see Rabbi Steinmetz's article for the citations not included here).

We begin with the very high value our sources place on making sure that others are safe. Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy includes a requirement that every home owner erect a barrier at the edge of the roof of every home, a wall to prevent people from falling off (Deuteronomy 22:8).

The rabbis in the Talmud expand this idea to a general directive to remove any safety hazard (Babylonian Talmud Baba Kamma 15b). More recent rabbinic authorities include in this commandment an employer's responsibility to ensure occupational safety and an injunction against reckless driving. Someone who refuses to remove a safety hazard can actually be punished by excommunication. In general, safety regulations are treated with far greater stringency than any other section of halakhah, Jewish law. It follows that any Jewish view of gun control would place high value on safety.

There is more. In the Talmud, there are specific regulations that resemble gun control. There is a law against owning a dangerous dog. One who owns a dangerous dog must keep it tied in metal chains at all times. Even if the dog is defanged or trained not to harm people, it must be chained because it may frighten strangers, and as a result may cause stress related injuries such as miscarriage and heart attacks.

These sources teach us that halakhah would require any gun to be carefully locked at all times, with allowances made in cases where the gun is actively being used for security, of course. Those who are more stringent in their rulings would presumably avoid guns completely.

There is a second halakhah relevant to this issue. The Talmud prohibits selling offensive weapons to idol worshippers and suspected criminals. It is likewise prohibited to sell such weapons to anyone suspected of reselling them to criminals. In the modern context this approach would require that buyers of firearms be carefully screened, similar to laws requiring a registry of gun and rifle owners.

Recognizing that a gun is an inherently dangerous object, we can conclude that halakhah (like many current gun control laws) would require owners and vendors of guns to take all possible precautions to prevent their guns from causing any harm.

All well and good for ancient laws that could have modern counterparts. But what practical steps can we take right now to help protect our society against gun violence?

A good place to begin would be a federal law prohibiting the manufacture, import, sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons equipped with super-size ammunition clips known as "high capacity magazines." These weapons fire multiple bullets very quickly with no need to reload. That's the kind of weapon the Newtown shooter used.

Between 1994 and 2004 those weapons with high capacity magazines were illegal under a federal law that included a ban on "assault weapons." Since the law expired in 2004, our elected representatives have not had the courage then to oppose the gun lobby and make that ban permanent. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and all the other recent gun violence, Congress should act swiftly to establish that ban again.

So we can help reduce gun violence by urging the President and the Congress to take that action. Legislation is already pending for the purpose. What's needed is the courage to report that legislation out of committee and vote it into law.

Ordinary citizens can work for that result by joining and supporting gun control organizations, of which the most effective is the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The facts of gun violence make clear how urgent it is to limit the free flow of guns, including particularly assault weapons and high capacity magazines. The following facts and others equally disturbing are available in detail, with sources, from the Brady Campaign:

  • In one year on average, almost 100,000 people in America are shot or killed with a gun.
  • More than 1 million people have been killed with guns in the United States since 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated with guns.
  • U.S. firearm homicide rates are nearly 20 times higher than rates in 22 other populous high-income countries combined, despite similar non-lethal crime and violence rates.
  • An estimated 41 percent of gun-related homicides and 94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur under the same circumstances had no guns been present.
  • More than 90 percent of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal. In comparison, only 3 percent of attempts with drugs or cutting are fatal.

The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke is often quoted as having said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing." Burke did not in fact say exactly those words, but his views apply just as aptly to the struggle over gun control. In 1770 Burke wrote, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle" (Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents).

Jewish tradition expressed that same view three millennia before Burke. "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" is a moral principle and Jewish imperative as old as Torah (Leviticus 19:16).

We must not stand idly by while assault weapons and high capacity gun magazines are freely bought and sold and wind up in the hands of murderers. Every American must join the fight to oppose this slaughter and to fight for sensible gun safety legislation. Winning that battle may allow us at last to live in accordance with the inspiring words of the Prophet Michah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Every person shall sit under his vine or under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:3).