For the week ending 10 March 2018 / 23 Adar II 5778

Judaism and the Second Amendment

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
Become a Supporter Library Library

On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the US Constitution) was adopted by the United States after being ratified by three-fourths of the States. The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Historically there was no standing national Army in the United States until the War of 1812, and even then it was quite small. When the American Revolutionary War began in April 1775, the colonial revolutionaries did not have an army. Prior to the Revolution each colony had relied upon their militias, made up of part-time civilian-soldiers. This situation continued throughout the Revolutionary War. Although there was a National command structure with General George Washington as the Commander in Chief, the Continental Army was composed of those volunteer colonial militia members. After victory in 1781, the Continental Army was quickly disbanded because of the American distrust of standing armies, having been subjected to the oppression and forced quartering of British Army soldiers. Irregular state militias became the new nation's sole ground army, with the exception of a National Regiment to guard the Western Frontier and one battery of artillery guarding West Point's arsenal. This situation continued through the Civil War, when almost all fighting units were state militias commanded by officers commissioned by the individual States.

While a reasonable reading of the words of the Second Amendment might lead one to understand that this amendment has everything to do with maintaining militias within the individual States of the United States and nothing to do with the individual’s right to own guns, unless allowed by the State in which they reside, the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia vs. Heller in 2008 held that all U.S. citizens have the right to own guns. The Supreme Court also indicated that this right could be regulated by the individual States (or the Federal District of Columbia in this case), but not to the extent of disallowance. The banning of ownership by private citizens of certain weapons, like sawed-off shotguns, machine guns, RPGs, hand grenades, tanks or nuclear bombs is allowed since they are not necessary for maintaining a “well regulated militia.” The State, if it deems it necessary, can develop and own these weapons for its own militia’s use. Since the development of the National Armed Forces in the US, state militias have been relegated to minor roles, more akin to auxiliary police than a fighting force. In any case, since Heller, gun ownership in the US is clearly a right of each citizen.

Recent events in the US (more than 17 mass murders by individual gunmen since the beginning of 2018) have ratcheted up calls by a majority of Americans to regulate the availability of assault style weapons and accessories. It is clearly within the Constitutional authority of Congress and the States to restrict gun ownership by weapons type, age, mental capacity and many other factors. The group representing an opposing view is the NRA, the National Rifle Association. Once an organization devoted to educating Americans about proper gun use and a proponent of restrictions on gun ownership, it has become a right-wing political force whose leadership invokes conspiracy theories of “Socialists” who want to take over the country by first taking away the People’s right to own guns so that no one can oppose them. It has also become a home for racists and anti-Semites. Because of their active and vociferous membership and their large financial backing of those candidates who have the most unblemished records when it comes opposing any limit on weapons ownership, they have had an outsized influence on the Republican Party. The head of the organization, Wayne La Pierre, seems intent on turning the Party of Abraham Lincoln into the John Birch Society of the 1950’s and 60’s.

The students of Parkland Florida’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School have started a movement that challenges the NRA. And it appears to have had an impact. Already, a number of large retailers have declared that they will not sell assault rifles and will only sell firearms to those over the age of 21. Delta Airlines has ended a discount program for NRA members. Other corporations have followed suit in disavowing the NRA’s positions and have decided to oppose them. Even the President has declared that he is not afraid of the NRA, and regulations on gun ownership and availability should be enacted.

Our Patriarch Yaakov was an Ish tam yoshev ohalim (a peaceful man), whereas Esav was an Ish sadeh (a hunter). However, despite our peace-loving heritage, this doesn’t mean that we totally renounce weapons of war. The Torah says that the Jews left Egypt “chamushim” — armed. We have a long tradition that includes weapons. King David was a warrior, and while he slew Goliath with a sling shot, he also was proficient in other weapons. At the end of the story of Purim, the Jews were permitted to defend themselves and killed thousands of Anti-Semites in self-defense. Today, here in Israel, while we don’t exalt in the success of our army, we view it as necessary to our defense against our many enemies, and we are by necessity proficient warriors. The Jewish view on the Second Amendment might be viewed as one that recognizes the right of each individual to defend himself and his family, and to aid in the battles of his homeland, but also to have reasonable regulations so that weapons of mass murder and destruction do not get in the hands of individuals whose mental states and evil intentions cannot be regulated.

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