I am shocked and saddened by Saturday’s horrific mass murder of innocent Jewish people.
Eleven people are dead. Eleven worlds have been destroyed, according to Jewish law.
I grew up in Pittsburgh. Its Squirrel Hill neighborhood has a lot in common with Teaneck. I know Tree of Life Congregation, a place where many of my friends celebrated their bar mitzvahs. My family belonged to Temple Sinai, no more than a mile from Tree of Life. My school was in the same area, just blocks away.
I still have friends at Tree of Life. Undoubtedly they have lost their friends, and God forbid, family members. I also have family there in a suburb near the airport. Thank God, they are all safe. No matter where I live, I will always be a part of Pittsburgh and its Jewish community. So Shabbat’s loss is my loss too.
Following a shooting massacre, a debate about guns inevitably arises in the aftermath. Someone asked me, after Newtown and Parkland, is there any hope for change? I continue to have faith that the long arc of history will bend toward justice. To that end, I mulled over the never-ending gun debate.
Many well-meaning people say that people kill, and that guns have nothing to do with it. Gun regulation therefore will be ineffective, and it will not prevent criminals and others from getting their hands on guns. Beside the fact that this view is not supported by statistical evidence, it is also one-dimensional.
This subject cannot be viewed either or — that guns and people are mutually exclusive. The links and causality simply are logical. So how did we get to the belief that guns are not a factor, and that regulation is not an option? The short answer is money. The long one is historical evidence.
Today’s anti-gun control attitudes are influenced by a propaganda barrage perpetrated by the private for-profit gun manufacturers who back the NRA. If we wish to know the truth hidden behind the curtain, we need to delve into history. We must study the Second Amendment and the times in which it was written (by three authors).
We also must study the state constitutions that preceded the federal Constitution, after it became apparent that our original Articles of Confederation were not adequate to insure the survival of the new nation.
From these original sources, we can understand that the Second Amendment was never about individual rights. It addressed the subject of collective and mandatory obligations. That interpretation is easily explained, and it clearly was the mindset of the authors of the Bill of Rights.
In the years following the American Revolution, the young nation was a loose confederation of independent states. The interests of New England and the southern plantation states were extremely diverse. George Washington was the glue that held the nation together — until he left office in 1797. Up to that time, there was some security associated with his ability to reconvene a national army. But as Washington faced retirement, that security waned.
In the run-up to 1789 and the formation of the United States, the founders knew that keeping militias alive and well prepared was essential for defense, once the “volunteer” Continental Army disbanded. They wanted Washington to be able to raise an army quickly. So men were required to keep their weapons. They had their own gunpowder (hopefully dry) and musket balls. They kept their uniforms. They were expected to muster as a “well regulated” militia.
The intent of these regulations was to facilitate the quick assembly of a force, which would be ready to fight. These militias were under state or county jurisdiction. Incidentally, today’s militias include county sheriffs’ departments, state police, and — to a lesser extent —units of the National Guard. The idea of self-defense had little or no relevance to the defense of a state or the entire nation, which needed an army.
Over the course of American history, people who armed themselves (the Whiskey Rebellion, John Brown, the Western outlaws, Bleeding Kansas, the Wilmington Insurrection) always have been treated as criminals, without any pretense about a Second Amendment right to bear weapons. It was unacceptable for an individual to disrupt society. There was no out for gun ownership.
Violent behavior on the frontier or elsewhere could be, and was, regulated. Eventually, the Wild West was tamed. Farmers and others might have guns, but no one person, no family, no private group was allowed its own personal armory.
This changed in the mid-20th century, after two world wars, as weapons makers became enchanted with the profit potential for marketing to civilians. Their production costs were declining as a function of factory automation. Inexpensive gun models and ammunition proliferated. They even marketed toy guns to kids. I loved playing with my fake Colt 45, packaged in a cool red velvet gun case.
The gun makers became larger and wealthier. They jumped on the propaganda bandwagon to preserve their power. The NRA became their loudspeaker. The argument about individual rights was hammered home, and the last clause of the Second Amendment was conveniently disregarded. Thus the interpretation of the Second Amendment changed as well. So, today, the individual right to bear arms supersedes the Constitution’s original intent about collective responsibility.
Here’s the bottom line. Guns in the hands of unhappy, unstable, or deranged people kill. Neither factors, guns and people, can be ignored as causes of the unusually high rate of mass shootings in the United States, compared to the rest of the world. Gun regulation cannot be left off the table.
Until we tackle this part of the problem, more mass shootings are inevitable. And the next questions will be, after Newtown, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, after Tree of Life, is there any hope for change at all? When will morality and pragmatism replace profit and propaganda? Or will these killing fields continue to plague America? Perhaps only God knows, and is crying along with us.
Eric Weis of Wayne, a native of Pittsburgh, is the treasurer of Mercaz USA, the Zionist branch of the Conservative movement, a past president of New Jersey region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and sits on the FJMC’s board of directors. He is a physicist involved with the development of instrumentation in radiation science and measurement.