Handguns and halachah

Handguns and halachah

This column ran in August. We are reprinting it now in the wake of last week’s mass murder in Newtown, Conn., because any debate on gun control must not be limited to fast-firing assault weapons.

Jan. 4, 2012: In Brownsville, Tex., an eighth-grader aims a firearm at classmates. Police are called. The youth opens fire on the police. He is shot. He will die of his wounds.

Feb. 21, 2012: In Murfreesboro, Tenn., two youths at a local high school open fire at a crowd; a 14-year-old boy is shot.

Feb. 23, 2012: In a Port Orchard, Wash., elementary school, a nine-year-old boy shoots and critically wounds an eight-year-old girl with a .45-caliber pistol.

Feb. 27, 2012: In a Chardon, Ohio, high school cafeteria, a 17-year-old opens fire, killing three and wounding two.

April 2, 2012: In an Oakland, Calif., religious vocational school, a 43-year-old man opens fire on a group of students, killing seven and wounding three.

Fortunately, there were times in 2012 when the students with the guns did not kill anyone – barely.

On Jan. 6, 2012, on a packed schoolbus in Mesa, Ariz., a handgun carried on board by a seven-year-old accidentally discharged. The bullet lodged in the back of another student’s seat. No one was injured. The seven-year-old found the gun in a closet at home.

On Jan. 18, in a Mesa high school, a 12-year-old was apprehended with a semiautomatic handgun and a loaded magazine, both taken from his grandfather’s house. He told authorities he was considering suicide.

On Jan. 30, a 16-year-old Harper Woods, Mich, high school student accidentally discharged a .9-mm handgun he was carrying in his backpack. He brought the gun from home. No one was injured, but a search of the building reportedly turned up two more students with concealed weapons.

Also on Jan. 30, in northwestern Las Vegas, Nev., a 16-year-old student was arrested for carrying a loaded .9-mm revolver. Two days later, police discovered a .32-caliber handgun on another student.

FACT: In the United States every year, over 3,000 children and teens die from gunfire; that is a rate of 8.22 children a day.

FACT: One-third of all households with children younger than 18 have a firearm.

FACT: More than 40 percent of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked.

FACT: One-fourth of homes with children and guns have a loaded firearm.

FACT: Among gun-owning parents who reported that their children had never handled their firearms at home, 22 percent of the children, questioned separately, said that they had.

FACT: Gun death rates are seven times higher in the states with the highest household gun ownership.

This column views issues through the prism of halachah. We need to ask how these facts and statistics inform Jewish law on the issue of gun manufacture and ownership. As I see it, there are four basic questions here:

1. Is it permissible to manufacture a weapon intended for self-defense that does not have state-of-the-art protective devices to prevent accidental firing, or the firing of the gun by an unauthorized user?

2. Is it permissible to purchase a gun without such state-of-the-art protective devices?

3. Is it permissible to purchase such a gun if no other gun is available and there is a need for a weapon of self defense?

4. If it is permissible, what degree of care must the gun owner take?

The answer to Questions 1 and 2 actually begin at the same place. Torah law requires that, when building a house, a person must build a parapet around the roof, “that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

Rabbinic decisions make clear that this mitzvah, this commandment, is subject to the broadest interpretation possible. (See the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Kama 15b.

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, Chapter 11:4, explains that this mitzvah includes “everything that is inherently dangerous and could, in normal circumstances, cause a person to die.” Anything that fits that bill requires a “parapet” around it, meaning that every effort must be extended to prevent the item from causing an unintentional death.

Other commentators also note, as does Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, that this mitzvah even requires “local civil authorities to intervene to have anything at all which might be dangerous removed” from a person’s premises. (See his commentary on the verse.)

Distinction must be made between the offensive weapon required by military and police personnel, and the defensive one that alone should be permissible to ordinary civilians. While a “parapet” is required for both, the nature of the protective device is necessarily different for each. The offensive weapon should be safe enough to reasonably protect against mishaps, but not so encumbered that it is virtually useless in the field. The defensive weapon should also be able to be used if the need arises, God forbid, but the degree of protection against mishaps must be greater.

With this in mind, it is possible to argue that guns intended for self-defense must have the best available protection against accidental or unauthorized use, or else they may not be brought into the home.

The third question is more difficult. What if no one manufactures a weapon of self-defense that utilizes the best available protection against accidental or unauthorized use? If there is a perceived or well-established need for self-defense weapons, does the “parapet” requirement prohibit obtaining such a weapon despite the need?

The simple answer is no. Preservation of life takes precedence over virtually everything else. (See especially BT Yoma 84b.)

The more complicated answer requires evaluating a variety of factors (including providing the answer to question no. 4). Among these factors are whether the danger is real or imagined; whether other modes of defense against a criminal attack would accomplish the same end; whether the degree of protection the gun owner must provide to protect against the gun being misused or misfired is so great that it renders gun ownership moot in any case; and so forth.

Obviously, once in the house, the gun must be kept in a place secure enough that it is absolutely – not virtually – child proof. If that is not possible, then halachically perhaps gun ownership is not possible in homes with children.

If you need an additional incentive, consider this: Between the time I began writing this column on Tuesday morning and it arrives in your mailbox midday Friday, at least 28 children will have died from a gunshot. Four more will die before kiddush is recited. Shabbat shalom?