On Jews with Guns

On Jews with Guns

I’ll tell you when I first realized that the self-described “gun nuts” in our community are, indeed, “nuts.”

It happened at my Shabbos table, about three years ago. We were discussing one of the community social ills of the time, as we tend to do every once in a while. I don’t recall specifically what issue we were tackling around the cholent bowl, but I believe the conversation took place around the time that the Orthodox Union decided to take on kiddish clubs in an attempt to prevent teen drinking.

I should bring up at this point that as a developmental psychologist working in the Orthodox community, I probably spend more time than most people dealing with the repercussions of some of our community’s social ills, and trying to figure out how we might be able to minimize their impact on individuals or on the community as a whole. Admittedly, I also probably have something of a skewed view on some societal issues, and sometimes may view certain woes as more prevalent than they might seem to others. I probably interact a bit more than most with people affected by drinking, drugs, or eating disorders, and I sometimes get a heads-up about what the next scandal might be. And I tend to have strong opinions about how we can best protect our children.

At any rate, after the conversation about teen drinking, or gambling, or people cheating on their taxes, or whatever it was had ended, I made the following prediction: Within ten years, a teenager will bring a gun into a local yeshiva. A guest asked me why.

I told him that I had heard about the local Orthodox Jewish gun club, and if we can assume that parents are taking their kids to the shooting range, and that guns in houses therefore will become more prevalent, and that teenage angst will remain a normal aspect of adolescent development, then I would assume that at some point some local teenager whose parent has a gun will figure out how to get that gun and how to use it to scare off a bully, or threaten a competitor, or just try to look cool. I did not predict a Columbine-type shooting or anything overly gory; I just predicted that within a decade a teenager would bring a gun to a local yeshiva.

Little did I know at the time that one of the guests at our table indeed was a self-described gun nut. But it wasn’t his love of the sport of shooting and my complete distaste for it that led me to believe that this was not a person likely to engage in a rational conversation about the subject; rather, it was his response to my prediction. What he said was, “Laundry detergent is also dangerous. Do you think people shouldn’t have laundry detergent in their homes because it is dangerous?”

The reason that his response shocked me so much was because it meant that he was having a completely different conversation inside his head than I was having at the table. I had never said that people shouldn’t keep guns in their homes because I feared that a 3-year-old might stumble upon it, load it, cock it, and accidently shoot someone. Nor was I concerned that a teenager going through a hard time in school would sneak some laundry detergent into a building and threaten to pre-treat the stains on a bully’s shirt. In other words, this particular gun nut’s response to my prediction had nothing at all to do with my prediction. Instead, it was a kneejerk response to someone who disagreed with him about his chosen hobby, and it was based not on the rationale for the disagreement put forth, but on an assumed and pre-formulated view that actually was not presented. There is a word for that sort of response: Irrational.

I hadn’t really thought about that conversation in a while; other, more pressing community ills were uncovered and had to be dealt with. But, in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, gun control and gun rights have become hot topics again. Many people are viewing the recent shooting as a watershed event, a point in history when meaningful gun regulation actually might gain popular support.

The change that I see in our culture as a result of the shootings, however, has been much more harrowing.

Following the lead of the National Rifle Association, it seems that the spokespeople for gun enthusiasts no longer present their disagreements with gun control measures as having to do with sports or culture but instead with protection. The mantra has become “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The message is not “I need my gun because I like shooting at targets” or “I need my gun because I like shooting at deer” but “I need my gun because I need to shoot the bad people when they try to hurt me.” And that, I believe, is a frightening philosophy when shared by people who are armed and irrational.

When Bill Clinton went duck hunting to show that his proposed assault weapons ban was not attempting to take away the guns of law-abiding sports enthusiasts, the message resonated with many law-abiding adult hunters. Now that message appears to be irrelevant. In recent weeks, I have not heard anyone speak against gun control with the old-school argument that “If you take away my assault weapon, next you will take away my hunting rifle.” Instead, the argument seems to have become “If you take away my assault weapon, I won’t be able to shoot people with it if I need to.”

If that becomes the new norm for gun ownership, if that is the message that gun owners in our community begin to teach their children on their way to the shooting range, and if we start to premise the rationality of gun ownership on the grounds that guns really are for shooting people – it’s just a question of figuring out who is a bad and when the threat is substantial enough to demand action – then I think the threat of gun violence only will become greater.

Perhaps there is a point upon which I could agree with the pro-gun lobby. It has become very popular to express the belief that it is not gun laws that need reforming, but rather laws related to the treatment of mental illness. I would agree that keeping guns out of the hands of even law-abiding citizens with mental illness is a good idea. I would point out, however, that paranoia also is a diagnosable mental illness. So perhaps we can satisfy everyone’s concerns by accepting the suggestion of the pro-gun lobby, as long as they agree to more comprehensive mental health testing amongst their own.

As for my prediction, I still have seven years in which I hope to be proven wrong.