Taking aim at ‘acceptable deaths’

Taking aim at ‘acceptable deaths’

Gun control was back in the news in December – not because government at any level imposed new controls, but because one year after the horrific mass murder of children in Newtown, Conn., no government at any level did anything at all.

In fact, one opponent of gun control actually told an NPR interviewer that he did not understand what all the fuss was about, considering that “only about .08 percent” of the population die by guns every year.

The number itself is ludicrous, of course, because it would mean that somewhere around 25 million Americans die each year by gun. The annual toll is somewhere between 28,000 and 31,000, or about 10 gun deaths a year per 100,000 people. What grates is the notion that there exists within the gun culture, and within society itself, the notion that there is such a thing as an acceptable number of deaths. In the business world, this is known as the benefit-to-risk ratio, the premise of which is that if “only” a certain number of people die because of a flaw in a car, or from a bad reaction to an otherwise innocuous drug, or from a potentially unsafe piece on a child’s toy, or whatever, society can live with those deaths.

Judaism cannot. For us, each life is considered precious – so precious, in fact, that halachah requires us to act when someone is in danger (see Leviticus 19:16). It also sets aside virtually every law – including Shabbat and kashrut regulations – when there is the mere suspicion of a life in danger. (See Mishnah Yoma 8:6 and the gemara that follows it.)

In the case of guns, it is true to say that “guns do not kill people. People kill people.” It is true to say it, but it is not a fair statement to make. In the space of just a handful of minutes, 20 children and six adults were killed in Newtown a year ago. Within the same amount of time in July 2012, 12 people were killed and more than 70 wounded in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Yes, guns kill people, but rapid-firing automatic weapons kill far more people faster than six-shooters do, and both varieties still require a finger to pull the trigger.

There are surely many fingers on many triggers annually. It is estimated that seven people are shot in the United States every hour. Three of them will die from their wounds. At least once every two hours, one of those deaths will be that of a child.

There is no reason anyone has to carry an automatic pistol or rifle that shoots multiple rounds in seconds. These weapons are not necessary for the maintenance of a well-regulated militia, which we do not need in any case because its job is in the capable hands of the U.S. Armed Forces, recent Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding. They are not necessary for bird shooting, unless the object is to rip the bird completely apart. They are not necessary for hunting animals, unless the object is to hang a head on a wall that looks less like a moose and more like a Swiss cheese.

Among the annual gun statistics, of course, are the accidental shootings. In the year since Newtown, nearly 200 children have been killed by guns – and about 90 of those deaths were accidents in their own homes or in friends’ homes, for the most part. About 40 other children were willfully murdered in their own homes by guns, often by a parent or other relative.

Anti-gun control advocates form a very powerful lobbying group, and they tend to want rapid-fire automatics to stay on the market and be easily bought there. They also do not want anyone adding tamperproof safety mechanisms to their assault weapons. It is here, however, that some progress could be made; the accidental deaths, especially of children, can be avoided.

This column views issues through the prism of halachah. Even though the world we live in is not ruled by halachah, we should at least be guided by it.

As I understand Jewish law, it is not permissible to own a gun that either does not have state-of-the-art protective devices to prevent its being fired by accident or by an unauthorized user, or that is not 100 percent secure from children or anyone else other than the owner. The owner him- or herself must be fully trained both in the use of the gun and in how to keep it out of unauthorized hands.

That brings us to the Torah’s law of the parapet (see Deuteronomy 22:8). It requires that when someone builds a house, he must build a parapet around the roof, “that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any man falls from there.”

As I have noted in previous columns, rabbinic decisions interpret this law broadly, so that it even includes not keeping a ladder at home if it is broken (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, puts it this way: The parapet covers “everything that is inherently dangerous and could, in normal circumstances, cause a person to die.”

One child died of a gunshot wound while I wrote and edited this column. Another will die before the editor processed it and sent it to production. Many others will have died by the time you read this.

The gun lobby says these are all within the range of acceptability.

Jewish law says it is not.

What do you say?