By Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum
The recent decision by a grand jury not to indict the police officer involved in the shooting of an unarmed African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, unleashed a wave of protests and social unrest across America.
It also re-ignited the intense debate over gun control laws in the United States. Some columnists went so far as to suggest that in the wake of the episode, every African-American male should openly carry a firearm in the street, both for self-defence and in pursuant of their rights under the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. On the other side of the debate, on Black Friday (29 November) two groups pushing for stricter gun control regulations opened a new online merchandise store.
On sale were T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Americans are 20 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries’, designed to be used by activists in the field across the US. The Torah view on gun control involves the careful balancing of several equally important principles. On the one hand, there is the necessity of self-defence.
‘One who attempts to kill you, kill him first’ as the Talmud puts it. Conversely, however, there are also specific laws in the Talmud that bear quite a close resemblance to gun control regulations. There is a prohibition against owning a dangerous dog, for instance, unless restrained by a metal noose at all times (see Bava Kamma 79a).
Yet, importantly, the same passage allows people in dangerous areas to unchain such dogs at night for protection purposes. Also relevant to this issue is a law codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that prohibits the sale of dangerous weapons to suspected criminals, or even to anyone suspected of reselling them to criminals.
This would seem to bear a striking resemblance to a need to establish a national registry and careful screening process for gun ownership. Therefore, while it would seem that gun ownership per se is not forbidden in Jewish law, particularly when necessary for self-defence, it is also clear that extremely stringent safety controls need to be enacted to prevent any possibility of harm to others resulting from such ownership.
• Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Hadley Wood Jewish community [United Synagogue]