I generally believe that our society can and should do more to prevent unnecessary gun deaths (see my sermon on this topic here). That said, I recently attended a symposium on gun violence prevention that broadened my understanding of the nuances and justifications for alternative points of view. This week's sermon explores one such topic, the connection between bearing arms and citizenship, which helps me appreciate how thoughtful people can arrive at conclusions different from my own.
Gun Control and Rights of Citizenship: Who And How Much?
There is an unhealthy debate in this country over gun violence.
The statistics are fairly clear. Every year, over 30,000 people are killed by guns, the same number of people who are killed by cars. And while America ranks about average among developed countries in urban crime rates, mental illness, and homicides not caused by guns, the U.S. firearm homicide rate is more than 20 times higher than similar countries.
Nearly everyone agrees that the rate of gun death in America too high. But there is fierce debate about everything else. Is there anything our society can do to reduce gun violence? If yes, what are the best solutions? What role should the government play relative to other organizations like gun manufacturers and retailers, invested churches and synagogues, and citizen advocacy groups? Who, ultimately, is responsible?
Sadly, the tenor of this national shouting match does more harm than good. Battle lines are drawn and opponents array themselves on one side or the other. So-called gun rights activists argue that gun violence would go down if Americans simply stopped shooting one another; the responsibility is on us. On the other side, so-called gun control activists argue that the government has an essential role to play in limiting access to guns, ultimately resulting in fewer gun deaths. In national media and the political arena, these two ideologies are pitted against one another, and no one can agree on any solutions one way or the other.
But as we step away from the fray, I truly believe that we can make a difference—and ultimately save lives—by listening to one another and striving to work together on common ground. Many groups and individuals have singular visions for the direction we should move, and they advocate for these bundles of policies whole-cloth. But within competing positions are overlapping interests, and by focusing our attention on what we do honestly agree on, we can make some real progress.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to take part in a local forum dedicated to this very project. The Center for Practical Bioethics convened a day-long symposium at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Bioscience with a variety of speakers intimately familiar with the causes and effects of gun violence. They didn’t all agree, but they did all have respect for one another. I, for one, learned a tremendous amount, and I’m happy to share my twenty-five pages of notes with those who are interested. But perhaps the most important lesson I gained was a sympathetic insight into some of the principles of so-called gun rights activists. In the weeks following the symposium, I’ve adjusted my perspective on the debate about gun violence in this country—and since I went there in my capacity as your rabbi, I feel obliged to share some of my experience with you.
I’ve been reflecting in particular on the presentation of one of the symposium’s speakers, Dr. Lance Stell. Dr. Stell has taught philosophy at Davidson College for forty years. During that time, he’s designed and taught classes on homicide law, suicide law, and gun control related issues in political philosophy and philosophy of law. He’s a libertarian, owns an AR rifle, and is an endowment member of the NRA. What I share with you tonight is not his presentation, nor are my conclusions his. But I’m grateful to his presentation for expanding and enriching my own perspective.
The pivotal question in the gun violence debate in America is often the scope and intent of the Second Amendment, which reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The framers’ inclusion of this sentiment in the Bill of Rights was neither incidental nor surprising. Indeed, the relationship between citizenship and the bearing of arms predates the Constitution by millennia.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century before the Common Era, underscores the significance of bearing arms. In his philosophical treatise Politics, Aristotle lists the indispensable components of a state. He writes:
First, there must be food; secondly, arts, for life requires many instruments; thirdly, there must be arms, for the members of a community have need of them—and in their own hands, too.
(It may be of note that religion is fifth out of six)
He goes on to explain that not every person needs to make food, create art, bear arms, etc. Rather, he teaches that every society requires different people to fulfill different roles: “There must be husbandmen to procure food, and artisans, and a warlike and a wealthy class, and priests, and judges to decide what is necessary and expedient.” According to Aristotle, not just anyone can be trusted with arms. This right is reserved for citizens. And not just any citizens – the most trusted and able citizens available.
In Aristotle’s ideal society, enfranchised men would be entrusted with the security of the citizenry. In execution of their duties, they would carry arms “in order to maintain authority both against disobedient subjects and against external assailants.” As these men aged out of their physical prime, they would transition roles, from “warriors” to “councilors who … determine matters of law.” In a sense, these same men would transition from police officer to judge over the course of their lives.
The overlap between judgment and enforcement is endemic to our own tradition. The first verse of next week’s Torah portion reads “You shall appoint in all your cities שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, judges and officers” (Deut. 16:18). In one breath, the lawmaker and enforcer are linked together. The commentator Rashi explains that shoftim are judges who decide on the law while shotrim—officers—are the ones who force people to obey their decisions (Rashi ad loc.). And a medieval midrash further explains that the “officers” are the parnasim, the wealthy leaders of the community who direct its affairs (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Shoftim 2:17). Thus, according to Jewish tradition, the people you trust the most are the ones you appoint to enforce the laws. And these are the individuals who have the right to use violence to make peace.
So, whether you read the Torah or Greek philosophy, there’s an ancient notion that the right to bear arms is reserved for those who are respected and trusted in society. As with so many other rights—the rights to practice religion, to own property, to vote, and so on—history has recorded a steady expansion of who has access to those rights.
During the American Civil War, Black soldiers in Union armies returned to their homes in the South with new guns. Almost immediately, Southern states made it illegal for Black people to own guns. This was part of a broader effort to disenfranchise Black Americans. By denying them the right to bear arms, these states sought to deny them the honor of citizenship.
A hundred years later, the Black Panthers would take up this cause again. Leaders of the movement—in particular Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X—made bearing arms central to their struggle for American rights. Reacting against the bravado of the Black Panthers, Governor Ronald Reagan advocated for stricter gun control laws. “[I see] no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” he said.
Today, the stakes of the conversation are the same. As has been the case for thousands of years, those we trust to bear arms are the same people we trust to maintain peace and security in the country. One way to read the Second Amendment is that all citizens have the basic right to bear arms; the question for two hundred years has been who will qualify as a full citizen.
In today’s society, gun enthusiasts see gun control legislation as an attempt to reduce their citizenship, to philosophically disenfranchise them. When you’re segregated out from society, called, for example “Second Amendment People,” then you fear that the wider society doesn’t trust you, that it’s turning against you. And this makes you fight for your rights.
Having listened intently to the perspective shared by Lance Stell, I now have a deeper appreciation for the emotional investment of gun enthusiasts in the national debate. I better understand what’s at stake in the debate over who should be allowed to own guns.
Now, everyone agrees that access to guns shouldn’t be universal. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall not act … each one as he pleases” (Deut. 12:8). There are always acceptable limits to behavior. In our society, there are some people we simply don’t trust to bear arms, and their rights are curtailed.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 makes it illegal for an American to ship, transport, receive, or possess firearms or ammunition if he or she is addicted to a controlled substance, has been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces, or has been committed to any mental institution. Also prohibited are illegal aliens, those convicted of domestic abuse, and those convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. For better or for worse, our legal system denies each of these groups of people (and a few others) full rights of citizenship.
Sometimes, these restrictions are not enforced. Rather than turning to a dysfunctional Congress to pass new laws, perhaps we’d be better spent finding ways to redouble our efforts to keep guns away from those we sincerely don’t trust.
Sometimes as well, the list of prohibited persons may need to be expanded. For example, being convicted of domestic violence will only prohibit a spouse or live-in partner from being able to legally buy a gun; perhaps a boyfriend or ex-wife who’s been convicted of domestic violence should also be prohibited. In such case, new laws will need to be passed.
I’m convinced that sensible, effective measures can be reached by people who respectfully and openly listen to one another. I was encouraged by the honorable discourse I witnessed at the symposium here in town, and I’m hopeful that behind the political stage, our country can make some honest progress toward reducing the number of unnecessary deaths. Every segment of society has something to contribute – lawmakers and gunmakers, politicians and philosophers, gun enthusiasts and those who love them.
We read in the Torah this week, “You are children of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 14:1). Every life is sacred and worthy of protection. May we find common ground with those who disagree with us so that we can come together in service of higher and holier goals.
 Cf. Traffic Safety Facts and There Are Too Many Victims of Gun Violence.
 According to Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, in spoken remarks during the day-long symposium “Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue,” August 11, 2016, Center for Practical Bioethics at Kansas City University of Medicine and Bioscience.
 Cf. The Gap Between Gun Deaths in the U.S. and Other Advanced Nations Is Getting Wider, Study Finds and 'Americans are 20 times as likely to die from gun violence as citizens of other civilized countries,' says author Lisa Bloom.
 Politics VII.8
 Cf. Politics III.7: Hence in a constitutional government [in which the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest], the fighting-men have the supreme power, and those who possess arms are the citizens.
 Politics VII.8.
 Cf. Politics VII.9.
 The Secret History of Guns.
 Identify Prohibited Persons.
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