By Rabbi Greg Alexander
When Oscar Pistorius shot dead Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day, many activists used the case to argue that private citizens should not own guns.
Depending who you ask, there are between 20 and 49 people murdered every day in South Africa, and mostly by guns. That’s too many, all agree, but what is the solution? And it’s not just South Africans asking the question. America is having the gun control debate again in the midst of a new spate of tragic school killings, and the dispute rages between those who see gun restrictions as the answer versus those fighting for the freedom of the individual to defend themselves. Where do Jewish texts lie in this debate?
The first thing to know is that Judaism is not a pacifist religion. Yes, it absolutely sees life as sacred and fights for peace with all its might. Yes, one of the 10 Commandments is “You shall not Murder” (Ex.20:13). But the Torah doesn’t say, “You shall never kill anybody”. Under certain conditions and in certain situations it might even be imperative that you should kill somebody. The most obvious case is self-defence — rather than give up your life, you should fight back. As the Talmudic sage Rava puts it, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill them first.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a).
Or take the case of the rodef, or pursuer. Alongside not murdering, the Torah teaches, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16). In halacha, Jewish law, you must do whatever you can to help another person whose life is in danger because they are being pursued by someone who wants to kill them, even if you need to kill the pursuer yourself. The Talmud wants us to make sure that we can help the rodef, the pursuer, not to become the murderer, even if that might mean killing them to stop them. So in certain specific circumstances, one can be called to kill someone before they kill someone else.
But how can you kill someone if you don’t yourself have a weapon? And here comes the whole complex notion of gun ownership. The Talmud for example, says that one should not sell weapons or accessories to people who might use those against you. (Avodah Zarah 15b). It requires the weapon seller to take moral responsibility to ensure that the buyer is not likely to commit a crime. That does not imply total gun removal but rather much stricter regulations around gun ownership. It discusses not even selling shields (usually seen as defensive only) in case they might be used as weapons. It then goes on to say that at the time it was written, the Persians would protect Jews, and so it was okay to sell weapons to them. The question seems to be whether having more guns around will lead to more killing or more security. That question remains a hot button topic today. What is clear from the discussion is that if the seller was unsure whether the weapons would be used for harm or for protection one is not to sell.
One of the biggest problems in the gun control debate today is not the issue of guns or no guns. It’s the issue of legislation, regulation and enforcement. How easy is it for someone to buy a gun? Here in South Africa in 2000, the Firearms Control Act was passed, making it harder to buy a firearm. Since then, the rate of firearm ownership has declined, and the stats show that gun crime has trended downwards. This seems to agree with the Talmud’s requirements.
There is a further law that applies in this case. The Torah requires that if you build a flat roof you need to have a parapet or protective fence around it (Deut. 22:8). Even if someone climbed up onto your roof without your permission and then fell off it, you would be liable for their injury or death if you did not build the required parapet. It’s a law that applies not just to roofs, but to things like owning a swimming pool without a fence or cover — it’s not responsible and you are liable for the harm that ensues. So too, if you are going to own a gun, you are responsible for whatever happens with that gun. That would mean that a responsible gun owner would have it securely locked up, properly maintained and ensure that they are well trained in safe use of the gun themselves.
In summary, Jewish tradition can be used to argue both for and against gun ownership. What is clear in the big picture is that the world we live in would be a better place if there were no guns. As the prophet Isaiah envisioned when describing the Messianic age, “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) May we live to see it realised.