In the aftermath of the horrific San Bernardino shooting, proponents of stricter gun control laws have once again made their case. They reason that restricting the sale of various guns and ammunition, and expanding background checks make it more difficult for a deranged individual or terrorist to harm others. They sight statistics that demonstrate a correlation between homicide and the strictness of gun laws in various countries.
The opponents of gun control give many reasons, as well. First of all, they believe it violates the second amendment of the constitution which gives citizens the right to bear arms. Historically, restricting citizens from owning guns was a method oppressive governments used to control their subjects’ ability to rebel. They also dispute the studies that attribute violence to permissive gun laws. Furthermore, they feel that restrictive gun laws inhibit citizens’ legitimate rights for recreational hunting, survival, and self-defense. In this article we will examine some pertinent halachic sources on these points.
Attitudes Towards Weapons & Recreational Hunting
The Mishna in Tractate Shabbos discusses whether wearing a weapon on Shabbos is considered a transgression of carrying on Shabbos. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that it is considered an adornment and permitted. However, the Rabbis disagreed. They said that carrying a weapon is not an adornment but demeaning and is therefore prohibited to be carried on Shabbos (unless for pikuach nefesh, when one’s life is in danger). The sages based this sentiment on the well-known verse in Yishaya, that when Moshiach comes “swords will be beaten into plowshares and nations will no longer wage war.” Along the same lines, the Midrash writes that if the Jewish people would not have sent the meraglim (spies), they would have been able to conquer the Land of Israel supernaturally, without weapons. The lesson is clear, we use weapons because we need to, but it is not something that we are proud of or glorify.
In a similar vein, during the 1700s the Nodah Beyehuda in a famous teshuva (YD 2, 10) was asked by a wealthy baron about the permissibility of recreational hunting. While he writes that the actual halachic issues may be negligible, he was surprised by the question. The Noda Beyehuda states, ‘We only find Nimrod and Eisav as being hunters, and it is not the way of the sons of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov’. Killing animals for recreational purposes goes against the Torah value of ‘Virachamav al kol maasav’, having mercy on all of Hashem’s creations. We can learn from the words of theNoda Beyehuda that protecting citizens’ rights for recreational hunting is not a Torah value.
Restricting Weapon Sales
There are a number of direct references in Halachic sources about limiting gun sales as a way of protecting public safety. The Rambam (Avoda Zara 9, 8 and Rotzeiach 12, 12) as well as Shulchan Aruch (YD 155) rule that it is prohibited to sell weapons to gentiles or Jewish bandits who may harm the Jewish population. The Shach writes that today it is customary to sell weapons to gentiles because they use it to protect the Jewish population. It is clear that the sages believed that limiting weapon sales will reduce crime.
Furthermore, according to the opinion of Rabbi Yermiah in Tractate Makkos (10a), it is forbidden to sell weapons in a city of refuge. Rashi explains that this was to prevent a relative of the victim from purchasing a weapon and trying to harm the accidental murderer. Rashi adds that if the relative were to bring his own weapon from outside the city of refuge, people would realize it and stop him. We can learn from Rashi an important point. Seemingly, cities of refuge had a stricter policy about weapons than other cities. Not only did they not sell weapons but they apparently searched visitors for weapons as well. We can learn from this that restricting weapons sales from specific individuals and places has a valid basis in halacha.
Self Defense & Constitutional Rights
While halacha restricts weapon sales to potential criminals, weapons were very much part of the Jewish people from the very beginning of its becoming a nation. Rashi comments (Shemos 13) on the verse ‘Vachamushim alu Bnei Yisroel Mimitzrayim’ that the Jewish people left Egypt armed with weapons. They later used these weapons to conquer the Land of Israel. Furthermore, the Rambam (Kiddush Hachodesh 3,4) rules that a witness who saw the new moon is allowed to desecrate the Shabbos in order to travel to Jerusalem to testify and may bring weapons with him to protect himself from bandits along the way. In the laws of Shabbos, the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch permit a Jewish solider who is protecting the city to return home with his arms. We can learn from these sources that having weapons for self-defense is a very legitimate need.
Furthermore, we find a fascinating verse in the book of Shmuel I (13:19). The Navi writes about the beginning of King Shaul’s reign “And a blacksmith was not found in all of Israel, because the Philistines said ‘lest the Jews make a sword or spear’ ”. The commentaries (see Targum Yonasan, Rashi,Radak) explain that the Philistines removed all the blacksmiths so that the Jewish people could not make any weapons and possibly rebel against them. This verse is a poignant demonstration of the constitutional argument. Disarming citizens has always been a way that oppressive governments have used to prevent rebellion. We can learn from here that a blanket ban against weapons possession should raise serious concern.
These sources demonstrate some important attitudes towards gun rights and gun control. As the sages of the Mishna point out, weapons are a necessary evil which we should not glorify. Recreational hunting, while it may be halachicly permissible, goes against the Torah value of having mercy on all of Hashem’s creations. Furthermore, the sages viewed the indiscriminate selling of weapons as dangerous and wrong. Nonetheless, responsible citizens should have the ability to purchase guns for their self-defense and the notion of disarming the civilian population can have serious consequences.