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Gun Control: A Jewish Look
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Gun Control: A Jewish Look

by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz *

On March 24th, in Jonesboro, Arkansas, two junior high school students armed with rifles murdered four of their schoolmates and one of their teachers. These horrible murders reignited the ongoing international debate about gun control. In Canada, the Canadian parliament has passed several major pieces of legislation requiring gun control. In 1995, it passed Bill C-68 requiring all guns and rifles to be included in a national gun registry. This followed previous laws which prohibited machine guns, and required the training and screening of all owners of firearms. To opponents of gun control laws, these laws are a nuisance for law abiding gun owners, and have little effect on violent crime. Proponents of these laws point to extensive academic research that these laws save lives and increase safety. What does Jewish law (halacha) have to say about this issue?

In Judaism, safety is a religious concern. The Bible requires that a roof be properly gated, in order to prevent people from falling off of it (Deuteronomy 22:8). This commandment is understood by the Talmud as a general directive to remove any safety hazard (Bava Kamma 15b; Shulchan Aruch CM 427:8). Contemporary rabbinic authorities include in this commandment an employer's responsibility to ensure occupational safety (Piskei Uziel 47) and an injunction against reckless driving (Minchat Yitzchak 8:148). Someone who refuses to remove a safety hazard can be punished by excommunication (YD 334:7). In general, safety regulations are treated with far greater stringency than any other section of halacha (YD 116:7). Clearly, any Jewish view of gun control would place high value on safety.

In the Talmud there are specific regulations that resemble gun control. There is a law against owning a dangerous dog (Bava Kamma 79a). One who owns a dangerous dog must keep it tied in metal chains at all times (CM 409:3). Even if the dog is defanged or trained not to harm people, it must be chained because it may frighten strangers, and as a result may cause stress related injuries such as miscarriage and heart attacks (Shabbat 63b). One of the more pious Rabbis, Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair, was so stringent about this law that he refused to own mules, because they can occasionally cause injury (Hullin 7b; Terumat Hadeshen 2:105). However, there were instances where allowances were made. In border communities, where there is a threat of marauders, owners of dangerous dogs may unchain them at night for protection. Some say that any dangerous city is similar to a border community (CM 409:3).These sources demonstrate that halacha would require any gun to be carefully locked at all times, with allowances made in cases where the gun is actively being used for security. Those who are more stringent would avoid guns completely. (It should also be noted that many authorities prohibit hunting for sport; Rama OH 316:2, Darchei Teshuva YD 117:44)

There is a second halacha that is relevant to this issue. The Talmud prohibits someone from selling offensive weapons to idol worshippers and suspected criminals (Avodah Zarah 15b; YD 151:5-6). The rule against selling to idol worshippers is based on an assumption that the idol worshippers will use them against Jews; however, if the Jews are allied with the idol worshippers, it is permitted to sell them arms. It is likewise prohibited to sell such weapons to anyone suspected of reselling them to criminals. This halacha requires that the buyers of firearms be carefully screened, and resembles in many ways laws requiring a national registry of gun and rifle owners.

Although halacha is extremely concerned about safety, it does not prohibit the ownership of guns. However, recognizing that a gun is a dangerous object, halacha (like many current gun control laws) requires that owners and vendors of guns take all possible precautions to prevent their guns from causing any harm.

Reprinted with permission of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz


*) Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Quebec. He writes a column on Jewish Law for the Canadian Jewish News, and writes a column and hosts an internet Jewish study group for the Microsoft Network. He is a member of the executive board of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Vice President of the Montreal Board of Jewish Ministers, and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Educational Council of Montreal and Hillel-Jewish Students Center of Montreal. He recieved his ordination from Yeshiva University, where he was a fellow of the Gruss Kollel Elyon. He has a M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a M.A. in Education from Adelphi University.

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