Guns, Gun Control, and American Jews

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November 3, 2009
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Tom Diaz

I know a Jewish scholar who works at a think tank and keeps a handgun in his suburban home. I work with Jewish advocates who favor the most stringent regulation of firearms. I watched a Hassidic rabbi banter with his pro-gun gentile peers at a national gun industry convention, lamenting the designs of liberals on their “rights.” And the scientist father of one of my child’s classmates in a Jewish day school wouldn’t own a gun but has no problem with those who do.

So, what do Jews in America think about guns and gun control? The question reflects our broad sociopolitical spectrum. And it is talmudic; an exquisitely ambiguous Second Amendment text demands explication. The obvious answers turn out to be touchstones for more questions. There are conflicting opinions on everything.

Although the use of firearms raises interesting halakhic issues about self-defense and hunting, Jews in America are not divided over guns by religious dogma. To the extent that they are divided, it is because of social and political views, held by some with the intensity and certainty of religious conviction.

These convictions are grounded in the urban orientation of most Jews, which conflicts sometimes with the views of American Jews in the western and southern states. The most comprehensive recent exploration of the landscape of Jews in America — the American Jewish
Committee’s 2005 publication, Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Portrait — noted that Jews are “heavily concentrated in large metropolitan areas…[and] are the group most fearful of walking alone at night and among the least likely to own a gun or hunt.” Jews are also said to have “the greatest support for gun control.”

Moreover, Jews are “solidly Democratic in party identification and presidential voting and self-identifying as liberal.” Jews have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in every presidential election since 1968, with the exception of the 1980 contest between Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson.

On the other hand, Democrats in Congress have run away from gun control ever since their loss of the House of Representatives in 1994, a disaster conventional wisdom blames on the passage of an assault weapons ban. Voting Democratic today does not mean voting for gun control. The issue has a low priority, shunned to give political breathing room to other issues, such as health care. Jewish legislators who were once leaders in gun control are now conspicuously silent. It is not clear whether American Jews as a whole have made the same calculation. But it is difficult to discern a Jewish tidal wave of gun-control activism.

At the same time, Jews strongly support civil liberties, even for “various socially and/or politically suspect groups.”  Jews believe in the very American concept of inalienable rights, the foundation of what some have called our “civic religion.” It is not clear how Jewish support for gun control reconciles itself with gun rights. For that matter, it is not clear what exactly “gun rights” are.

What precisely does this grammatically fractured congeries of words mean? “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 great houses of constitutional interpretation have been split for nearly a century between the view that these words articulate an individual right and the view that they protect only a collective right to arm state militias. The difference is eminently practical, defining the limits of state regulation.

There is no “Jewish” interpretation. American Jews, constitutional scholars, lawyers, and individual activists, have advocated on both sides. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the right to bear arms is personal. Yet it left room for gloss. The keeping and bearing of arms may not be wholly denied, but it may be reasonably regulated. Some gun control is still allowed, but how much and of what kind?

Exactly what form of gun control do Jews favor? Banning all firearms? Banning only handguns? Would they allow “concealed carry,” if the carriers were strictly trained and licensed? There are dozens of similar questions lurking in the miasma of gun control. There is no discernible Jewish answer to these questions.

That can be said with confidence. And the abstract right to keep and bear arms is made manifest by the ritual, part intellectual, part gut feeling, of risk assessment. Like other Americans, Jews ask themselves, given my “right,” do I feel safer with or without a gun?

More than any other ethnic or religious group in America, Jews would rather not pack a gun. But their answer as to what others may or should do might be less predictable than one might think or hope.

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Tom Diaz, author of Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America (The New Press), is a senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press).

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