Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Common Sense, Jewish Approach to Curbing Gun Violence


A Common Sense, Jewish Approach to Curbing Gun Violence
A First Draft to Start the Discussion
And Develop a Comprehensive, Ethically Based Model
Rabbi Steve Weisman
Temple Solel, Bowie MD

 DISCLAIMER:  I do not pretend to be an expert on gun ownership or operation.  As a kid, I once got an award for riflery at camp, but, ironically, had missed my group’s only visit to the rifle range!  I am concerned by what is happening on this subject in our country, and want to work for change.  I have followed, although hardly closely, the efforts of others within the religious and other communities to make intelligent and meaningful statements against gun violence, some (many?) of which have included significant parts of the specifics that follow.  My purpose here is to set up a comprehensive comparative model to govern this discussion, one based in reality rather than emotion, fact rather than rhetoric, a desire to improve the world rather than pandering to a least common denominator through fear-mongering.

I admit that elements of the following comparison may not be as viable for guns as for cars, but let's at least start with a system that works, and adapt it as needed!  Let the details here be the grounds for meaningful and appropriate debate designed to produce the best possible system, rather than allowing the debate to be pirated and sunk by those who would prefer the discussion not even happen!

By "common sense," can we PLEASE start with a system that isn't completely dysfunctional, but rather works fairly well (NOT perfectly) and apply it intelligently to gun ownership and operation?  Like, let's say, oh... owning and operating an automobile.  And can we please couch our discussion in a clear distinction between those items which MUST happen for meaningful change to be possible; those which SHOULD happen, to make sure the MUSTs can be achieved; and those which COULD happen, if we are serious about protecting the innocent and changing the culture of gun ownership and operation in this country?

And finally, because of my own limitations on this subject, I humbly present this merely as a first draft to START the discussion, and direct its progress.  I expect that some will be challenged or even offended by this effort, others troubled by parts of it.  I ask only that we channel that discomfort not into personal attacks, but into meaningful and useful thought and discussion, designed to take what seems like a good start, and make it even better, so that it can be of the most value to the greatest number of people and our society as a whole.


Let us begin by noting that when it comes to cars, ownership and operation are two separate items.  Owning a gun, like owning a car, must require not merely purchase, but also registration of that purchase with the state, not merely for creating a registry, but in a manner that allows the usage of that item to be tracked, if necessary, if that object is improperly operated. It should also include additional levels of action, parallel to the automobile requirements of regular mechanical and emissions inspection, and regular renewal of registration.  It could also include still other provisions that, when it comes to gun ownership, admittedly will have little advance deterrent value in preventing a determined shooter, but would, as part of a deliberate cultural shift, make clear that owning and operating a gun is a serious undertaking, with significant potential impact on the owner/operator and others, and allow easier and more effective follow-up to transgressions that would have the cumulative effect, over time, of making us all safer, by limiting the ability to commit and desirability of behaviors that hurt and kill others.

Automobiles carry VIN numbers, which are part of the registration, but are also stamped on multiple pieces of the vehicle, and coded to indicate characteristics of that vehicle, so that illegal chop-shopping can, at least theoretically, be tracked, unless the bad guys go to a deliberate extreme length to make it impossible.  So too, gun registration must require both responsible treatment of the weapon at purchase, and a mechanism for following up its usage and upkeep over time. 

Serial numbers are a part of this.   So too are the ability to produce registration documents if stopped and asked (for cause, not as a mechanism for abusing proper ownership), display of a registration mechanism on the weapon itself, which must be removed by the owner upon resale of the weapon (or else as far as the state is concerned, the weapon is still yours and its use is YOUR responsibility!), further identification methods including a registry of barrel groovings, regular renewals, and regular inspection of the viability and safety of the weapon.

In addition, there MUST be mandatory significant penalties, including fines, arrest, and loss of the privilege of ownership, for failure to follow these requirements.  Just as registration of a car must be preceded by inspection of the vehicle for function AND emissions, and proof of sale provided, gun registration must provide a clear path of legal possession, and proof that the owner is taking the steps needed to make sure the gun is kept properly in proper working order while s/he owns it.

Among other (potentially more controversial) elements in registration of guns might be:

1.     establishment of a pro-active national registry computer system, into which sellers must enter all weapon and ammunition sales.  The purpose of this would be to allow such a system to spit out to local law enforcement and registry officials when thresholds of sales behavior indicate that an owner has either a) moved into a position of acting as a de facto resale agent or b) has amassed a volume of materials far beyond what is necessary for hunting or protection (see below for licensing categories).  Failure to properly enter the needed info into the system must be punishable for such an effort to be effective;
2.     development of a system of mandatory insurance for ownership and operation of guns;
3.     requirements for proof of the ability to maintain guns safely in the home or on person of owner;
4.     categorization of weapons by capability and primary function, with specific requirements according to category (handgun, hunting weapon, etc.)

THEN we can talk about licensing usage, which, also patterned on cars, must include proof of accredited training and knowledge, passing written and physical tests, regular renewal and retesting, and multiple levels of user licensing.  It seems reasonable that a different level of knowledge, experience and awareness is needed for operating a hunting rifle in the forest as compared to keeping a hand gun in one’s home for protection.  And therefore, the expectations on these different users should be different, and also the responsibilities.

Only THEN can we reasonably talk about whether there are levels or classes of weapons and accessories that can or should be limited or prohibited.  Part of the problem with the current discussion, besides the lack of such an overarching comprehensive framework, and the obstructionism of the NRA, is that, because it is being driven by the emotion and reality of Sandy Hook, specific bans are far too prominent in the discussion and effort.  A legitimate and carefully defined system of categorizing weapons, accessories, and usages allows for clear definitions, and authentic, accurate distinctions.  Before we can agree to ban assault rifles, we need to have a valid, accepted, useful definition of the classes, one that allows us to determine which weapons fall into that category and which don’t.  And by anchoring it in an overall system of mandatory ownership and usage registration, each individual piece has its specific role reduced,

Right now, we are talking about a specific rifle because it was used in Connecticut, and by comparison (which may or may not be valid) to other, better known weapons from other (read “military”) environments.  Once we have such definitions and distinctions, then we can make statements like “Assault rifles have no place in public usage,” and seek to define the system in ways that their usage will be legitimately limited to those few specific areas in which they ARE necessary and appropriate.  We can seek to ban so-called “cop-killer” bullets, or limit the size of magazines, or put significant restrictions on usage of semi-automatic or automatic weapons (again, only AFTER clearly defining our terms).

The effectiveness of such efforts is predicated on an assumption which may not yet be valid, however.  That assumption is that a legitimate registration and licensing system will be accepted by the majority of owners and users, and seen as valuable.  This system is based on a prevailing culture in which gun owners and operators are willing to be part of the solution, that they find value and protection in such a system for themselves and others, and they are willing to put responsibility of ownership and usage ahead of an absolute right of gun ownership and operation.  It is far from obvious that such a culture exists at the present time.  And while it is easy to recognize and blame an NRA that has become far more a lobbying group for gun manufacturers and sellers than an advocacy group for owners and users, as it still pretends to be, it must also be recognized that, even in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, there has been a failure to put forward such a comprehensive system and compelling case that would persuade these owners to stand up for what is needed and right.

And lt us be clear yet again – this system, indeed NO system, could prevent Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or any of the far too many high profile incidents.  Or even any of the far too frequent and ignored individual tragedies involving guns that true common sense gun violence prevention measures are REALLY designed to reduce and prevent.

What it can, and will, do, is to change the prevailing culture, to make such behaviors less attractive, and less viable, to hold accountable more people whose negligence contributes to such tragedies, so that, moving forward, more people will take better care.  It will make it harder for abuses to occur, not impossible.  It will provide deterrence, in a manner that CANNOT be mistaken for random or vindictive, and therefore be used as propaganda AGAINST improvements.  And, it will do all this by requiring, encouraging, and rewarding responsibility and awareness, at least in the sense of protecting those who act in these positive ways from unnecessary or unjustified limitation on their rights and freedoms.

It seeks to act in accord with the teachings of the value of life found in most religious ethical systems, as contrary to the “value” of our current gun culture, perhaps best exemplified in the teaching of Talmud that “one who takes a single life, it is as if they have destroyed the entire world; but one who saves a single soul, it is as if they have saved the entire world.”  Just because we cannot prevent every soul who is willing to have their own life end in a perceived blaze of glory by taking out as many others as they can on the way to encouraging someone else to pull the trigger on them that they cannot bring themselves to do to themselves, does not remove from us the obligation to take this Talmudic teaching seriously.  For, indeed, the Talmud also teaches that we “are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to simply walk away from it” without doing what we can to make things better.

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