They say the pen is mightier than the sword. But sometimes it helps to have a gun.
The question of what to do about guns in America has come to the fore as mass shootings – whether of the terrorist or “mentally ill” variety – seem to occur more and more often, not to mention home invasions and other crimes. Might private citizens owning and carrying guns have prevented some of these terrible incidents? But what about the tragic consequences of easy access to guns, including accidents, suicides, and crimes of passion?
It is estimated that there are around 300 million legal firearms in the U.S. and between 30 and 40 percent of households consist of gun owners, many owning several. Gun ownership has been a part of American culture since its founding, and this is not likely to change.
“I’ve got a gun and I’m going to blow you away as soon as you come through that door” is how David F, a former Marine and a member of our community for several years now, responded to a young shirtless man who was trying to break into his apartment in Laurel several years ago. He had already called 911 describing the situation, and told the police that he would use his weapon if need be. Fortunately, the would-be intruder weighed his chances and chose to leave. He was arrested in the parking lot, although he later got off with a slap on the wrist.
Years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone in our community behaving as David did. In recent American history, Jews have been averse to the “gun culture” and the violence it represents. Many Jews would not feel safe even owning a firearm. Yet with the rise of crime and lawlessness in America, including in Baltimore, many I spoke with said they wouldn’t hesitate to act as David did. The crime situation has also led to the incessant discussion of gun ownership and gun laws – and the opinions of members of the local frum community reflect those of the general American public. Not surprisingly, those opinions tend to be strong on both sides.
What Do People Say?
I spoke to close to 20 community members, and although I can’t say this small sampling is very scientific, about two-thirds of them either own a gun, plan to purchase a gun, or at least feel one should have the right to do so. This probably reflects the politically conservative bent of the community. But I did find variations. At one end of the scale are individuals who view the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) current anti-gun-control stance to be practically Torah mi’Sinai and the only way to ensure their ability to defend themselves. At the other extreme, some see the NRA as a powerful lobbying group more concerned with being well-funded than with the safety of citizens. A third group expressed the subtleties of the issue.
Among those whose views are more nuanced and focused on practical solutions is Lieba D. While she is currently against having a gun in her home, she says she might someday change her opinion. “I understand why some people might want one,” she says, but it is too risky. Too many people end up hurting members of their own families.” Leiba also worries about children in the house or even an irate family member who might decide to use the weapon.
Furthermore, says Leiba, even if one knows how to use the weapon and is well-trained, that is no guarantee he will use it correctly under pressure. She points to a recent police shooting of an unarmed citizen, who, when asked why he shot, responded, “I don’t know.” Here was a person who was supposedly well-trained and still fired his weapon inappropriately. Leiba also fears accidents, citing a cousin who was a very experienced carpenter who nonetheless accidentally cut off two of his own fingers using the dangerous tools of his trade.
Gail K is not opposed to gun ownership per se but would like to see gun laws tightened to keep firearms out of the hands of irresponsible people. Actually, this is an opinion shared with all of the pro-ownership people I spoke with, although they differed on how to make the laws more restrictive. Gail faults the NRA for making it sound as though those calling for more effective gun control want to take away all guns from all citizens and claim that restricting access to guns will be a “slippery slope” into no gun access at all. Gail also believes it would be better if all states were under common federal laws rather than having different standards in different places. She suggests that just as any driver needs to renew his driver’s license, gun owners should be required to be checked periodically to ensure they still qualify as responsible citizens.
Lee G takes views the gun issue through a different lens. “I believe that the government’s attempt to push gun control laws is all about the control which the government seeks to exert. I am a big proponent of the Second Amendment,” says Lee. He is referring to the view that the Founding Fathers’ purpose in including the Second Amendment was not merely to allow hunting or hold arms for self-protection but also to prevent tyranny. He says that if a person is going to own a gun, he should get training on how to use it, although that should not be a legal requirement. He also believes a gun owner must act responsibly, keeping it out of the hands of all those, including children, who should not have access to it. Like others, he compares this to the way one takes care of any dangerous implement, whether a kitchen knife, a power saw, or a car. “A firearm is a tool like any other dangerous object we may have in our possession.”
Living with Guns – A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment author, Craig Whitney, agrees that the issue is broader than the physical gun but approaches it from the liberal perspective. He writes, “Strict gun control alone cannot solve our gun problems. It is not guns that cause these problems but human behavior, and influencing that in communities troubled by gun violence is just as important as cutting down the number of illegal guns available there.” He finds the NRA slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” to actually be on the mark.
Tzviel “BK” Blankchtein, president of Masada Tactical, in Pikesville, thinks that gun control rules don’t solve anything and only benefit the criminals. “The criminal enemy or ill-intending individual will always be able to get a gun – or use any other means to cause harm.” He is nevertheless a big proponent of having proper processes in place before firearms can be sold. “Criminal background checks are a good start, but tighter limits need to be imposed. For example, anyone with a history of domestic abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, or someone who is mentally unstable should not be permitted to purchase a firearm. The way this country deals with mental illness, with sub-par treatment, or with people who fly under the radar is more of an issue than gun control.”
Getting a Gun
Despite BK’s commonsensical approach, the problem, in Maryland at least, is that there is no one checking if a person is a “habitual drunkard,” on drugs, or mentally unbalanced. These are questions the gun buyer himself affirms or denies on a form he fills out under penalty of perjury. In Maryland, one must fill out a NICS form (FBI instant background check) for any handguns purchased in addition to a state form. This includes weapons purchased at gun shows. There is also a seven-day waiting period before the gun can be picked up. For long arms (non-semi-automatic rifles or shotguns) only the instant NICS check is needed and one can take possession immediately.
While a gun dealer may refuse to sell a gun to a customer for any reason – and many do, if they suspect the buyer is not stable – it is certainly very easy to slip through the cracks. Alex G told me that in order to purchase a firearm in Israel, one needs a doctor to certify that one is not on drugs and is mentally stable enough to own one. He suggests that demanding references would be useful here, too. “Our failure to identify people who are mentally ill allows many people to obtain guns who should not have access to them,” says Alex. “The most critical thing in this day and age to prevent senseless shootings is to screen whether a person is mentally fit. It’s more important than the “No-Fly List,” because if a terrorist is on the list, he’ll get a gun, just as any other criminal gets it, illegally. So the list doesn’t do any good. But a mentally ill person is not a criminal and will try to obtain it legally.” On the other hand, he says, it is not fair to discriminate against people who are doing well on medication. He knows at least one person who was denied a carry permit because of a medication he takes.
Alex feels that some of our laws are too lax and some are too strict. “The seven-day waiting period does not do very much,” he says, and sometimes legislators, with the best of intentions, “create inefficient, costly laws that do absolutely no good.” For instance, he told me that until about a year ago, there was a law on the books in Maryland requiring every handgun or regulated firearm sold had to have a shell casing fired from that gun submitted to state police. The intention was identify weapons used in crimes. “Gun rights advocates testified that it would be a ridiculous law, and in fact, the state spent around $10 to $15 million on software and personnel to manage the program without a single criminal being caught on the basis of that law.”
Alex agrees that gun owners should get as much training as possible to be equipped to handle the weapon. However, he thinks Maryland law has “gone overboard in requiring one to take a four-hour course to get a license and/or the 16-hour training for a carry permit.” He feels this imposes an unfair monetary burden. “If someone already knows how to safely handle and store a gun, it should be sufficient to simply pass a test, as is done with the driver test.”
Assaulted by the Facts
What about “assault weapons” that so many point to as particularly dangerous? Should they be allowed for purchase by ordinary civilians? According to Alex, the whole idea is a fraud and a misnomer. There are no “assault weapons” for sale easily anywhere in the U.S. Most (non-gun) people call a gun where you pull the trigger once and dozens of bullets come spraying out automatically an “assault weapon.” These weapons are used only by the police and military. A civilian may apply to purchase one but has to undergo a very extensive federal background check and pay for a very expensive license. Even then, he can only purchase a gun manufactured before 1986. These guns cost 20 or 30 times more than a modern semi-automatic weapon that fires the same bullets and are mainly used by collectors. Almost all guns sold today are semi-automatics. They might look like a machine gun, but the trigger has to be pulled separately for each bullet, just like all handguns. The difference is the size of the magazine. In Maryland and in some other states – you can’t buy a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds (bullets). However, it is possible to purchase a larger magazine elsewhere to use in these guns.
Ineffective and Burdensome Laws
Both pro- and anti-gun people I spoke with pointed out some dysfunctional gun laws. Several of them felt that a person on the “No-Fly List” should automatically be barred from purchasing a gun. Alex (and others) do not agree: “The problem is that the “No-Fly List” is known to be unreliable. Many people who should be on the list are not on it,” says Alex, “and many are on the list who should not be.” For example several innocent people may have the same name as a known terrorist and find themselves on the list. He believes profiling is good for investigative purposes but not for making decisions without a thorough investigation.
Yossie W. concurs that Maryland has burdensome laws when it comes to getting either an HQL or a carry permit. For example, to get the HQL (handgun qualification license), you take a course, get fingerprinted, and answer a bunch of questions. Then when you go to purchase a gun, they ask you the same questions again. The HQL pulls a person’s photo from the motor vehicle records. But for a carry permit, you have the added expense of submitting new passport photos. The fingerprints also need to be less than 72 hours old or they reject the application, although he says, “I’m not aware of anyone whose fingerprints change within a few days of the 72-hour limit.” He sees these requirements simply as unneeded obstacles.
Yossie thinks that our community should have the mindset of being prepared for anything: “We need to be ready to defend ourselves, whether by securing our homes and property, taking a krav maga course, or other actions.” He doesn’t think everyone needs to go out and get a firearm. However, a few months ago, after some violent incidents in our community, he read about a “quiet innocuous march” that some community members organized. He wonders if it might have been more effective to signal to others that our community is not willing to be sitting ducks, if, instead of a march, tables had been set up handing out HQL applications, something which would probably have gotten more press coverage as well.
What Does the Constitution Say?
Much of the argument regarding citizens owning guns seems to revolve around what the Constitution means by its assertion that owning a gun is a “right.” The Second Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, states, “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.” With this brief and ambiguous text, it is obvious that various interpretations of the meaning and intent are possible.
According to University of Baltimore law professor Kenneth Lasson, the right to bear arms does not apply to individuals at all. In a November 2007 article in the Baltimore Sun, “Pro-Gun Scholars Twist Constitution,” he argues that “…the blunderbuss proliferation of newly minted gun-rights advocacy perverts both the historical context and plain meaning of the Second Amendment.
“Until 1989, virtually all law professors had endorsed the view that citizens have a collective right to raise an army but no inherent individual right to carry guns.” Lasson argues that NRA money went on to give money to law schools and basically sponsor many more lawyers to write legal papers espousing the NRA viewpoint. Despite the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which guarantees each individual a right to bear arms, Lasson maintains that “the overwhelming weight of available historical evidence is that the Founding Fathers’ primary concern was to empower state militias. Records of gun regulation in eight of the original 13 states – Maryland among them – strongly suggest that private ownership and use of firearms were not countenanced.”
Lasson adds, “The practical issues post-Heller remain difficult. There is little that can be done to quell the proliferation of legal guns in America, nor would I want to deny anyone’s right to own or use them for self-protection. But reasonable gun-control regulations have worked elsewhere and appear to have served well in limiting mass shootings. The most impressive example is Australia. Since major gun law reforms were introduced there in 1996, there have been no fatal mass shootings (defined as having at least five victims), and there has been a significant decline in firearm-related homicide and suicides as well. Following the mass shooting in Orlando in June of this year, the deadliest in American history, similar measures were rejected by the U.S. Senate.”
Adam Winkler, author of the book Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, asserts that the NRA’s opposition to gun control is a rather recent phenomenon. “Historically,” writes Winkler, “the leadership of the NRA was more open-minded about gun control than someone familiar with the modern NRA might imagine.”
Craig Whitney, in his book Living with Guns, takes a middle-of-the-road approach: “Reasonable gun control is not unconstitutional – but gun control [laws] can be unreasonable. Proposals to control gun violence might have more chance of grudging acceptance by gun owners,” writes Whitney, “if supporters of gun laws, and those laws themselves, made it clearer that what they aim to change is not the common-law right of most people to own and use firearms but the misuse of firearms, especially by the tiny minority of people who…should be denied that right. Too often, proposals to reduce gun crime are couched in language that seems to treat anybody who wants to own a gun as potentially criminal.”
What Does the Torah Say?
Rabbi Shmuel Silber pointed me to an article in the summer 2016 issue of Jewish Action magazine. In it, Rabbi Joshua Flug notes, “Some advocates for stricter gun control laws are asking for enhanced criminal background checks as well as psychological evaluations of those purchasing weapons. Interestingly, support for this can be found in a Talmudic discussion.” He further writes, “While the Talmudic discussion addresses the provider and not the purchaser, the values that can be extrapolated from the discussion provide guidance as to who should own a gun. Jewish law does not guarantee anyone’s right to bear arms and such a right plays no role in the Talmudic discussion. Jewish law is primarily interested in preserving society and ensuring that public policy keeps people safe.”
Rabbi Flug continues, “…Jewish law does value the importance of providing weapons to those who serve to protect us and, by extension, those who are interested in protecting themselves, whether it was the Persians of Talmudic times or the security officers of today’s times, despite the possibility that those very weapons may be used to harm us. Jewish law recognizes that weapons control is complex and that a key determinant in whether to provide weapons to someone is whether doing so is more protective than it is dangerous. In Jewish law, knowledge is our friend, and the more we know about the effects of gun control laws on public safety and about the specific individuals who are interested in purchasing guns, the better equipped we are to address this complexity.”
Let’s Not Forget Courtesy
Beyond the gun issue itself, some people are concerned with the tone of the discussion. Rabbi Elchonon Oberstein has strong feelings about the divisive nature of the topic of gun control in our community. “Rational discussion almost never occurs,” he says, “because each side is absolutely convinced of its righteousness, and neither side trusts the motives of the other.” He is saddened that we are so “helpless and incapable of rationally discussing gun control and arriving at a bi-partisan resolution. This makes us all victims.”
Rabbi Oberstein stated that the futility of engaging in this debate prevents him from commenting further. The rage of those who disagreed with him when he has expressed opinions in the past has made him gun shy (no pun intended). I don’t think he’s the only one. At least one other person I contacted declined to even be interviewed.
While this article is unlikely to resolve the gun issue, it would be nice if, at least in our own community, gun laws could be discussed with more civility on all sides.
Tactical Self-Defense Is His Business
by Eta Kushner
“Anyone who is capable of it should take responsibility for his own protection,” says Tzviel “BK” Blankchtein, president of Masada Tactical LLC, in Pikesville, “and with proper training, everyone can be better equipped to do so.” BK is a gun-use instructor, law enforcement officer, and someone with an extensive tactical background. As a member of a SWAT team (he’s the only Israeli living in Maryland who is a police officers in Alabama, where he goes about once a month), he knows that police cannot be relied upon to arrive in time for emergencies. BK estimates that “the typical police response time is between four and 20 minutes. As the saying goes, ‘Police are minutes away when seconds count.’” Masada Tactical offers many kinds of classes, including self-defense and Handgun Qualification Licensing (HQL) as well as the 16-hour course for a carry permit.
Although BK advocates having a gun for protection, he doesn’t believe that every person should carry a firearm (unlike the famous JDL slogan, “Every Jew a .22”). A gun owner needs to be responsible, have a lot of training, and feel comfortable with the weapon that he purchases. Otherwise, he says, a person will gain a false sense of security, defeating the purpose of having a gun. The training Masada offers does not just entail practice on a gun range. It also teaches gun safety, legal ramifications, how stress affects one’s ability to perform, and all aspects of being a responsible gun owner. While BK believes the four-hour HQL course that the State of Maryland mandates for getting a gun license is a good start, he says that “anyone who truly wants to invest in their own safety should get additional training.”
Interestingly, BK reports that in the past two years, the number of yarmulke-clad students in his classes (for both self defense and handgun training) has increased tenfold. There have also been more frum women attending both types of classes. Quite a few “black-hatted rabbis” have taken his course as well, some obtaining carry permits.
BK allowed me to sit in on one of his recent HQL courses. The HQL training booklet states, “The more we know how to properly handle [guns], the less dangerous they appear and the less we need to fear them.” The first three safety rules (out of many) that we learned were: Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire, and keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
This does not mean that if you own a gun in your home for self-protection that it needs to be stored unloaded. This is not recommended as it would probably not give you enough time to respond to an emergency such as an intruder. Because of improved designs of gun safes these days, most people seem to store their loaded guns in safes to which only authorized adults have access, using either a code or a biometric lock that can be opened quickly.
BK says that his kids know they have guns in the house but are also taught that no one can ever get near one without adult supervision. For example, his children have seen him clean his unloaded gun but have never expressed any interest in touching them. “I discuss safety rules with the children frequently,” says BK, “and feel confident that if any of my kids did come across a gun anywhere outside our home, they will never do anything stupid. Gun safety,” he concludes, “boils down to education and training.”