Guns as the price for freedom?

December 27, 2012

President Obama’s speech in Newtown on December 17 included this pivotal question: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” The president is bristling here at the way our political discourse reflexively leaps to claims about individual rights and freedoms. Issues become defined as the tragic clash of competing freedoms: Your freedom to do X is pitted against my freedom to do Y. The “price” of my freedom then is the loss of your freedom.

Rights talk can be an important resource for defending human dignity, but by itself rights talk is often morally obtuse, a way of sidestepping an issue. As Obama suggests, such is the case when it comes to thinking about gun violence and gun laws. 

Consider how the discussion changes when the central question is not, “What should I be free to do?” but “What should I do to keep my neighbors safe?” That, of course, is the fundamental ethical question posed in the biblical tradition.

A rabbi friend of mine noted recently that there’s very little in Jewish teaching specifically about the use of weapons. The tradition assumes that regulating weapons is matter of common sense—you just do what you need to do to keep people safe. 

He cited two texts, one being Deuteronomy 22:8: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt if anyone should fall from it.” The point is simple: the things you build and own shouldn’t be hazardous to the lives of others, and if they are, you need to take steps to eliminate the danger.

The other text is from Maimonides, the Jewish scholar of the 12th century: “Just as it is forbidden to sell idolaters articles that assist them in idol worship, it is forbidden to sell them articles that can cause harm to many people—for example, bears, lions, weapons, fetters and chains.” Again the point is clear: don’t encourage or allow people to do harm to themselves or others. 

Don't those ancient practical injunctions provide pretty much all we need for a sensible gun policy? 


Maimonides for policy

Thank you for the comments and the question, "What should I do to keep my neighbor safe?" There is one thing that bothers me about drawing from the Maimonides quote to think about policy (I responded to what I like about his quote here.)

Maimonides is speaking to a limited section of the society, that is the Jewish people, and it reads as an individual mandate to protect a neighbor. To ask someone to make a personal decision to protect their neighbor is different than legislating that all people act in that way.

Maimonides relates it to not encouraging idol worship, something that causes non-physical harm. To extrapolate the argument further to protecting our neighbor through legislation in matters of physical and spiritual harm complicates Maimonides argument beyond an acceptable guidepost for determining policy.

Examples would include all of the hot button political topics, and this guidline for policy would ask Christians to attempt to legislate areas of life that go far beyond physical harm to our neighbor like religion, sexual ethics, divorce, re-marriage, abortion, homosexuality, etc.

Anytime you're making these decision for people, I believe you complicate one's ability to choose Christ.

Now that all of that is said, it seems to be an appropriate ethic for Christians to choose to live by: Is my decision to do x going to support or harm my neighbor? And in aggreement with Maimonides, I see it as the ethical and moral choice to not support or encourage more guns and greater access.

The underlying issue about guns

The underlying issue about guns, when you get beyond hunting and sport shooting at a target range, is who are you planning to shoot and why?