Thursday, January 13, 2011


The bare details of the shooting last weekend in Tucson we surely all know by now. Nineteen people were shot, of whom six, including the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Arizona, a congressional aide, and a nine-year-old girl born on 9/11, died. Representative Gabrielle Gifford, seriously wounded but not killed, is said to be in relatively stable but still very precarious condition at a local hospital. The alleged shooter, a twenty-two year old man named Jared Lee Loughner, was arrested at the scene. Federal prosecutors have already charge him with five crimes including the attempted assassination of a member of Congress. Arizona prosecutors have announced their intention to charge him with the murder and the attempted murder of those of his alleged victims who were not federal employees. And yet the precise motive behind the massacre remains unknown. (The accused, probably acting in his own best interests, has invoked his right to remain silent.) Perhaps the President was right Wednesday evening when he suggested that we may never know what twisted thoughts prompted the Tucson rampage.

An almost endless series of essays and articles seemed to appear almost instantly in the press and on the internet, essays speculating about the shooter’s “real” motive or about who his “real” victim was intended to be, op-ed pieces wondering to what extent the vituperative rhetoric of American politics could be supposed to provide the “real” background to the crime, articles attempting to figure out what to make of the reading list the accused posted on his youtube page (a list that included Plato’s The Republic, Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, and Ayn Rand’s We the Living), speculative musing about the relationship of the various conspiracy theories to which the accused appears to have subscribed and his decision to commit murder on this scale, and editorials attempting to address the shooting in the context of Arizona’s gun culture. For Jewish readers, the story will have special resonance, of course, because Gabriel Zimmerman, the congressional aide who was killed, was Jewish and because Representative Gifford herself is a member of Congregation Chaverim, a Reform temple in Tucson. But although no specific evidence has surfaced to suggest that the shooter targeted Gabrielle Gifford or Gabriel Zimmerman specifically because he hated Jews, most Jewish observers will suppose almost naturally that anti-Semitism must surely have been lurking among whatever other motives the shooter had. That will turn out to be either true or not true. But for the moment, the accused is speaking only to Judy Clarke, the lawyer who is going to represent him in federal court.

But the specific take on the story I would like to write about today is related only tangentially to the shooter himself or to his victims. Clearly, it is not a good plan for mentally ill people or for people with past convictions for drug abuse to be permitted to purchase guns and ammunition, and for it not to be illegal for them to carry their weapons concealed on their persons in public. Whether Jared Lee Loughton turns out to be mentally ill, of course, remains to be seen. His drug convictions, on the other hand, are a matter of public record. Therefore, even if it turns out that he is not mentally unbalanced, the nation will still want to ask Arizona lawmakers exactly how it could possibly be sound public policy for people with documented histories of drug abuse to be permitted to carry concealed weapons, loaded or not. (Arizona, Alaska, and Vermont are the only states that permit individuals to carry concealed weapons without needing a permit to do so.) But the real question I’d like to write about has to do with the Second Amendment itself, the amendment that has been interpreted to mean that Americans have a basic right to possess firearms and that the government therefore needs a compelling reason to curtain that right or to infringe upon it.

The actual text of the Second Amendment appears at first blush to be talking about the right to bear arms in the context of the federal government being barred from banning the states from forming their own, fully-armed militias, but has traditionally been interpreted broadly rather than narrowly. (The actual text is brief and sounds relatively to the point: “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.”) But whatever the framers of the Constitution had in their hearts when they made those words into the law of our land, the result of their work was to guarantee that American citizens would permanently be granted to possess firearms. And, indeed, the endless debate in our country about the reasonableness of gun control legislation has traditionally been framed precisely in terms of whether that right should be subject to limits based on the fear of crime or, as the ultimate guarantor of the freedom of the individual, whether it should be impervious to limitations based solely on fear.

The debate itself has its own interesting, and very long, history, pitting those who claim that the right to bear arms has led not to a more secure democracy but to the United States being the country with the highest number of people killed by people wielding guns in any developed country (almost 12,000 in 2004, the last year for which there appear to be reliable statistics, as opposed to 184 in Canada, 73 in England and Wales, 56 in Australia, and 37 in Sweden) against those who argue that the fundamental right of citizens to bear arms is precisely what makes our democracy secure against tyranny and thus a more, not less, safe place for its citizens. (Just for the record, the obvious problem in interpreting those statistics about gun deaths is that the populations of those countries are so different, there being, for example, about ten times as many American citizens as there are citizens of Canada. The homicide-by-gun rate per 100,000 people, however, is just as depressing: 4.07 for the U.S., 0.57 for Canada, 0.41 for Sweden, 0.28 for Australia, and a truly minuscule 0.12 for England and Wales.) The question of why forty times as many Americans per capita are killed with guns as English or Welsh people is its own interesting question, of course. But the deeper question brought to the fore by the Tucson shooting has far less to do with the differences between countries and more to do with the fundamental question of whether a death-by-gunshot rate like the one we have in our country is the price we must pay to be free citizens of a democracy that guarantees the civil rights of its citizenry absolutely, or whether it is merely indicative of a nation that has dressed up its own inability to safeguard its citizens to look more noble and less pathetic than it actually is.

For Jews the question has its own unsettling overtones, of course, overtones probably unintentionally stoked by Sarah Palin’s peculiar use of the phrase “blood libel” to describe the campaign of vilification she feels the media has been waging against her in the course of the past week. But even without former Governor Palin’s comments to goad us forward along this specific line of thinking, the history of anti-Semitic violence—a history that reached the level of attempted genocide during the lifetimes of many of you reading this—will be the background to any serious Jewish thinking about the issue of the right to bear arms. How different, for example, would or could things have been if the Jews of Vilna had been fully armed in 1941, or the Jews of Paris in 1942, or the Jews of Warsaw in 1943, or the Jews of Budapest in 1944? Would the Nazis have been able to overrun Holland in only five days had its citizens been armed? Would the collaborationists in France have had as free a hand to participate in the Nazi war against French Jewry if those Jews had been unwilling to go to the trains peacefully and had had the means to resist forcefully? You see where I’m going with this…but the real question, of course, does not have to do with what might have once been but with how things are in our country today. Surely, no one who interprets the Second Amendment broadly to mean that the ownership of guns should be restricted for only the most grave and most compelling reasons would justify that position by arguing that the alternative would eventually lead to the mass murder of American citizens by their own government!

In a sense, the debate has to do with the degree to which we really do think America is different. I think that. I think most of my readers think it as well. I know as much as any lay reader, so to speak, could about the Shoah, but I find it impossible to imagine anti-Semitism on that scale in this place leading to the kind of horrors the Jews of Europe faced seven decades ago. That our country has a long history of shameful discrimination to grapple with, including government-led initiatives that led to the deaths of countless thousands of Native Americans during the 1830s when whole tribes were forcibly deported from their own lands and their own homes and sent on thousand-mile-long death marches to unknown destinations in the west, is well known. But we have, as a nation, moved past that kind of rank discrimination as, one by one, laws in place for centuries have been replaced with legislation that guarantees the civil rights of all citizens without reference to race, religion, or ethnic origin. I suppose that by saying that I could be condemning myself to end up quoted in some twenty-third century textbook of Jewish history alongside all those German rabbis who preached to their congregants that Germany too was different, that the degree to which Jews were accepted and integrated into Germany culture and society both insulated and protected them from the prejudice of extremists, but I really do believe that our place in American society is made secure by our Constitution and also by our inclusionist national ethos, by our American disinclination to prejudge people unfairly, and by our American predilection for fairness in all things. Is American different? I think it is.

What we can all agree about, I believe, is that the level of gun violence we have come to accept as normal in our country should be considered intolerable. That citizens have a Constitutionally-based right to possess firearms cannot be undone and possibly even should not be undone. But surely we can all agree that there can be no sense of the personal liberty of peaceful citizens being infringed upon by a nation-wide effort to keep guns out of the hands of people who habitually use drugs or who have been convicted of violent crimes or who are mentally unbalanced or who have displayed depraved indifference in the past to the value of human life.

Carrying concealed weapons in public is not a guarantor of civil liberty but a recipe for disaster. Allowing people to purchase handguns without having to identify themselves or register their weapons is not an infringement against personal freedom but a way to enable criminals to acquire the tools of their trade without leaving a paper trail behind. The National Firearms Act, passed by Congress in 1934, seeks to regular private ownership of what were then called “gangster weapons,” such as hand grenades and machine guns. The Gun Control Act of 1968 sought to codify in federal law the precise categories of people who may not freely acquire firearms. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 put into place a national background check intended to prevent the sale of firearms to people forbidden to own them under the Gun Control Act. Taken all together, these three acts of Congress have at their heart the notion that there must be some rational, legal way to keep guns out of the hands of people who mean to use them to do harm or to commit crimes without infringing on the civil rights that the Constitution guarantees to all Americans. The job now is to take that concept and move forward with it as a nation to make ourselves safe by doing what it takes to keep guns away from people who wish to commit crimes or to participate in the political process by assassinating members of Congress.

Four of our presidents were murdered while in office, all of them shot to death by guns. That fact in and of itself should give us the impetus to find a way to safeguard our freedoms without putting guns in the hands of criminals.

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