When it comes down to it, the great debate about the scope and intent of the Second Amendment as it applies to private gun ownership in America has to do, almost more than anything else, with issues related to trust and confidence. The United States was born in revolution, but we rarely pause to consider what exactly that means. But what it means exactly is key to the debate about guns.
Our founding fathers and their supporters were British subjects until they unilaterally declared themselves no longer to be. Like all subjects of the Crown, they were considered obliged by virtue of that status to obey the edicts and statutes promulgated by Parliament, to accept the king as their sovereign and to remain loyal to his governance, and to conduct their affairs in accordance with the laws of the empire of which they were citizens and the motherland from which about half of them originally came. (The rest came almost exclusively from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, France, Sweden, and, of course, Africa, black slaves constituting about 19% of the total population according to the 1790 census. Only half the citizens of Colonial America either came from England or were descended from people who did.) The decision unilaterally to renounce fealty to the king and obedience to laws promulgated by Parliament in his name was, by any normal definition of the term, sedition. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence speaks boldly about the colonists’ decision unilaterally “to dissolve the political bands” which had previously bound them to Britain and then goes on slightly defensively to justify that decision with a long list of specific grievances, some of them multifaceted, that, in the opinion of the signatories to the declaration, made rational and reasonable (if no less seditious) the decision to part company with the empire, thereby renouncing allegiance to the law of the land, and to pursue a national destiny as a “free and independent” state.
And so, at the very moment of our country’s birth was also born the tension that would continue for centuries to exist between the basic human right to renounce the rule of tyrants—a right at the core of the biblical story of Israel’s unilateral decision to renounce fealty to Pharaoh and to seek destiny as an independent people—and the equally basic societal obligation to ensure the security of the citizenry by not permitting citizens unilaterally to renounce the obligation to obey laws that they find onerous or unjust, a principle also buttressed by ample biblical precedent. The Second Amendment, adopted as law in the winter of 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights and suffused with more maddening ambiguity than a single sentence of less than three dozen words should ever be permitted to possess, appears both by its content and its language to represent the tension between the two sides of the argument. Because a “well-regulated” citizens’ militia is basic to the security of those very citizens, the right of citizens to “keep and bear” arms shall not be infringed upon. But the right of the citizenry to form armed militias and then to renounce loyalty to their country is nonetheless strictly forbidden. Indeed, the Sedition Act of 1798 made it a formal crime to attempt to attempt to overthrow the government of the United States.
The Civil War, the bloodiest by far of all conflicts involving Americans, was specifically about the tension between those two thoughts. And today, all these many years later, the issue remains unresolved. Do citizens have the right to bear arms outside the permissibility of forming armed militias to protect them against whatever tyrannical government might someday seize power in Washington? If the right to bear arms is limited to the context of the armed militias mentioned in the amendment, then what sense can it make for it to be considered treason for the citizenry to rise up in armed rebellion against the federal government, as the states of the Confederacy did during the Civil War? But how can the right to band together to fight tyranny justify the ownership of assault weapons by citizens who do not belong to militias and whose sole reason for possessing them must therefore be assumed to be other than the defense of freedom?
These are the thoughts that occupy me as we approach Purim, our national Jewish festival of conflicted messages. Over the years, I’ve written my pre-Purim letter about different ones of these conflicts, but today I would like to write about the way the story of Purim relates to the issues outlined above. The Jews of Persia were clearly unarmed. Indeed, when the king’s decree went forth to the effect that “it was the king’s will that every Jew, including the children and the elderly, even infants and women, were to be annihilated, murdered and exterminated on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, that is of the month of Adar, whereupon their personal possessions would be free for all to plunder,” no one seems to worry that the Jews might fight back in any meaningful way, least of all that they may have the time and, more to the point, possess the arms to form a well-regulated citizens’ militia that could defend the foe’s intended victims from their would-be murderers. Indeed, the Jewish response to the forthcoming pogrom was not to gather up the arms they had priorly been permitted to keep and to bear, but instead to pre-sit shivah for themselves “by fasting, weeping, and declaiming their misery loudly and sorrowfully…by donning sackcloth and smearing themselves with ash.”
When Haman is finally denounced and summarily executed for his treachery, Esther and Mordechai ask that the decree of annihilation be withdrawn but soon learn that that cannot happen because royal edicts may never be made void merely because the king wishes to change his mind. Esther and Mordechai quickly shift to Plan B, one which will work just as well and possibly even better than the mere withdrawal of the original edict. They make their proposal and the king, delighted to have a way to fix things without contravening any of his nation’s laws, agrees instantly, then issues an entirely new edict that grants Jews “in every city of the kingdom the king’s permission to organize local militias with the express purpose of defending the Jewish population by endeavoring to destroy, exterminate, and annihilate the thugs of every people and ethnicity who were planning such ill for them, including those people’s children and their wives, and then by plundering all their possessions.”
The text doesn’t say so, but we are apparently supposed to imagine that we are talking about armed militias—the only really useful kind—and that the king’s edict thus also provided for weaponry to be provided to them. The moral of the story—that armed militias organized in the defense of a citizenry that would otherwise be their foes’ easy marks are a good thing—comes through loud and clear. Indeed, had the Jewish militias permitted by the king’s edict been in existence previously, perhaps Haman would have thought twice before manipulating the king into granting royal sponsorship to the pogrom he was so eager to schedule.
Nor will American Jewish readers attempting to fit the story of Purim into their thinking about Second Amendment issues be able to consider the issue without reference to the Shoah. The Jews of Europe—and, at least until the early 1930’s, the Jews of Germany foremost among them—trusted their governments. They believed that the citizenship they bore would guarantee their civil rights, that the positions of authority and power they held in their own country’s judiciary and in its government, as well as in its academic and military institutions—that the degree to which they were integrated into the warp and woof of their country’s institutions of culture and governance made obsolete the need to consider the possibility of needing “well-regulated” armed militias to defend themselves against…against whom exactly? Their own government? Their own neighbors? Their own armed forces? The very prospect must have seemed like a nightmarish fantasy and, at that, one far more rooted in biblical reality than contemporary reasonableness. The Jews of Hungary felt the same way. So did the Jews of Romania and France, as did the Jews of Poland and Lithuania. We all know how wrong they were…but the question is not really whether they were reasonably or insanely naïve in their estimation of the degree to which they were safe in their own house, but what lesson the obligation tradition places on every Jewish soul to listen carefully to the story of Purim over and over, year in and year out, is meant exactly to teach.
Thinking about the Jews of Shushan responding to their imminent annihilation by weeping and fasting, then layering that image over the mental images that never quite leave us of Treblinka and Sobibor, of Babi Yar and the Ponary Woods…and then layering those nightmarish images over the babies of Newtown shot down by someone with no political agenda at all whose personal demons prompted him to murder children—that experience of wondering when guns in the hands of citizens is healthy and good, and when it merely fosters pointless massacres like the ones at Blacksburg or Aurora or Littleton, that is the set of emotions I am bringing to Purim this year.
Mostly, it’s a lot of fun, this holiday. I like the noisemakers. I like the food. I like the vodka. I like, sort of, dressing up for the Megillah reading. I’ve written to you over the years about how long it took me really to grow into this holiday, how I started out thinking it to be a huge affair about a massacre that didn’t happen. But I’ve grown into it over the years, and each year I seem to find more and more profundity in the customs and ceremonies associated with Purim, in the story of Esther itself, and in the larger issues that form the foundation upon which the rest comfortably or uncomfortably sits. To take the story seriously, especially in these United States at this point in our evolution as a free society, requires spending at least some time contemplating what might have happened—what almost definitely would have happened—had Esther not, beyond improbably, have become the queen of Persia and been in place bravely to save the day. It’s one thing, after all, to parrot Mordechai’s hopeful line about salvation surely coming from someplace else had Esther been unable or unwilling to put her life on the line to save her people and another to imagine where exactly the unarmed Jews of Persia would have found the wherewithal to survive their would-be destroyers’ onslaught. I too like to think that Mordechai was right…but so surely also must have thought the Jews of Warsaw, at least some of them up until the very end.