“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” claims Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, and others who favor widespread, unfettered individual gun ownership.
Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump responded to the November 2015 Paris shootings and the killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando with the assertion that if people in the crowd had been armed, the outcome in both cases would have been different. “You wouldn’t have had the tragedy that you had,” Trump told CNN about Orlando.
After the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015, Marco Rubio said personal gun ownership was the “last line of defense” against ISIS. “I have to protect my family from them or from a criminal or anyone else who seeks to do us harm,” he explained.
Gun sales spike predictably after high-profile shootings. This may be due in part to gun buyers’ fear that the response will be more restrictions on sales, but buyers also cite a concern for personal safety and the desire for protection.
In fact, it’s a well established Jewish principle that if you are at risk of being killed, you are allowed — obligated, even — to act in self-defense, using lethal force if that is the only way to save your own life. You are even permitted to kill to save the life of another person.
Given the legitimacy of self-defense — coupled with sincere concerns over mass shootings, crime in the home, the vulnerability of women to potentially deadly attacks, and hate crimes directed at Jews and Jewish institutions — should American Jews arm themselves for protection?
The answer, based on common sense, Jewish guidance, and statistics is clear: no.
If there is one thing we know from the available evidence, it’s that owning a firearm increases your odds of being killed by a gun. Household gun ownership doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide. Access to a firearm increases 12-fold the likelihood that an altercation with a family member or an intimate partner will escalate to murder, with a disproportionate impact on women. Add to these risks the shocking number of fatal accidents — approximately 2,000 unintentional shootings in 2015 with roughly 600 resulting in death — and you dwarf the roughly 80 people each year who die during a home invasion.
How can we forget the targeting of Jewish institutions, such as in 1999 when a white supremacist opened fire at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center, wounding five people? Or the 2006 hate crime at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle where six women were shot, one fatally? Can we do more to protect our institutions and ourselves by taking matters into our own hands?
The Gun Violence Archive, a nonpartisan project that tracks gun homicides and non-fatal shootings, identified only 1,600 verified cases of defensive gun use in 2014 and 1,300 in 2015 despite there being some 300 million firearms in circulation in the U.S. From 2000 to 2013, the FBI catalogued 160 active shootings and in only one case did a concealed carry permit holder — a U.S Marine — stop the shooter.
Just last week in Dallas, we saw in real time how these public shootings can unfold. There were 20 to 30 marchers openly carrying AR-15s and other military-style rifles, something legal and common in Texas and in many other states. Open carry advocates claim their presence deters, and offers armed defense against, bad guys.
In reality, as soon as shots were fired last Thursday, the open carriers began running away, adding confusion as to whether they were suspects or marchers. Had they started shooting back at the sniper, it would only have increased the bedlam and danger. As Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “There’s been the presumption that a good guy with a gun is the best way to resolve some of these things. Well, we don’t know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is if everybody starts shooting.”
In the chaos of active shooter situations, the risk of innocent people being shot when gun owners try to intervene is significant.
Consider this story from the 2011 Tucson shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Joseph Zamudio, a concealed carry permit holder, heard gunfire and exited a nearby pharmacy; he saw a man with a weapon raised above his head and bloody bodies strewn around him. Joe released the safety on his gun and prepared to fire when, in a split second decision, held back. Turns out the man with the gun was a bystander who had wrested it from the shooter. Had Zamudio fired, he could have killed that innocent (and heroic) man.
The Torah commands us to choose life. We are called to defend our life and the lives of those who are threatened. But we are equally commanded not to let fear and misinformation, especially when spread by those who have a vested interest in selling guns, guide our decisions. In the vast majority of cases, arming ourselves will not make us safer. On the contrary, we will be enabling a world where gun injuries and deaths continue at epidemic proportions.
Eileen Soffer is national coordinator of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. Rabbi Menachem Creditor serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and is the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence.