32 Bullets in 16 Seconds: Deconstructing the 'Right to Bear Arms'

February 7, 2011

The stark reality is that in America, thousands are killed in senseless violence every year due to lack of adequate gun control measures. This is no secret, but periodically we are graphically reminded of the gravity of the situation. The recent criminal assault on Congresswoman Giffords and her staff all too tragically dramatized the great suffering that can occur when we consistently refuse to take effective measures to control the sale and ownership of guns. Now is the hour for definitive regulatory action.

Gun control.jpg During the last century, civilian gunfire killed over one million Americans, more than all the military fatalities from 1776 until the present. Close to 32,000 Americans are killed in this fashion annually. The rate of homicides committed with guns in the United States is twenty times higher than the rates in England, where stringent gun control has proven effective. Eventually, a people must decide what it stands for, and what it will tolerate. As a country we are currently tolerating an average of 12 children a day dying from gunfire - a Columbine massacre every 24 hours. In Moed Katan of the Mishnah it is said that if a person permits certain sins to go on without strongly objecting, that person is considered responsible. It is within our power to stop this senseless loss of life.

As a member of the Jewish community, I am often faced with the reality that opinions on this issue are divided, even within our own gates. There are Jewish members of the NRA. There are congregants who remember the atrocities suffered during the Holocaust and believe deeply in their right to bear arms as a means of self defense. The Union for Reform Judaism, however, has taken an unwaveringly supportive position on gun control since 1968, remembering our solemn religious obligation, to protect life and "beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks." We believe the Second Amendment must be respected, but so too must every individual's right to safety as they go about their lives. Reaching this balance is complicated, but achievable.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that the arms right is "not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever for whatever purpose." Rather, the Justices recognize gun violence to be a serious problem, and explicitly stated in their ruling of District of Columbia vs Heller :

"Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possessions of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

All too often, the meaning and intent of the constitutional "right to bear arms" becomes distorted. We must respect the constitutional and legal precedents already demarcated, but continue to battle the ineffective laws that allow those who wish to do harm the means to follow through with their intentions.

This is achievable by the creation of sensible gun laws. Proof of identification is required to vote, find a job, and to receive a driver's license. At 5,000 gun shows in 33 states however, no ID or criminal background check is mandated to purchase an unlimited number of guns from private dealers. This should be cause for sustained moral outrage.

We must also address the availability of high capacity ammunition magazines on America's streets. 33 round clips can currently be bought and sold without limitation. The police, whose holsters can only accommodate ten round clips, are simply outgunned. Extended magazines were used at the Tucson, Columbine, and Virginia Tech shootings, and in all instances the shooters were tackled only when they needed to reload. Imagine the lives that might have been saved if all three had been limited to ten round magazines. If passed, a new bill introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Carolyn McCarthy will 'prohibit the transfer or possession of large capacity ammunition feeding devices,' and I urge you to contact your Members of Congress to ensure their support of this critical campaign.

This conversation is primarily a moral one. We must find a way within the legal and constitutional framework of this country to ensure that guns do not end up in the hands of those who wish to inflict harm on others.

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