The Causes of Gun Violence: It’s Up for Debate

New York became the first state to take legislative action in response to last month’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School when it enacted reforms to its gun laws this week. Among the provisions of the new law are tighter restrictions on “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines.”

However, the law addresses not only firearms themselves, but also the people that use them. For instance, it will require background checks for buyers of ammunition. Additionally, in one of its more controversial parts, the new law requires mental health providers to report patients to criminal justice authorities when the mental health professionals believe that the patients are likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to themselves or others. The authorities can then determine whether or not to revoke the patient’s gun license.

New York’s new law is designed to prevent the horrible results of gun violence, but it also highlights the difficulty in identifying and defining its underlying causes. Recognizing that America is currently struggling to find an answer to an increase in gun violence, President Obama revealed this week his strategies for reducing gun violence and announced that he would immediately sign twenty-three executive orders concerning firearms, including a directive to the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

There are numerous opinions as to the causes of gun violence. Some say that movies, television and video games glorify violence and killing. Others argue that the ease of access to firearms is the primary contributing factor. And then there are the cries of those who are “pro-guns” who proclaim their motto “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In other words, guns are merely tools; it is the people who use them wrongly who are the problem.

There is no doubt that Halacha addresses safety concerns arising from the production, sale, and use of weapons. For instance, the Gemara prohibits a homeowner from keeping dangerous objects or animals on his property. (See Bava Kama 15b, deriving this law from Devarim [Deuteronomy] 22:8) It also forbids the sale of weapons to enemies of the Jews and criminals. (Yes, even Jewish criminals.) (See Avodah Zara 15b)

But not only does the Torah prescribe “weapon regulations,” it also addresses the causes of weapon-related violence––at least according to one Medieval commentator.

In the course of recording the descendants of Cain, the Torah details the family of Lemech. (Bereishis [Genesis] 4:19-24) Lemech had two wives and three sons. His son Yaval was a herder, Yuval was a musician, and Tuval Cain was a metalworker. The Torah then tells us that Lemech said to his wives, “Listen to my voice, for have I killed a man by wounding him or a child by bruising him? For if Cain was punished at seven generations, then Lemech will be at seventy-seven!”

One of the problems that commentators address on this verse is that although it appears there was some disagreement between Lemech and his wives, it is not clear what it was. Ramban offers a novel approach. According to his explanation, Lemech taught each of his sons a trade. To Tuval Cain, he taught metalworking, including the production of weapons. Lemech’s wives were afraid that Lemech would be punished for the increase in bloodshed caused by the weapons. In response, Lemech drew his argument from his ancestor Cain: “Cain actually killed a man with his own hands, and for that he was punished. But I have not killed anyone. It is not the weapons that cause bloodshed. Cain did not even use a weapon to murder his brother. Therefore, I will certainly not be punished for merely producing them.”

Thus, according to Ramban’s explanation, the disagreement was over who is at fault for weapon-related violence, the one who produces and sells the weapons or the one who uses them. Interestingly, the Torah does not seem to choose a side in this debate. Perhaps it means to tell us that there are several reasons for for weapon-related violence, not only one.

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