“I can’t wait until I’m older so that I can join the NRA,” my son Danny, 9, announces.
The National Rifle Association? This seemingly angelic, pacifistic son? Doesn’t he realize that my husband, Larry, and I send contributions on a regular basis to Handgun Control, Inc.? That, according to most recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, over 30,000 people are killed by guns each year in the United States? That the risk of homicide in homes with guns is three times greater than in those without guns?
“Danny,” I ask, “don’t you know that guns hurt people?’
“Mom,” he answers, staring at me incredulously, “they’re supposed to.”
Where, I wonder, have Larry and I failed as parents? Have we been too lenient? Too strict? Have we permitted too much television and Nintendo? Too little imaginative play?
With four boys, the issue of toy guns has always been a hot topic at our house.
And over the years, our attitudes have changed — from vehemently forbidding all toy guns to tentatively allowing squirt guns, then Ghostbuster and Power Ranger guns. Over the years, we’ve succeeded in filling a mid-size cardboard box, which sits high on a closet shelf, with assorted toy pistols and rifles.
Basically, we have reached a policy of reasonable and benign indifference toward the entire issue of toy guns. We don’t encourage our sons to play with guns, but neither do we forbid it. As a result, our three older sons, aged 11, 13 and 16, aren’t big gun enthusiasts. It’s only Danny, the youngest, who has a future as a militiaman, hit man or soldier of fortune.
But the reality is that, as a Jew, Danny comes from a tradition that has historically permitted killing, particularly in cases involving self-defense. The Sixth Commandment, often incorrectly interpreted as “You shall not kill,” accurately translates to “You shall not murder.” Thus, we are forbidden to take an innocent life, but, as Exodus 22:1 states, we may kill a thief who enters our home during the night. The Talmud reiterates this right to self-protection: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.”
Also, as an American, Danny comes from an almost 400-year lineage of lawlessness. From pre-American revolutionary days to the 21st century, we have maintained a frontier mentality — vigorously, relentlessly and often cruelly pursuing our collective and individual freedoms, our manifest destiny, our misconstrued belief in an absolute constitutional right to bear arms.
Today, however, most Jewish organizations, support tougher gun control measures, citing safety as a pre-eminent Jewish principle. Deuteronomy 22:8, for example, states, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for our roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” The rabbis later extended this mandate to prohibit many life- threatening dangers, from keeping an untethered vicious dog to driving recklessly.
My mother, who participated in the Million Mom March on the West Coast, advises, “Tell Danny that we’re not against gun ownership. We just favor greater restrictions.”
But I realize, upon reflection and discussion with my husband, that Danny isn’t interested in the heated arguments of either the gun control advocates or opponents. He isn’t interested in the legal and historical interpretations of the Second Amendment, which allows each state “a well-regulated militia.” Nor is he interested in debating the rights of the individual versus the greater good of the society.
No, Danny is interested in being safe, in blowing away bad guys, in feeling empowered.
From his vantage point, Danny lives in a scary world. He knows about last year’s shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and the North Valley Jewish Community Center in nearby Granada Hills, Calif. He knows that not even the granddaughter of the Los Angeles Police Chief, who was murdered in May in South-Central Los Angeles, is safe.
And he knows, most recently, that at least 50 women were assaulted in broad daylight in New York City’s Central Park by roving gangs of men, amid complaints that police did little to halt the attacks.
Danny knows that there are reasons he lives in a house with an alarm system and a neighborhood patrol service. He knows there are reasons his Jewish day school has a 6-foot high chain-link fence, video surveillance and round-the-clock security guards.
He hears Larry and me, as well as other parents, routinely and unthinkingly say, “Lock the door,” “Don’t talk to strangers,” “Don’t wander off; I need to see you at all times.”
It’s amazing that Danny, or any child, can sleep at night.
It’s amazing that any of us parents can sleep at night.
But for Larry and me, increased safety lies not in a nation of armed citizens or a culture of unrestrained violence. And so we continue to support gun control, which advocates responsible and restricted gun ownership. We continue to support the Brady Bill, which requires background checks on potential gun owners and which has stopped more than 500,000 possibly dangerous individuals from purchasing guns.
We also continue to teach our kids gun safety. If they see or find a gun, they know not to touch it, point it or play with it. They know to leave the area immediately and tell an adult.
But the truth is that we are trying to carry out the seemingly impossible — to make our children feel safe in an unsafe world. The words of the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher Judah Halevi still hold true today. “Is there anywhere, east or west, a place where we are safe?”
For Danny, at least for the time being, that place exists in his fantasy of someday joining the NRA.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.