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It is a given among liberal and progressive Jews that gun ownership among the general population is a bad thing. The ideal is near-universal disarmament with only a handful of individual exceptions and, of course, the police.
The majority of Americans have the opposite view. They believe that gun ownership is a fundamental American right, and that the more law-abiding Americans who own guns, the safer the society. This view is so widely held – even among many Democrats – that few Democratic politicians take anti-gun positions.
Like the great majority of American Jews I grew up in a home with no guns, no hunting, no target shooting or any other use of guns. Moreover, no one I knew had a gun or even knew how to use one. Diaspora Jewish culture is almost pacifist. And the general Jewish view is that non-Jews play with guns, not us Jews. A home with guns is as foreign to a Jewish liberal as gefilte fish is to a Mississippi Baptist.
Over the course of my lifetime I have come to side with the majority of Americans. I would hope that Jews are open to rethinking what has become, like most liberal beliefs, an essentially religious position.
I support gun ownership for two reasons – one American and the other Jewish.
First, I have come to admire the American value of the armed citizen. It is part of the great American value of independence and self-reliance. If I am armed, I can better protect myself, my loved ones and my neighbors.
America is great in large measure because Americans relied much less on the state than any other nation.
Jewish and other progressives see the state as a much more wonderful thing than do Americans who believe in traditional American values such as a small state and gun ownership (it would take a rewrite of American history to deny that gun ownership has been a traditional American value). Of course, the state can and must do good things. You cannot protect a country with armed militias; you protect it with a national army, navy and air force.
Progressives, taking their values from Europe, came to regard the state as the vehicle to a nearly utopian society. Gradually it displaces individual responsibility, parental authority and communal institutions.
But the traditional American view was that the state should do as little as possible, while the individual and the community should do as much as possible – including having the ability to protect ourselves against those who would do us harm. Of course police are indispensable. But the police almost always show up after an innocent has been murdered.
My Jewish reason largely emanates from the Holocaust.
Just as it amazes me that Jews can believe that people are basically good – after the Holocaust and all the other unspeakable evils inflicted on us Jews (and so many others) – it also amazes me that Jews can believe that it is a good thing that the state prohibits any of us from owning arms.
Both beliefs show how dogma trumps reality.
How many Jews the Nazis would have murdered if most European Jews had guns is impossible to know. But common sense suggests that the number would have been much lower. The Warsaw Ghetto revolt was begun with 10 old pistols and very little ammunition. Later a few hundred pistols and rifles and a few machine guns were smuggled into the ghetto. Himmler told Hitler he would quell the revolt in three days. It took four weeks. Many hundreds of German troops – perhaps a thousand – were killed or wounded.
If the Nazis knew that Jews refused to go to roundup areas and that many Jews were armed, awaiting Nazis to enter every apartment, it is difficult to imagine that the Nazi genocidal machinery would have been nearly as effective. And, vitally important, even had the number of Jews murdered been near 6 million (which I doubt), not all ways of dying are equal. There is a world of difference between being gassed or shot to death while standing naked beside the mass grave you were forced to dig and getting killed while shooting a Nazi.
The first thing every totalitarian regime does is confiscate weapons. As long as evil people have guns, good people will need to have them. This is true for nations (which is why it is so important for America and for the world that America have the strongest military) and it is true for individuals.
Dennis Prager's latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).
A version of this article appeared in print.
Dennis Prager's nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. A bestselling author and columnist, Prager is read and heard by millions of people in America and abroad. His latest book, Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph makes the case for the American value system as the most viable program ever devised to produce a good society.