Kids on the firing line — Synagogue gun-safety class

Deborah Munro, 12, holds a .22-caliber pistol, arms extended, elbows slightly bent to absorb the kick as the gun fires.

She is at a shooting range with her youth group from the Reform Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore.

Increasing incidents across the country of youths using guns, accidentally or on purpose, have prompted parents at the synagogue to make sure their children know gun safety.

Many congregants acknowledge mixed feelings about putting guns into the hands of youth. But with guns an increasing presence in homes, they say it's critical that children receive proper instruction in handling the weapons.

"Personally, I abhor guns," said Valerie Jonas, a Livermore resident whose son attends the youth program. "But I live in fear of the day when my son goes to a friend's house and encounters a gun. I feel by ignoring the issue, I'm not being a responsible parent."

Jonas' son, along with nine other youths ages 9 to 14, have visited the shooting range in Livermore twice so far.

According to class members, Deborah Munro is one of the better shooters. Munro describes her progress matter-of-factly, sounding like a seasoned gun veteran.

"People said the pistol doesn't have much of a kick," Munro said. "But it twists your hair back when you fire it, and your hands flip to the side and you feel this big lurch. It's hard to handle; the middle-sized guns are about right for me."

Munro learned everything she knows about guns from the youth group program, which began in January. Before she ever fired a gun, she received hours of gun-safety instruction from experienced users.

"The kids get very stern lectures. We are handling this in a very responsible manner," said Rabbi Richard Winer, the congregation's spiritual leader.

Though Winer "finds guns terrifying," he understands why kids find them fascinating. And if some kids are magnetically attracted to guns, Winer wants to make sure they approach the weapons responsibly.

"I'm not a fan of the NRA, but what we've done with the kids has been very impressive," said Winer, a gun-control advocate who does not own a gun.

Youths are "much less likely to have accidents with [gun] safety education," Winer added, comparing its effectiveness to sex education at an early age. "Kids in our congregation will know to get away from guns when [they're] not supervised or in the hands of adults."

Although congregants were concerned about the risks in exposing young people to guns, Winer said those fears were allayed when they found out that safety was the program's major focus.

Still, Trish Munro, the youth group leader and Deborah's mother, said at least one synagogue member had a negative reaction to the program. The congregant asserted that youth groups should stick to visiting the sick and performing services that benefit the community. Guns, according to the congregant, do not belong in Jewish youth groups.

Munro, who had no previous experience firing a gun, countered that the children brought the interest in guns to her when she asked what activities they wanted to pursue.

Once their curiosity about guns was piqued, she believed it would have been more dangerous to reject their interest than to confront it head on.

"We are providing a service to the community by demystifying the kids' interest in guns," Munro said.

"There is absolutely no pressure for the kids to do it — or not to do it," she added. "I believe when a child has a question, to answer that need is never wrong."

Munro sought teaching help from congregant Don Miller, an experienced shooter and avid gun collector in Livermore. Miller saw it as a chance to educate the youths, who, he feels, do not fully grasp the difference between "violence in real life vs. violence on TV."

Miller also saw an opportunity to teach an important lesson in Jewish history.

"Jews have had to protect themselves over the millennium. Israel is in that position now," he said. "The Torah is full of Jews defending with bows and arrows."

Miller added that, currently, "it's unlikely Jews in America must defend themselves like they did in Poland. Anti-Semitic attacks here are rare, but, still, it does happen."

Miller, who learned his gun skills while on his high school rifle team in Oakland, solicited additional teaching help from two members of the Livermore-Pleasanton Rod and Gun Club.

Ten kids from the youth group met for two gun safety and wildlife conservation sessions. The classes were held at the congregation early this year. Miller displayed his gun collection to the youths. Children were taught how to verify that the guns were unloaded.

Since then, armed with a background in gun safety, the kids have enjoyed learning hands-on what guns can do at the shooting range.

At the range, Arthur Holtz, 9, shoots at water balloons and paper targets. "If you've done it right, the bullet will go towards the target and the water balloon will explode with water going everywhere. It's a lot of fun," he said.

Holtz, who also lives in Livermore and had fired a gun once before under the supervision of his parents, said he now feels much safer when using the weapon.

"We've been talking about safety a lot, so I know I'm safe enough," he said. "I'm not really scared something bad will happen."

Similar responses from other kids seem to indicate to Miller that gun safety should be taught aggressively.

"The kids are at the age in which a lot of accidents happen, so it is a perfect age to start talking about gun safety," he said. "I'm really convinced it should be taught in schools for younger-aged children."

Miller added: "There are 2 million guns in America. You will never get rid of them, no matter how hard you try. It is better to have kids get it out of their systems."

Deborah Munro agreed. The loud bang of the gun, she found, served as a wake-up call to the reality of the weapons.

"A lot of kids didn't really know the power of the gun and how far a bullet could go," she said. "If you are around a gun or see someone using a gun improperly, it can be extremely dangerous if you don't know how to use it safely."

Winer said the Jewish community should do all it can to teach more about safety issues. He considered it a matter of religious principle.

"There is a Jewish issue of pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life," he said. "If this gun safety program can keep one child from making a mistake and hurting someone, then we've performed a valuable service."