Local Jews split over firearm training

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Area Jews, like other Americans, are divided over how gun safety should be taught to kids.

Some argue safety education and exposure to live firearms helps kids understand the danger of the weapons — and that they should be used only for self-protection.

Others contend that banning guns and teaching youths how to avoid violence is a better solution.

David M. Golden, vice president of the Golden Gate United National Rifle Association Members Council and a Jew who lives in San Francisco, wants youths to develop a healthy fear of the weapons and learn safety at an early age.

"If you introduce firearms at a young age, and show they are heavy, noisy, they kick and are machines that take skill and respect, the youth's curiosity will be dissipated," he said. "Safety education will be muchmore likely to reduce accidents."

Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the Northern Pacific Region chapter of the American Jewish Congress, says advocating safety requires opposite tactics.

Given the recent spate of gun-related violence in schools across the country, she agrees the issue needs to be addressed in schools.

"But before we start teaching gun safety in schools," she said, "we need to do violence reduction programs in schools, galvanize communities to intervene and have metal detectors."

A school- or congregation-sponsored gun-safety program "gives the message that gun use is OK. Whether or not it is intended, that is the message being sent," she said.

In response to the slayings at 101 California St. in San Francisco five years ago, the AJCongress established the Jack Berman Advocacy Center, named after a prominent Jew killed in the incident. The center promotes gun-control legislation and education on reducing violence.

The program has received criticism from some Jews who say gun control is not a Jewish issue. Salkowitz, however, said Jews should be concerned about any issue that threatens democracy, including the proliferation of guns.

The Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City apparently also views gun-related violence as a Jewish issue.

Late last month, JTS ran an advertisement in the New York Times citing several recent incidents in which youths brought guns to school and murdered classmates and teachers.

The ad asks "Who Is Responsible?" and quotes a section from the Talmud: "Whoever can prevent the whole world from sinning but does not bears responsibility for the sins of the entire world."

Golden sees gun-safety programs as a responsible answer. That's why he wants to introduce them in Bay Area synagogues starting this winter.

He views gun control as missing the mark.

"If this solution does not work for drugs, why do you think this is going to work for hundred-dollar guns?" he asks.

Golden argues that, historically, Jews needed to take care of their security. For him, the best security involves having the means to protect oneself.

"Being in a free country where Jews own a means of self-defense is very recent," he said. "But history tells us Jews should be familiar and capable of defending themselves and their community through legal ownership of firearms."

Salkowitz said times have changed.

"I don't believe we are living in Nazi-era Germany. We have freedom of speech, and the Jewish community is so strong here," she said.

She believes that gun-safety programs in schools and synagogues are a misguided step.

"What kind of message are we sending?" she asked, "`Well, Mom, if my synagogue says it's OK, [why can't I] go target shooting?'

"Look at the Judaic teachings — thou shalt not kill. We are also commanded to beat swords into plowshares."

But Golden points out that Scripture can support both sides, citing a biblical passage saying that those threatened with murder have an obligation to fight back.

"Jewish law strongly mandates self-preservation and is very similar to American law in terms of the right of self-defense," he said.

Salkowitz argues that the need to protect oneself is important but people should look for nonviolent solutions first.

"How about having congregations work with other congregations to mobilize all area youth in learning the art of dialogue rather than the art of firearms?"