Jewish law supports gun ownership, proponents say

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When the American Jewish Congress took out an ad in two San Francisco dailies challenging Congress to pass stricter gun control laws, at least one Jewish reader was outraged.

"I am appalled that the American Jewish Congress welcomed the new year with bigotry toward 3 million NRA members," said David Golden, president of Jews for Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

Added the San Francisco resident, "The AJCongress should search for solutions, not scapegoats."

Golden is among a sector of the Jewish community that believes Jewish history and Scripture support gun ownership and self-defense. They also believe that Jewish organizations have swept their views under the carpet and denied them access to the gun-control debate.

"I'm not an expert on Jewish law by any means," said Paul Schechter, a Vacaville resident and an NRA member. "But in view of our history, if any people had needed to defend itself, it is the Jewish people."

While some gun-control advocates applauded the Sept. 29 appellate court ruling allowing survivors and the families of victims of the 1993 shooting spree at 101 California St. to sue the gun manufacturer, Schechter said the decision alarmed him.

"I have nothing but sympathy for Carol Kingsley," he said, referring to the widow of Jack Berman, the AJCongress regional president who was slain in the S.F. massacre.

"But I think people are acting out of outrage, horror, fear and, may I say, ignorance. I feel like I see a train coming down the tracks, and I see everyone walking on the tracks with their backs to the train."

Golden said the pro-gun position enjoys a wealth of support from Jewish literature. He quoted the Talmud: "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first." And he quoted Maimonides: "Every Jew is commanded to save a person being pursued for his life, even it if means killing the pursuer, and [even if] the pursuer is a minor."

He also cited popular author Rabbi Joseph Telushin, who wrote, "The Torah likewise legislated that one need not wait until an opponent had begun his violent attack." Telushin points to a passage in Exodus: "If a thief is seized while tunneling his way [into a house in the night time] and is smitten so that he die, there is no bloodguilt (Exodus 22:1)."

Golden added, "Jewish law is straightforward on the matter of self-defense. The…push for gun prohibition stands in opposition to a large body of published work in criminology as well as nearly 2,000 years of Jewish jurisprudence, including the writings of the most outstanding rabbis."

But Tracy Salkowitz, regional director of the AJCongress, said gun advocates are distorting the text.

"Many of the citations they choose reflect not vengeance but contractual compensation," she said. And that quote from Maimonides concludes, "If the pursuer can be stopped by disabling part of his body, by striking him with an arrow, a stone, or a sword…then that should be done."

Schechter said academic research is also on his side, citing a University of Chicago study of every U.S. county. John R. Lott Jr. of the School of Law and David Mustard of the Department of Economics found that "Shall issue" laws — which require officials to issue permits to carry concealed firearms — deter violent crimes and "appear to produce no increase in accidental deaths."

Golden also cited a more contemporary thinker: radio talk-show host — and observant Jew — Laura Schlessinger.

"Even before the horror of the most recent attack on children in a Los Angeles Jewish center near my home, I was in the process of making up my mind to find a nice police officer or sheriff to teach me how to responsibly fire a gun," Schlessinger said in a prepared statement, citing the hate rhetoric that proliferates on the World Wide Web.

Discussing the formation of his own attitude toward guns, Schechter talked about a childhood in which shooting at bottles, cans or quails was de rigueur.

"My parents had property in the Catskills, and I ran wild," he said. "My dad showed me how to shoot a BB gun. Then when I was 10 or 11, I got a .22 [caliber]. He showed me how to use it, and I had a back stop." He also practiced at a shooting range in the basement of his New York City high school. Many schools had shooting teams, he said.

"The people who are trying to sell gun control have never even handled a gun," Schechter said. "The Jewish community [in America] is not well-educated in firearms."

Israelis have "a whole different mindset" from that of Americans, who are largely children of the European diaspora, he said. "Somehow I can't imagine Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion saying, 'Please, everyone! Turn in your guns. You might hurt yourselves.'"

Schechter is not one to give up. He called the offices of California's Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein at the anniversary of Kristallnacht to invite them to the shooting range for a free lesson, coffee and bagels included. Neither responded, he said, laughing.

He had better luck speaking to Sacramento's Mosaic Law Congregation, where an elderly woman shared memories of shooting targets with her late husband, an Air Force veteran.

"I feel the Jewish community is making an enormous mistake" in supporting efforts to curb gun ownership, Schechter said. "People don't have a complete picture. Not all voices have been heard, because not everyone has been invited to sit down at the table, including me."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.