Washington — As a child growing up in the Long Island suburb of Lawrence, N.Y., Richard Feldman, the National Rifle Association’s first Jewish lobbyist, did not encounter many gun owners. He first held a firearm at the age of 12, at a Jewish summer camp shooting range.
It was only a decade later, when serving on the Cambridge, Mass. police force, that Feldman came to the realization that “gun control does not equal crime control.”
Feldman is one of several activists for gun rights who stand out in a Jewish community that vocally supports regulating and limiting those rights.
Holding top positions in the NRA and public advocacy groups supportive of gun owners’ rights, Jewish gun backers draw on everything from the Holocaust to Israel’s experience in fighting terror to justify the battle against limiting access to guns.
“Jews don’t like to talk about their guns, because it is not politically correct,” said Feldman, a former regional political director for the NRA who now heads the Independent Firearms Owners Association. “People know it is an issue better to avoid.”
The Newtown, Conn., shootings this past December raised the issue of gun control to a top place on the agenda of organized Jewry, not to mention many Jewish members of Congress. Many organizations are not only expressing their support for measures aimed at limiting the sales of certain weapons, but are also seeking to mobilize the community to take a leading role on the issue. Jewish lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives were among the first to introduce legislation supporting gun control following the December 14 shooting rampage that left 27 dead, 20 of them children of just 6 or 7.
But there are prominent Jews on the other side. Feldman, for example, was among the gun rights advocates Vice President Joe Biden invited to the White House for a January 10 dialog on legislation the administration is now developing to curb private citizens’ access to some types of arms and ammo.
The Jewish community has historically strongly supported gun control, although the issue has slipped in recent years to the bottom of the Jewish organizational agenda, reflecting the lack of interest in gun control on the national level.
Jewish support for tougher restrictions on guns is deep rooted. In part, it coincides with the community’s leaning toward the Democratic Party and toward the liberal side of the political spectrum. It’s a world in which gun control is part and parcel of a constellation of identifying issues. According to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Jewish support for gun control is also a product of the fact that most American Jews live in metropolitan areas, where guns are more frequently associated with gang wars and drug deals than with firearms in individual homes for self-defense. A wholesome “gun culture” consisting of recreational hunting and target shooting is relatively rare in such areas and, in any case, not popular with Jews.