I always thought Jews avoided guns.
As a kid, I didn’t know of any gun ranges near my New Jersey suburb, because taking me to one would have been the last thing my gentle, mercantile father would have dreamed of. Neither my parents nor anybody in their circle of suburban Reform Jewish Democrats ever hunted or owned a gun. “Jews make guns and sell guns,” my mother’s friend Bubbles said once, with a gravelly laugh. “We don’t shoot guns.”
About halfway into the reporting for my latest book, “Gun Guys,” which I had intended largely as an anthropological journey into the world of gun culture, I realized that I couldn’t entirely avoid gun politics. I had to grapple with the fight over gun rights because nearly every gun owner I met — from an African-American concealed-carry instructor in Detroit to a women’s run-and-gun champion in Kentucky — brought up our country’s endless struggle over them.
Being wary of bullies and shouters, I went looking for an honest, reasonable and soft-spoken gun-rights activist to take me by the hand and explain his worldview. I expected a compromiser, but to my surprise, the man best able to give me the gun-rights viewpoint without raising his voice was the founder of an organization widely revered by gun-rights activists as so absolutist that it made the National Rifle Association look like a bunch of milk-and-water sissies.
He was a courtly, learned, likable man of 64 named Aaron Zelman, and when I first heard the name of his organization I thought it was a joke: Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.
Aaron met me at the Mineshaft, a big saloon-style restaurant in downtown Hartford, Wis., about an hour from Milwaukee. He was 6 feet 7 inches tall and achingly thin; in a big straw hat, he looked a little like Pete Seeger.
“The NRA doesn’t want to end gun control,” he told me, between nibbles of his Golden Skittle Special (hold the ham). “They get too much out of it. The NRA is interested in one thing: the NRA.”
Aaron grew up on a dirt road outside Tucson, Ariz. As he recalled it, the Mexicans lived their way, the cowboys theirs, the Indians theirs and the Jews theirs.