Powerful Gun Lobby Takes Aim With First Jewish Leader

By Josh Richman

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Guns were not a big deal in Sandy Froman’s life — until an intruder tried to break into her Los Angeles apartment one night about 25 years ago. Now she is the first Jewish person and only the second woman to serve as president of the National Rifle Association.

“I think the traditional belief on the part of most people is that Jews tend to be extremely liberal and liberals tend to be anti-gun,” Froman told the Forward.

Bucking such stereotypes, Froman, a 56-year-old lawyer from Tucson, Ariz., assumed the top NRA post earlier this year. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO, runs the organization’s daily affairs but Froman is the public face of the powerhouse lobby, which boasts 3.5 million members, 550 staffers and a $120 million annual budget.

The NRA is “at the top of our political game in a lot of ways,” she said.

In 2004, the organization staved off efforts to renew the federal assault weapon ban. Late last month, it won a years-long struggle for Senate passage of a bill that will immunize gun makers and sellers from civil liability lawsuits. And now the organization is working to ensure that the next U.S. Supreme Court justice shares its expansive view of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Such efforts put Froman on the opposite side of the bulk of American Jewish organizations. The NRA’s list of national groups with anti-gun policies includes the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, the Jewish Labor Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union for Reform Judaism. And the list of national anti-gun figures includes three leaders of the Reform movement: URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie; Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president emeritus of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

In an address during the Million Mom March in May 2000, Yoffie declared that “indiscriminate distribution of guns is an offense against God and humanity” and that “we are ready for a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred battle against the NRA, which is the real criminals’ lobby in this country, and which is drenched in the blood of murdered children.”

This month, Yoffie told the Forward that he found Froman’s views “clearly and plainly” out of sync with the American Jewish majority.

Yoffie said advocating for “the ability of anyone to have a gun at any time” is “disastrous”: “There’s no support in Jewish sources or in Jewish historical experience that would justify such a position.”

Froman told the Forward that her Jewish identity helps inform her regarding her NRA work, but she steered clear of citing past oppression of Jews as a motivating factor. She criticized Yoffie’s harsh anti-NRA pro-gun-control rhetoric.

“I don’t believe in ranting and raving about things,” she said. “I do believe people ought to have a positive educational experience with firearms before they make up their minds about whether firearms will be part of their lives.”

Froman — one of seven Jews on the NRA’s 76-member board of directors — believes that there are “a lot of Reform Jews who probably feel more like I do than like he does,” but keep quiet for fear of criticism. “And why would he deny me, a Jewish woman who lives alone, the right to protect myself against an intruder intent on doing me bodily harm?”

Such an incident a quarter-of-a-century ago served as the turning point for Froman.

The assailant that tried to break into her Los Angeles apartment fled before police arrived. Froman soon sought firearm-safety training and bought a handgun. Later, after concluding that gun owners were mistreated and misunderstood, she joined the NRA and has served on its board for more than a decade.

Before the attempted break-in, she said, “I didn’t have any feelings about guns one way or the other…and it surprises me even now that I came to the point where I am today, given my upbringing.”

Froman said she grew up 10 miles south of San Francisco, the older of two daughters of a civilian U.S. Navy employee and a department-store secretary, in what she described as “a typical middle-class suburban household.” It was not, she added, “what I would call really religious.”

“My parents… did not force me to follow whatever feelings they had about social issues. Instead, they encouraged me to read and to learn,” said Froman, who graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School.

Froman’s most famous predecessor, actor Charlton Heston, was known for his declaration that government agents would have to pry his guns “from my cold, dead hands.” Froman seems to be striking a less defiant tone, saying that she hopes “inclusivity” will be the watchword of her tenure. She wants to reach out to women, Jews and anyone else who shares her self-defense concerns. “A lot of women just don’t know how empowering it is to learn to use a firearm safely and responsibly and to be prepared to defend yourself and your children if necessary,” she said.

Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, suggested that Jews “should immediately get to work giving [Froman] the wisdom she needs because she ain’t got it at the moment.”

“If her policy views prevail, we’ll discover over time that the answer to the problems in the West Bank is more guns: We need to arm the Palestinians and arm the settlers with more guns, and there’ll be nothing but peace forever more,” Hamm said. “She is, along with many others that are connected with the National Rifle Association, an extremist who believes that we need more guns in society and that an armed society is a polite society.”

Froman called Hamm’s West Bank analogy “very amusing,” before dismissing it as “extremist.”

“I think his comment is ridiculous,” she said. “They’re desperate, they’re losing ground with the American people, the NRA is gaining ground and they’re trying to pick a fight. Those kind of statements are not made by people who have confidence in their position.”

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