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.
Nobody bothered anybody simply because of who they were, and that meant a lot to the grandmother who raised him. Tattooed on her arm, she carried a numbered keepsake of a different place and time.
Aaron, like other boys of the wide-open West, learned to shoot. But he was more interested in his history classes about the way people repeatedly set up others for annihilation by taking away their guns. The British marched on Lexington to seize the colonists’ powder and shot; the Union blockaded the Confederacy to disarm it; the cavalry hanged men who sold Winchesters to the Indians.
At Aaron’s bar mitzvah — a dark, mumbling affair at Tucson’s stuffy Orthodox shul — one of Grandma’s ancient friends gripped his arm with a veiny tattooed claw and rasped, “Understand, we couldn’t defend ourselves.”
It wasn’t until 1989, though, after a successful career as a brassiere salesman, that Aaron decided that he wanted to devote his life to ending gun control — all of it. He wanted the world back as it was when he was young, when no laws at all governed gun purchases or gun ownership, and firearms were sold, and mailed, as freely as kitchen supplies.
As he saw it, every time America pushed for more gun control, the people behind it were Jews. That Jewish legislators should support the disarming of civilians, after what had happened to Jews in Europe, seemed to him the worst kind of myopic self-delusion. “Howard Metzenbaum, Charles Schumer, Dianne Feinstein — she’s the granddaughter of Polish Jews!”
Aaron shook his head. Behind thick glasses, his eyes were huge and mournful.
“Jews have been on the wrong end of the gun, the crossbow and the sword forever. It’s that fawning desire for acceptance that’s always our downfall.”
Guns, as Aaron saw it, were the Jews’ path to long-term survival — and not only in Israel but in America, as well. If Jews could defend themselves with guns, they’d never again have to shuffle off to the boxcars.
When I started to ask about his interpretation of the Second Amendment, he cut me off.
“Second Amendment this, Second Amendment that. What if the Second Amendment were repealed? I’m talking about something that precedes the Second Amendment by eons. I’m talking about something that comes from God. I’m talking about preserving life. For Jews, that’s more than a right,” he said. “In the Bible, it’s an obligation.”
Mainstream Jews shunned him, he said. “The Jewish Federation doesn’t like me. The ADL doesn’t like me.” He took a joyless sip of water. “At the shul we belong to now, I make a point of not talking about what I do, because there are Holocaust survivors there who argue with me.
“But you know, in all the time we’ve been doing this, nobody’s ever said, ‘Oh, Zelman, you’re wrong, and here’s the proof.’ Time after time, the gun laws were there. The laws were enforced. And the genocides happened. Bodies don’t lie. And people who think it can’t happen here? Ask Japanese Americans, the American Indians, the African Americans. They’ll tell you it can happen here, because it already has.”
Aaron died later that year, on December 21, 2010.
You can still visit JPFO online — the logo is an electrifying red, white and blue Jewish star flanked by a musket and a machine gun — and Aaron’s two books are still available. “Death by ‘Gun Control’” examines nine 20th-century genocides — including in Rwanda, Cambodia and Ottoman Turkey — and the gun bans or restrictions that preceded them.
“‘Gun Control’: Gateway to Tyranny” reveals that Senator Thomas Dodd, who was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, asked the Library of Congress to translate Hitler’s 1938 gun-control laws into English so that he could consult them when working on the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Neither book made much of a splash. But I still think about Aaron.
Dan Baum is the author of “Gun Guys: A Road Trip” (Knopf, 2013).