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Straight shooting for 21st-century Jews

What's a nice suburban middle-aged Jew like me doing enjoying target practice at the local gun range?
Illustrative photo via iStock
Illustrative photo via iStock

The conversation began like this:

“When they come for us, I’m not going without a fight.”

“No, definitely not. I’d rather die trying.”

“We’d have to have a gun.”

“We’d have to know how to use it.”

My husband and I were eating dinner on our deck. Probably it was a dish I had made from one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, accompanied by a nice Oregon Pinot Noir. The contrast between bougie suburban life in the early part of the 21st century and this dire, proto-apocalyptic scenario we were conjuring was ludicrous.

And yet.

The conversation had started more conventionally, as we discussed our growing unease about where we fit in America. That as Jews, we are being juiced for political folly, something that never ends well for us. It hardly matters whether it’s another one of President Trump’s Twitter storms from the right or more from Representatives Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib on the left. We Jews are monkey in the middle.

Which is how my spouse and I ended up creating our storm trooper dystopian scenario and what we could do if they —whoever they might be — came for us. And all this was well before the local Republicans issued their “Storm is Brewing” gem of a video, insisting it’s haredi Jews who are coming for everyone else. “If they win. We lose,” it proclaims to an ominously overwrought soundtrack.

But if you aren’t going to go quietly, you probably need a gun. (We don’t own one.) And if you own a gun, you probably, just maybe, ought to know how to fire one. Seriously.

Neither of us was ready to buy a firearm. Both of us are in favor of gun control and we both are horrified by each new-and-improved mass shooting this country manages to serve up. Somehow, though, we were able to put all that aside, ending up at Gun for Hire in Clifton, N.J. firing not one but two types of 9 mm handguns into targets.

But not the side of the target that looks like a person. Please.

What had seemed comical driving down there — two middle-aged Jews going on a shooting jaunt — morphed into stomach churn when we arrived. Why on earth was I doing this? I’m a native Texan, but I have never owned a firearm. Shooting was mostly something I had done at camp and was limited to a 22-gauge rifle and a 17-gauge shotgun. When I got older, a good friend used to invite me to his parent’s home, an hour’s drive outside of Dallas, where we would shoot rifles and handguns at targets and bottles set up on bushes.

Growing up, I only knew one Jewish family that had a gun, and the only reason I knew that was because their son had killed himself with it.

Guns reeked of terror and fear. Something you did not want to have around the house. But until you’ve fired one and put a bullet through the center of a tiny target, you don’t really understand that they also can be a lot of fun.

The staff at Gun for Hire must see plenty of people like me each day. The place was unlike anything I expected. (Tactical gear? Guys dressed in black? Condescension at my gun illiteracy?) They tout family friendliness, which has its own issues in my mind, but they seemed to know how to put everyone at ease. Two women greeted us at the entrance (there were many women, both staff and customers), and we handed over our drivers’ licenses. They sent us to a classroom, along with a bunch of other newbies, including a haredi couple, to fill out forms and sign off on a bunch of waivers saying we won’t hold them responsible if the worst possible thing we can imagine going wrong does.

Then we waited in line to pick our weapon and buy the ammo. Another young woman guided us through our choices, and eventually helped us select two guns, one a very lightweight model, the other heavier but easier to handle. She suggested an AR-15 rifle, the rifle of choice for several mass shooting in this country, and one of their most popular. It’s serious. It’s threatening. It looks like every kid’s dream gun. We declined.

We snapped protective blinkers on the sides of our glasses, shoved special earmuffs over our ears, and entered the shooting range with our target, guns, and box of ammunition. There, a nice guy with a beard, who could have been a Brooklyn hipster in another setting, walked us through how to load the magazine and operate the guns over the constant muffled pop, pop, pop we heard all around us.

We set up the target, sent it several yards away, and loaded the first gun. The gun sounds are muffled, but they are constant and still quite loud, and no one warns you that you’ll actually feel the re-percussion of hundreds of bullets firing. You lay the gun down in the port before the next person takes it; you never turn around and hand it to them or point it anywhere but the target. But it’s easy to imagine that someone could turn around and just go berserk. What’s to stop them? I guess a room filled with other armed people?

In the port next to us was the haredi couple we’d seen in the paperwork classroom. They had taken a handgun and the AR-15. From our port, I could see bursts of flame from their barrel as they shot at a target that had the image of a man whose guts and heart were graphically represented.

I kind of wondered what an ultra-Orthodox couple was doing there. My husband’s response: Same as us. And probably the haredim feel more vulnerable than we do, given they are often targeted with actual physical violence, in addition to the slur-ridden rhetoric of social media and local political ads.

The haredi couple seemed so … unlikely, but then so did we. So did everyone at Gun for Hire, for that matter. It was probably the most multicultural space I’ve been to in a long time. It was the United States’ veritable melting pot —African-Americans, Hispanics, Pakistanis, Koreans, white folks, suburban Jews, ultra-Orthodox, seniors, kids — coming together over the smell of cordite and a blaze of bullets, a patchwork celebration that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

And if not a celebration, then an uncomfortable reckoning with it.

I can’t lie. I enjoyed the experience. It feels pretty cool to hit the center of a target and there’s a feeling of power tied up in all of my dread. But I also felt relieved when I left; like, thank God, I’d gotten that out of my system.

I’m not ready to buy a gun. I likely never will be. But I’m also not ready to go quietly. I just hope it never comes to a choice between the two.

About the Author
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York.
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