In the trees high above my head, I can hear the twittering of birds — until the resounding “Crack!” of a shotgun rings out.
“OK, now this one has more of a kick,” says David Wolf, handing me a smaller short-barreled handgun. “How much more?” I ask, nervously. He laughs. “You’ll see.”
“Ears on!” says Wolf, as he and Deborah Erbstein snap on large black headphones. I close one eye, try to line up the dot on the end of the barrel as precisely as I can with the red bull’s-eye at the center of the target and squeeze the trigger. My arms fly upward of their own volition, and I feel an empty shell casing bounce off the edge of my glasses and fall to the ground. Behind me, Wolf chuckles. “Told you it had a kick.”
Wolf and Erbstein are lawyers at the downtown Pittsburgh firm of Goldberg, Kamin and Garvin, LLP, which claims it “represents the largest gun collectors association in Western Pennsylvania.” Today, they have brought me to the Pitcairn-Monroeville Sportsmen’s Club, of which they are both members. They often take clients shooting there, because it’s “much quicker and costs substantially less … than golfing.”
Western Pennsylvania was once considered this country’s frontier, and its gun culture is still very much alive. But the mass shooting three weeks ago in Charleston, S.C.’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which nine people were killed, has revived the debate over America’s gun culture.
NRA member and Squirrel Hill resident Al Dubinsky says the right to bear arms is sacrosanct because “it exists to protect all the others.” Dubinsky founded his own shooting group around 10 years ago, the Shalashooters — a play on the phrase Shalosh Suedot, the traditional third meal eaten on Shabbat — which draws most of its members from Congregation Poale Zedek in Squirrel Hill (although the group itself is not affiliated with the synagogue). He did so, he says, because “everyone should know how to shoot, just like everyone should know how to drive stick shift” and because shooting is “more fun together.”
Hirsch Dlinn, another NRA member living in Squirrel Hill, says that the Second Amendment’s importance lies in the fact that “in any government that wants to be a tyranny, the first thing they do is take away this ability to defend yourself. And that’s how they continue to take away the rest of the rights.” The Second Amendment functions as “a reset button to make sure the First Amendment doesn’t go away.”
Dlinn, Dubinsky and Wolf all agree that gun control doesn’t work. Criminals, they say, aren’t bothering to obtain guns through proper, legal channels anyhow. Instead of targeting criminals, they add, existing laws simply make it harder for ordinary people to obtain weapons, which not only limits their right to bear arms, but makes it harder for them to defend themselves, if the need arises.
“Every mass shooting is always done in a gun-free zone,” says Dlinn, citing the school shootings that have rocked the country in recent years as well as the shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in 2012. “You never see a shooter go into a shooting range and start shooting up the shooting range. That doesn’t happen. They go into places where they know there are no guns. That’s where they’re going to go to do something, because they know there’s going to be no resistance.”
If one of the Bible study members at the Emanuel A.M.E. church would have been armed, “the tragedy would have been averted,” or, at least mitigated, in Dubinsky’s view.
Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, who is also Jewish, says that she finds this argument “offensive to the victims and to people who do not want to arm themselves.”
These local Jewish gun advocates are quick to point out that a wide array of instruments, beyond guns, can be used to harm people intentionally — cars, knives, even power tools — but do not face scrutiny for lack of regulation.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, dismisses this as a “specious” argument, given that anything can be misappropriated. He says guns were created “for one purpose — that is to kill,” stressing that “if we lined up all the deaths that occur at the hands of an umbrella or a baseball bat and juxtapose that with all that occur on the wrong end of an AK-47 or a Glock handgun,” the comparison would be stark.
Says Erbstein: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
That’s a refrain Pesner says he has heard for years, to which he responds, “Sure, people kill people — using guns.”
As for why America sees exponentially more gun violence than other industrialized countries — England, Israel, Japan — Wolf blames a lack of education, explaining that if children were properly trained in gun safety, the number of accidents would go down. He cites Israel as proof, saying that many first encounters with guns there take place during military training, when users are also being taught proper handling, safety and respect.
Pesner believes the problem stems from a “certain kind of mythology about protecting the homestead, the Wild West, the kind of stand-your-ground right” that is bound up with American values. Goodman agrees, adding that access to guns here is still too easy.
Goodman and Pesner say that their aim is not to stop all gun ownership. “We have guns in our society, they’re not going to disappear,” says Pesner. “Let’s just be smart and sensible about how to regulate them.”
Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.