Mitchell Cohen’s own mother has called him a “Jewish redneck.”
The product of a liberal Brooklyn family, Cohen is a National Rifle Association shooting instructor and a passionate advocate of the Second Amendment.
The 50-year-old resident of Jackson, N.J. — who first fired a weapon at Boy Scouts camp — says that his stance on the issue is steeped in his reading of both the American Revolution and the Holocaust.
Don’t get him wrong: Cohen said he was deeply saddened by the killing last month of 20 first graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. But he sees little chance that any of the proposed gun control measures would have prevented the killings.
“I’m a collector,” said the father of two young children, who keeps his firearms locked up. “If you could tell me that confiscating my 20 firearms would bring back those beautiful children — or prevent it from happening in the future — I would gladly give them all up.
“Most people react to these terrible events that have been taking place with raw emotion,” he continued. This is understandable, “but logic needs to be used when discussing how to address the issue. This is especially important because new gun control laws only have an effect on the law abiding — not on bad people who intend to do harm.”
The overwhelming majority of Jewish individuals and organizations back additional gun control measures. There’s also a widespread perception that — Israeli soldiers aside — nice Jewish boys and girls just don’t shoot guns.
Cohen may sit squarely in the minority on the gun control debate in the Jewish world, but he’s certainly not alone.
From 2005 to 2007, the National Rifle Association was led by a Jewish woman from Arizona, Sandra Froman.
And, in the last four weeks, as talk of new gun legislation has ratcheted up, the national group, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, says it has seen its ranks increase by 10 percent, to about 5,700.
The group advocates five “kosher” (their term) gun laws and opposes all others. The list includes the idea that if an individual criminally misuses a gun, he or she should lose the right to bear arms, which is essentially the current law. The group also proposes that any government official who unlawfully denies a citizen his or her Second Amendment rights should be fined or imprisoned.
Drawing on constitutional and logistical arguments, a number of local Jewish gun owners asserted that the current background check system is adequate and that efforts to limit the size of magazines will make little difference because ammunition can be changed in a second or two.
And don’t get any of them started on a proposed assault weapons ban, which they claim is a misnomer.
“Almost no civilians possess a real military assault weapon,” said Richard Tems, who lives in Doylestown and is a member of the Bucks County Fish and Game Association. His parents may have opposed guns in their home, he said, but he first gained exposure to shooting at summer camp, where riflery is still often offered as an elective.
Tems said he keeps firearms for protection and enjoys target clay shooting with a semi-automatic shotgun. He has a collection of historic weapons such as the M1 Garand, which is also a semi-automatic weapon.
“I also occasionally hunt wild boar,” said the 64-year-old businessman and conservative activist.
He said the push for new gun control laws is an effort to restrict liberty. “The left hates an armed citizenry because an armed citizenry is a free citizenry and they want to control the citizenry.”
He argued that gun control laws don’t prevent violence, pointing out that Chicago, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, had more than 500 murders last year, while sparsely populated North Dakota has some of the weakest laws and saw 15 homicides in the same time period.
Several Jewish gun advocates said their views on firearms were deeply influenced by the history of persecution against the Jews, particularly during the Holocaust.
In 1938, Germany passed a law forbidding Jews to own firearms of any kind. Five years later, the armed and vastly outmatched Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto was able to hold off the German military for an entire month.
Dr. Nelson Wolf, who teaches interventional cardiology at Temple University’s medical school, said he’s always wondered how many fewer Jews would have died in the Holocaust if more could have been armed and trained in weaponry.
“I can’t understand how any Jew can be ultimately trustful of any government,” said Wolf, a 70-year-old resident of Wynnewood who belongs to several gun clubs. “Governments cannot take weapons away from people. They can vet people, they can run background checks. But if it ever comes to the time where they confiscate weapons from law-abiding people, that government becomes illegal.”
In the 1970s, Wolf said, he adopted a pro-gun position politically; only afterwards did he become an avid target shooter, teaching both his son and daughter how to fire a weapon. He has long considered owning firearms a form of protection, though he declined to specify the types of firearms he owns.
Growing up the son of a police officer in California, Jared-Ben Caro says he was always around guns during his youth.
“You don’t see a firearm as a bad thing. You see it as a tool of the trade. You need to be safe with it and respect its potential,” said Ben-Caro, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Northern Liberties.
Ben-Caro, who started a firm here that offers security and firearms training, said that he, like gun control advocates, hopes to prevent future atrocities. But he thinks the answer lies with better security and trained citizens owning and carrying guns.
“The problem here is not with citizens owning guns,” said Ben-Caro, a 28-year-old former Israeli paratrooper who made aliyah, lived in Israel several years and fought in Gaza in Israel’s war with Hamas in 2008-09. “There is a deplorable lack of security at our schools,” he said, adding that armed guards at schools, which is largely the scenario in Israel, would dissuade most would-be attackers.
“I understand the Jewish mentality that we want to live in an ideal world where no one can harm us,” he added. “Since that world does not exist, we have to protect ourselves.”