On a recent Sunday morning, a group of 16 Jewish men and one woman piled into firing lanes at the Israeli-owned Gun Range on North Percy Street in Center City, where they picked up a gun, peered through its sights and fired.
An explosive sound cracked the air in the enclosed space. That was almost all that could be heard through the earplugs and earmuffs the attendees wore. Still, the gunshots were more than capable of leaving ears ringing.
The group that day had come to get acquainted — or re-acquainted — with guns. With the deadly synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh fresh on their minds, many felt it was time to wake up and learn to defend themselves. They didn’t want to abdicate their self-defense to the police, a security guard or anyone else.
“We can’t be the victims anymore,” attendee Louis Lassoff, 57, said.
Lassoff never saw himself as the sort of person who would ever use or carry a gun. When he was growing up, his family worked in real estate and dealt with a lot of distressed properties. One of their responsibilities included boarding up properties, a sometimes dangerous task, so his father and brother carried guns, but he didn’t. He carried a baseball bat instead.
Now, he’s starting to re-evaluate that position, and he’s not the only one.
Like Lassoff, some of the attendees there hadn’t shot a firearm in a long time. Others had never shot a gun, while a few were longtime gun owners.
Lassoff said he came to the range to learn the basics of firearm safety and how to shoot. Maybe in the future, once he’s had more practice, he’ll actually make the purchase.
“It’s becoming the reality with all this anti-Semitism,” Lassoff said. “It’s becoming the unfortunate reality that we need to protect ourselves.”
Increased interest in firearms is probably not unique to Jewish people and the environment after the shooting in Pittsburgh. Generally after shootings, gun sales and gun manufacturer stocks rise. Bloomberg reported that gun sales also spike around court decisions and changes to gun laws.
About 10 a.m. on Dec. 9, the group began arriving at The Gun Range. They first gathered in a small wooden room off of the main entrance room to discuss self-defense laws and practice gun safety. Organizer Lee Bender and The Gun Range owner Yuri Zalzman led the discussion.
“After Pittsburgh, it woke some people up,” said Bender, who stressed he did not put this event together as part of his involvement with any particular organization. “It’s time to get woke.”
Bender has organized excursions to The Gun Range for three or four years now, he said. People in the Jewish community were talking about security, as well as anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which motivated him to arrange the excursions. He’s taken about a dozen groups over the years, with perhaps five or six people each.
He’s been “hearing the pulse” of the community and felt like now after Pittsburgh was the time to arrange a few more of these outings.
He was right about the interest. He has so far organized two excursions to The Gun Range on Dec. 2 and Dec. 9. Twenty people came to the first one, and 17 to the second. A few people also told him they were interested in coming but for various reasons haven’t been able to make it. The demand is such that Bender is planning on putting more of these shooting event together in 2019.
“This is an important skill, I sincerely believe, for Jews to have,” said Bender, who came with his son, Justin. “While we’re not politically motivated to encourage people to make a purchase of a firearm for themselves or have one at home, get a license to carry — that’s a personal decision. It is still extremely important that we have the mindset that we need to defend ourselves.”
After the discussion, Zalzman directed the attendees to practice holding different guns. He also provided some safety instructions. Don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re planning to shoot, he said. Don’t pass the gun directly from person-to-person, don’t point the gun at someone and always check the chamber for a bullet.
“You can’t walk away from the fact that you’re a Jew in the galut,” Zalzman said, referring to living in the Diaspora. “You have to realize that your self-preservation depends on you. You can’t abdicate that responsibility. You can’t put it on some guard that gets paid 20 bucks an hour and may or may not do their job when the time comes.”
There has been a core group of regular Jewish attendees for a while, Zalzman noted. The difference between that and now is that there is an influx of people who in their past had never before considered owning or even touching a firearm.
After practicing, the group returned to the main room, where they handed IDs to the people behind the desk and filled out waivers. They also put on proper ear and eye protection.
Then they were ready to shoot.
They exited through another door, into a small intermediary room and then out into the firing range, where partitioned sections greeted them. They took turns shooting at a target, maybe a bullseye or a silhouette of a person.
Edward Rubinstein, 69, was one of the attendees there more familiar with firearms. In fact, he owns one. He also has a concealed carry license. He made the decision to obtain the gun and license in 2008 to protect himself, but also, because he was concerned about the possibility of increasing gun control making it more difficult to own a firearm.
He brought his Springfield 9 mm to the range with him to practice. He used to practice once every few months, but that stopped after a shoulder injury in 2015.
He had been wanting to practice with it once again when he received an email from Bender inviting him to the shooting event. It seemed like a good way to get back in the game.
“It was louder than I remembered,” Rubinstein said, reflecting on the event.
He grew up in a family that was neither pro- or anti-gun. During the ’80s, his viewpoint on gun control and firearm usage developed to what it is today.
“I’m a believer in the Second Amendment,” Rubinstein said. “We do have a right and a responsibility to defend ourselves should it become necessary.”
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