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Meet the southern, Orthodox face of gun rights

Liel Leibovitz
March 29, 2011
Bill Bernstein.(Eric England/Nashville Scene)
Bill Bernstein.(Eric England/Nashville Scene)

At first glance, Bill Bernstein—an Ivy League-educated, ultra-Orthodox, conservative gun dealer—seems like a perfect fit for a profile in the Nashville Scene, a local weekly magazine with a penchant for covering its town’s more peculiar citizens. The article shows Bernstein in a host of gosh-darn-wouldn’t-you-believe-it situations: Shooting an AR-15 in the woods with a German buddy, reading the megillah on Purim, taking a stab at Holocaust humor, referring to the popular German handgun Heckler and Koch as “Hitler’s Cock”—all against the backdrop of a corner of Tennessee the writer describes as the “Bible Belt’s buckle.” It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, if fish had peyes and semi-automatic firearms.

But the “quirky local color” aspect crumbles as soon as Bernstein is given the opportunity to speak on the record. Far from a charming kook, he is one of the more eloquent spokesmen for gun rights that I—myself a strong advocate of same—have heard in a long time.

When he is asked, for example, why people should have guns, Bernstein replies, “The bigger question is, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’ Guns do lots and lots of different things, just like any tool. Some provide self-defense, some provide sporting opportunities, some provide hunting. … Whatever activities that particular gun implies, people should have the right to do that.” He correctly mentions the overall failure of gun control programs to effectively fight crime, and is on target when he lectures a customer about the terrific responsibility that comes with taking a gun into one’s hand: If you shoot someone, he says, seemingly without much of his customary bravado, you have to be ready for the burdensome possibility of taking a life.

Bottom line? We gun enthusiasts are not necessarily nutjobs—even if we sometimes seem as out of place in polite society as, well, an Oxford-trained Orthodox Jew in the woods of Tennessee.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.