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Liberals meet to talk politics, shoot guns and support the Second Amendment

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One of Shooting Liberally's many female members gets to grip with the ammo. (Stanley Sherman)

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Members of Shooting Liberally reload, with Stanley Sherman on the left. (Stanley Sherman)

Inside a Manhattan basement shooting range, Stanley Sherman raised a .22-caliber rifle to his bearded cheek and fired off 10 quick shots at a paper target, the tinkle of brass shell casings punctuating each round. Retrieving the target, the Manhattan resident turned, grinning maniacally, and held it up to the small crowd behind a soundproof window: 10 small holes inside the bull’s eye.

Sherman is the founding member of New York's “Shooting Liberally” chapter, one of three chapters nationally encouraging liberals to enjoy gun play without shame. Traditionally, conservatives have defended the Constitutional right to bear arms. But the three-month-old movement challenges the idea that fun with guns is the preserve of the political and social right--and offers liberals a new way to connect and share their ideas.

“This shoots to hell the theory about guns and liberals,” said Sherman, a maker of theatrical masks in his fifties who said he has been heavily involved in liberal politics for most of his adult life. The group has no official position on gun control but the majority appear to take a progressive stance on the issue.

Sherman set up the group in February after hearing the story of a liberal friend, who, while on a hunting trip with her grandfather, was instructed not to embarrass him by letting his friends know that she was a Democrat. “It would be nice to erase that divide,” said Sherman.

The National Rifle Association has often encouraged that divide in recent years. The 4-million member lobbying group, one of the most powerful in the United States, looked to the ultra-conservative Hollywood actor Charlton Heston to campaign for gun owners’ rights. At the NRA's annual convention in 2000, Heston challenged gun-control advocates, such as former Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore, to pry his rifle “from my cold, dead hands.” (Heston died on April 5.)

That right-leaning reputation isn't accurate, says Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman for the NRA. “The NRA is a bi-partisan organization that works on both sides of the aisle,” she said.

One who isn’t surprised by Shooting Liberally’s liberal slant is Saul Cornell, a history professor at Ohio State University and an expert on the Second Amendment. It is just more evidence, he said, of the bizarre debate that continues to surround gun ownership in the United States. “The discussion provides a great window into the nuttiness of American culture,” said Cornell. “It’s the only thing you can’t explain to people who are not from this country.”

Recently, for instance, a Democratic presidential candidate who has supported stronger gun laws--Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton--boasted on the campaign trail of learning to shoot as a little girl at her grandfather’s cottage. “She’s doing anything to appeal to all voters,” said John Erhardt, 35, an electrical engineer and head of the Denver “Shooting Liberally” group. Erhardt, a Barack Obama supporter, shares a similar story with Clinton: he learned to shoot at his grandfather’s hunting lodge.

“A large portion of Americans grew up hunting and fishing,” he said. “People should be able to enjoy the outdoor environment in many different ways, no matter what their political persuasion.”

Sherman, for his part, thinks there are many “closeted liberals” in the NRA and that many on the political left grew up with guns in the house and want to learn how to use them safely. So far 46 people, mostly women, have attended the New York chapter’s shooting sessions--some have even had to be turned away, says Sherman.

Most of them had heard about “Shooting Liberally” while they were “Drinking Liberally,” or taking part in some other activity organized by the national “Living Liberally” network founded in New York City in 2003 to get liberal and progressive thinkers together informally to talk politics.

“Shooting Liberally” faces some real challenges in New York City, where it is illegal to carry a gun unless it is unloaded and in a locked box. But with more relaxed gun laws in Colorado and Florida, other problems can present themselves. In Charleston Park, Fla., the group is thriving: Liberal gun-toters showed up at the group's first shooting session earlier this year with their own licensed firearms. But in Denver progress has been slower, as traditional gun clubs have opposed the rival group. “Employees at two different gun shops didn't want anything to do with” the group, said Erhardt.

Back in Manhattan, the rounds are spent, and the gathering migrates to a nearby bar, ostensibly to discuss politics. The presidential election is naturally a hot topic of conversation, but Sherman soon moves on to his hippie days in Oregon and conspiracy theories, claiming his phone was tapped for two years by the F.B.I.

As the beers flow, discussion turns to a new slogan for the group. One suggestion is the picture of a bull’s eye with the words, "Shooting Liberally: Aiming for Democracy.”

Dan Donovan, 25, who came to the event after bumping into Sherman at a “Drinking Liberally” event, said he just wanted to know what firing a rifle felt like. “I don't do it as a political thing,” he said. “It's just something I wanted to do.”

Others, while self-professed liberals, really came for another reason: the chance to let off some steam. “We paid our taxes today and are feeling a bit disgruntled about it,” said Jason Horn, a 20-something computer programmer, giggling awkwardly. “That's the reason we came here today."

Email: ljw2121@columbia.edu