Jewish gunshop owner closing store cites unfair taxes

If anyone was wondering what a nice Jewish girl was doing in the gun business, the question is now moot.

After 57 years, Siegle's Guns on West MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland is closing its doors at the end of the month. Siegle's became Jewish-owned in 1993, when Mara Siegle's husband died, leaving her in charge of running the family business.

Siegle's is the second Jewish-owned gun store to close because of a new tax levied upon gun dealers. The San Francisco Gun Exchange, owned by brother and sister Bob and Beth Posner, closed in September 1999.

In 1998, following the lead of San Francisco, Oakland residents passed Measure D, which levied a tax on gun dealers. Ever since, the store has had to pay $24 for every $1,000 earned, in comparison to the $1.20 per $1,000 that Oakland retailers normally pay. The tax is not limited to weapons, but is imposed upon all of the store's merchandise, which includes books, fishing gear and other outdoor equipment.

"No business can stay in business paying that kind of tax," Siegle said last week in the back of the store, while preparing for another day in her going-out-of-business sale. "And that's exactly what they wanted."

In the front of the store, where deer heads decorated the walls, gaps were beginning to show amid the glass cases of pistols and racks of rifles. Signs announced drastic reductions.

In the office, employees with holsters on their hips frequently interrupted Siegle to ask if she needed anything or tell her who was on the phone.

Although visibly harried, Siegle took a few moments before the store opened to talk about her experience as a Jewish woman in the gun business.

Her father-in-law, Robert Siegle, opened the shop in 1943, and her husband, James Siegle, ran it until he died of cancer in 1993.

Mara Siegle was a product of the '60s and grew up "on the other side of the fence" of the gun issue, she said.

Although a number of Jewish groups are campaigning for gun control, Siegle said that over the years, several Jewish gun-owners have told her they believe Jews should own guns to defend themselves.

People who don't hunt and shoot for recreation don't understand, she said, but moreover, Jews who are so staunchly anti-gun "don't see this side of it because they don't try to."

One Jew who does see her side is David Golden. An activist and member of the Golden Gate chapter of the National Rifle Association, Golden said, "Firearm prohibition, like alcohol and drug prohibition, is certain to create a black market in firearms that will empower drug dealers, neo-Nazis and the common criminal." He added that all members of minority groups, Jews included, have the right to defend themselves.

Golden alerted the Jewish Bulletin to the closing of Siegle's, taking the newspaper to task for its extensive coverage of the Million Mom March in May, which he called the "Muddled Mom's March." The Washington, D.C., march, along with its local counterpart in Oakland, called for greater gun control restrictions, and Jewish organizations rallied to support the event.

One such group was the American Jewish Congress, which in September launched its own "Stop the Guns" campaign, calling for members and concerned citizens to sign a petition demanding stricter gun legislation.

Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of AJCongress, expressed sympathy for Mara Siegle's financial plight. But she added that she was "embarrassed that any Jew would be involved in gun dealing."

"Except for hunting rifles, the sole purpose of weapons is to kill people," Salkowitz said. "Judaism cherishes life, and to support weapons of destruction is antithetical to our tradition."

She described herself as "delighted" that the store was closing.

Siegle had been a stay-at-home mom until her husband died, only coming into the store once or twice a week to pay the bills.

The business "was just dropped into my lap," she said. While she ran the store "as a matter of survival," longtime employees of her husband's recommended as a business tactic that she stay in the office rather than be visible behind the counter. Her response was to fire them.

"I surrounded myself with employees who knew what they were doing," she said.

While managing a profitable business under such circumstances was enough of a challenge, "then I had to encounter city politics, state politics and federal politics," she said.

That was the death knell. Outside the store, customers began lining up half an hour before it was to open, to take advantage of some last-minute deals. A group of men cursed the city for forcing Siegle's out of business, saying it was the wrong way to fight crime.

Norm Gephart, a San Ramon resident who had shopped at Siegle's for four years, called the closing "about as rotten a deal as anyone could cook up."

Siegle couldn't agree more. With her sons 15 and 17, she doesn't know what she'll do for income. "I need a job," she said.

A hand-lettered sign in back posted the phone number of the unemployment office, for the benefit of Siegle's five full-time employees. The sign said, "You paid for it, use it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."