By Benjamin Brafman, Esq.
As a result of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in Israel this past summer, the slaughter of Jews while praying in a synagogue in Har Nof, and, most recently, the savage murder of so many in Paris, including four Jews in a kosher supermarket, the discussion about arming our civilian population with trained, armed volunteers is once again front and center. Can a purely volunteer civilian “army” help safeguard our families, or is it a recipe for disaster?
People may, for an example, point to Hatzalah, our volunteer ambulance corps that does exceptional lifesaving work with highly trained volunteers who are seemingly always on duty. That is true, yet there is a substantial difference between trained volunteers who respond to medical emergencies and an armed group of volunteers whose duty would be to guard our people against threats and then, if necessary, engage the enemy with the use of deadly force.
Besides the extraordinary cost of maintaining a full-time force that will always be at their stations, we must also worry about the prospect of collateral damage that an armed volunteer can cause when missing his target, for example, or if the weapon falls into the hands of a child or someone not properly trained in the use of guns, or into the hands of a person intent on doing evil.
Real violence and TV violence are not the same. Even highly trained police officers confirm that when real-life shooting begins, the adrenaline rush that kicks in will often cause an experienced officer to empty his weapon even after the immediate threat has been neutralized, resulting in many shootings that were never intended. How do we balance those concerns against the image of an armed terrorist entering a school or house of worship with nobody inside who is trained and armed to respond, leaving us faced with the choice of cowering in fear or fighting armed attackers with our bare hands until our heroic first responders arrive on the scene, hopefully in time to prevent mass murder?
I am worried, however, about encouraging a plan that arms too many civilians. As someone who has spent 40 years in the criminal-justice system, I have been around guns and the people who use them for both good and bad reasons. I have seen the murder and mayhem that weapons can cause when used by criminals, but I also know of many cases in which guns were used by private citizens who, despite their best intentions, caused more harm than good, as well as cases in which a failure to safeguard the weapon resulted in horrific tragedy and the loss of innocent life.
In light of recent events, however, I am convinced that Jews everywhere are now targets of terrorists intent on killing us. Accordingly, I am leaning closer to changing my mind on this issue as I come to grips with the realization that no police force, however superb, can always be everywhere. It is really that simple. When skilled, armed police are not on site, should we as Jews allow ourselves to be slaughtered, or do we take precautions that will give us at least a fighting chance?
Even as I write these words, I am troubled by my own thoughts on this subject, but also comforted by the knowledge that if we seriously consider arming at least some members of our communities, we will approach this issue with the grave concern that serious Jews bring to focus when dealing with all life-and-death issues. While not yet ready to formally recommend this giant step, I am ready to discuss it openly so that we do not wait too long and then have to rush into making a quick decision that may only make a bad situation worse.
Had you asked me this question last year, I would have been quite vigorous in my opposition to placing guns in the hands of civilians, regardless of how well-trained they may be. Today, my answer is different. Today, I am even considering applying for a permit that would allow me to carry a concealed weapon, not because I am a gun nut and not because I perceive myself to be a violent person. I just want to be able to protect my own family and my own shul with something more than my voice or bare hands. Bare hands are good for combat with an unarmed enemy and a strong voice may be good when engaged in debate with a rational adversary. To respond to a rage-fueled terrorist intent on mass murder, however, an effective defense may well require an armed response and, if necessary, the use of carefully applied deadly force.
It would be ideal to have a uniformed presence at every place that Jews gather to pray, study, and even shop, as all such facilities are today vulnerable, soft targets for fanatical, murderous terrorists intent on killing Jews. To maintain a full complement of uniformed personnel on duty at all of these facilities, however, is not realistic and, in most jurisdictions, simply not possible. Even if possible, it would deplete normal policing that a civilized world still desperately needs. A private, non-uniformed staff of licensed private security officers would also be cost-prohibitive for many of the organizations in need.
Staffing a private army of armed civilians to prevent tragedy will first require the careful selection of volunteers who are willing to undergo rigorous physical and weapons training and who have the time to devote to guard duty. Presumably, we could identify capable teachers, congregants, store clerks, etc., who could be licensed to carry weapons and thus be a resource where they pray, study, or work, ready to react to threats as they appear and hopefully prevent or even discourage the mayhem we are now facing.
This is a controversial discussion that many feel is far too drastic to consider, even in the face of continuing violence against society in general and Jews in particular. Most intelligent people will point to the enormous costs and liability concerns should the use of an authorized weapon result in tragic unintended consequences despite everybody’s best efforts. The most important fact, however, is for us to remember the words that we as Jews often say out loud at important moments in our people’s rich history: “Am Yisrael Chai.” Well, in order for Israel and its people to go on living, we may just have to learn how to fight—not just in Israel, where our army is always on duty, but here in America, too.