American Jews have a complex relationship with guns.
Many are concerned about high rates of gun violence in the U.S., with mass shootings, including at Jewish institutions, dominating news headlines. But a rise in antisemitism has also driven more Jews to consider owning guns and carrying them in Jewish spaces in the name of safety.
To navigate both issues and inform about gun violence, Minnesota Jewish groups organized a March 13 virtual panel on guns and community security.
“We are all feeling, unfortunately, this direct threat to us and the broader community and the need to take action,” said panelist Lori Weissman, a member of National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota’s gun safety committee.
The 2012 killing of Reuven Rahamim, an American-Israeli business owner and member of Beth El Synagogue, is prominent context to the stake that Twin Cities Jews have in confronting gun violence. Rahamim’s son, Sami, is a gun safety advocate who helped organize the panel.
Since 2012, “nothing has really changed that much in this state” with gun violence, Weissman said. “It has actually gotten worse with our gun death rate.”
In Minnesota, the gun homicide rate increased by 113% over the past decade.
Panelists rejected the idea that more guns, and more armed civilians, would make Minnesota safer. The level of training required to get a permit to carry is irresponsibly low, said Yoni Bundt, a crisis response consultant and security expert.
As a result, many gun owners don’t understand the responsibility of owning a weapon designed to kill or seriously injure people, Bundt said. And in Minnesota, a permit to carry allows concealing a gun in public.
“Somebody puts a handgun in their tallis bag, they go to shul, they did the class that the government says you’re supposed to do,” Bundt said. “Now they think they’re keeping their community safe. No way…you are putting other people at risk. You could have, more likely, an accidental discharge.”
Gun ownership gives a false sense of security, said Marc Zimmerman, a University of Michigan psychology professor who studies gun violence.
“You’re more likely to be injured or killed if you have a firearm than if you don’t,” Zimmerman said. “People in their gut feel like, ‘well, if I have a gun, I could protect myself.’ But the data do not show that.”
That’s another reason why, despite Jewish interest in gun ownership, panelists said guns should not be the main method of keeping Jewish institutions safe. The notion that a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun is more myth than reality.
“In the real world, people don’t wear black hats and white hats. You don’t know who the good guy is,” Zimmerman said.
“I do a lot of work in school safety. We talk about arming teachers. What is a teacher supposed to do if two teachers come out of their classroom shooting?” he said. “Who are they shooting at? Do they know who the shooter is? Are they good shots? And you know, bullets bounce off of things and hit people, too.”
The recent hostage crisis at a synagogue in Texas is a good example of how guns aren’t necessary to save lives, said panel moderator Rob Allen, director of community security at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“It was successfully resolved largely because of the types of training that” Jewish communities do around security, Allen said. “It wasn’t a firearm that took out a firearm, it was…people keeping cool in that [situation].”
Solutions to gun violence are hard to come by, however, because there is very little comprehensive research on the subject. The Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress in 1996, effectively stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding gun-control research until 2018.
As a result, when Weissman asked the rest of the panel for their opinion on whether state red flag laws could curb gun violence, there was no clear answer. A red flag law allows people to ask a court to take guns away from a loved one who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.
Several states have such laws, but many residents don’t know enough to take advantage of them and the requirements vary state by state.
“Anecdotally, there were stories of police departments; they would take the guns away, they had nowhere to store them,” Zimmerman said. “So the next day, they would bring [the guns] back.”
Fatal shootings, and the reasons for them, are also complicated. Many people assume that the largest gun problem has to do with school shootings or street violence.
“Sixty percent of all firearm deaths are suicide,” Zimmerman said. “So mental health is clearly an issue around firearms. And when we think about firearm [deaths], there isn’t a magic fix for it because it’s really quite different in different contexts.”
Still, there are some clear data trends around gun violence. States where it’s easier to get guns, and a conceal and carry permit, have more injuries and deaths from guns, Zimmerman said.
He also referenced a paper about how easy it is for kids in gun-owning families to get their hands on a weapon.
Almost a third of the kids surveyed said they could get the gun in five minutes. Meanwhile, parents largely thought there was no way for their kids to access the gun.
But there are some clear answers to gun violence, which Weissman emphasized do not mean taking guns away from gun owners — a bad-faith accusation often made by the National Rifle Association, the primary organization against gun safety initiatives.
“We want people to have permits,” Weissman said. But “we do want them to have better training…most of society would support that.”
She also advocated for requiring universal criminal background checks of anyone buying a gun. At the moment, no background check is required when buying a gun from sellers without a federal license who operate online or at gun shows.
The end of the panel held calls for listeners to get involved with gun safety efforts through local Jewish advocacy and a March 16 Moms Demand Action event at the State Capitol.
The panel was organized by NCJW Minnesota, the JCRC, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, and the Jewish Family Service of St. Paul. Each organization has opportunities for gun safety advocacy.
More than a dozen other Jewish organizations, including TC Jewfolk, were co-sponsors of the panel.