Should Europe’s Jews Be Armed?

Following Amedy Coulibaly’s attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris in which he murdered four Jews, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director general of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe and the European Jewish Association, wrote to the interior ministries of all European countries, urging changes in gun laws that would make it easier for Europe’s Jews to arm themselves:

Rabbi Menachem Margolin…writes: “We hereby ask that gun licensing laws are reviewed with immediate effect to allow designated people in the Jewish communities and institutions to own weapons for the essential protection of their communities, as well as receiving the necessary training to protect their members from potential terror attacks.”

Speaking to Newsweek, Rabbi Margolin added that he believes that “as many people within the Jewish community as possible” should carry weapons.

Rabbi Margolin seems to be asking not for liberalized gun laws generally, but rather for a special dispensation for a limited number of “designated people.” At the same time, he urges “as many [Jews] as possible” to be armed. How easy this will be depends on gun laws in individual European countries, which are generally not as liberal as those in the United States, but in some instances are more reasonable than Americans commonly realize.

Apart from legal issues, is it a good idea for Europe’s Jews to arm themselves to the extent that they can? The recent terrorist attacks in Paris shed some light on this question. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo murders, two armed guards were present, but were quickly overwhelmed by the well-trained (and no doubt better armed) terrorists. It is unlikely that civilians armed with pistols would have fared better.

The kosher grocery attack was quite different. It was carried out by a single terrorist and, rather than being executed rapidly and with military precision, the terrorist held something like 30 people hostage for a matter of hours. This is a good example of a situation where civilians armed with concealed weapons could likely make a difference. If one of the hostages had a gun (or better yet, two or three hostages had guns) he could well have had an opportunity to get off a clean shot and kill or disable the terrorist. In my home state of Minnesota, there are 180,000 carry permit holders out of an adult population of around 3.9 million, or roughly 4 to 5%. A terrorist who tried to make hostages of a group of several dozen Minnesota adults would have to take into account the likelihood that one or more of them may be armed–a possibility that may deter such attacks.

Beyond the details of a particular scenario, a critical mass of armed civilians can change criminals’ behavior dramatically. In the United Kingdom, burglars generally look for homes that are occupied so that they can force the occupants to direct them to the family’s valuables–and, in the process, commit a rape or other heinous crime. In the United States, burglars almost always seek out unoccupied homes, because if the homeowner is present there is a possibility the burglar could be shot.

The American experience suggests that as the citizenry becomes armed, street crime declines. The causes are hotly debated, but violent crime rates have steadily gone down in tandem with liberalized gun carry laws and broader ownership of handguns. I think it is highly probable that America’s decline in violent crime is due in part to the reasonable apprehension, on the part of criminals, that would-be victims may be armed.

In parts of Europe, it is common for Jews to be attacked by gangs of young Muslims when they are out in public. Such attacks would decline rapidly if it were known that Jews are arming themselves, and if, in only a few instances, thugs attempting to perpetrate such attacks were shot in self-defense. In my view, deterring street attacks would be the largest potential benefit of wider firearms ownership.

Of course, a couple of major caveats are in order. Simply possessing a gun is of little value unless the owner is well-trained in its use. Promoting gun ownership without promoting firearms training would be counterproductive.

Moreover, using a firearm in a public setting (as opposed to, for example, a home invasion or a terrorist hostage situation like the Paris grocery) is fraught with peril. Even in the United States, lethal force is authorized in self-defense only if the person employing such force (firearms are just one possibility) has a reasonable apprehension of death or great bodily injury. Whether this standard would be met in a given street encounter likely would be debatable, and the issue would be resolved by a potentially-hostile court or jury. Further, the victim of an attack who opens fire in a public place may risk hitting a bystander.

All of that said, if I were a European Jew would I arm myself to the maximum extent permitted by law, and seek legal changes to make self-defense more effective? Absolutely.

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