Guns at synagogue: New white paper explains how to arm and not arm

In the paper, SCN recommends that if armed guards are going to be employed, highly trained on- or off-duty law enforcement officers are the best option.

The facade of the Tree of Life synagogue, where a mass shooting occurred last Saturday, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 3, 2018 (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
The facade of the Tree of Life synagogue, where a mass shooting occurred last Saturday, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 3, 2018
(photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
In the United States, synagogues that were formerly places to pray, learn, celebrate and mourn have become the targets of violence.
Now, according to the Secure Community Network (SCN), the official safety and security organization for the North American Jewish Community, the question being asked by American houses of worship is: To arm or not to arm?
“We are rethinking our approach” to security, Jewish Federations of North American (JFNA) CEO Eric D. Fingerhut told The Jerusalem Post. “I wish this was not the reality, but it is.”
SCN, founded by JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, released a white paper this week to houses of worship in order to address “Firearms and the Faithful: Approaches to Armed Security in Jewish Communities.”
In the paper, SCN recommends that if armed guards are going to be employed, then highly trained on- or off-duty law enforcement officers are the best option. However, SCN acknowledges that some congregations are considering other options, such as encouraging congregants to carry weapons, or placing firearms in the hands of private security contractors.
“Armed volunteers can serve as a possible option when necessary, but armed volunteers without a proper strategy, to include robust planning, training and exercising, may present significant risks,” the report explains.
Specifically, the white paper examines the use of six kinds of armed security personnel: uniformed, on-duty police; plainclothed, on-duty police; off-duty or retired officers; current or former members of the military; security contractors; and voluntary armed congregants. It also addresses the question of what kind of standards or training these individuals should have.
“This white paper provides a consistent, best-practice approach to issues related to armed security to ensure people can worship safety,” said SCN CEO Michael Masters.
The paper identifies for congregations the three primary security goals they should be considering when choosing a security strategy: applying situational awareness, providing a visible deterrent and immediately engaging a threat until law enforcement arrives. It also establishes eight factors for houses of worship to consider in order to achieve these three goals.
These include, for example, that “an armed guard or armed congregant is not a security strategy or plan on its own. Armed security can be part of a plan, but it is only that – a component. A true security plan includes many other layers and components.”
In addition, the white paper states that the decision to have an armed individual present is one that should be made not by one person, but by “multiple decision-makers and stakeholders,” which could range from the rabbi, to board and staff members, in consultation with SCN and local law enforcement.
This is especially true, as per the white paper, because “by designating someone as an armed security officer, the congregation is setting the expectation that force will be used.
“Before choosing to have an armed individual inside or outside a facility, a community must work through numerous considerations to minimize disruption, maximize effectiveness, avoid liability and ensure sustainability,” the white paper continued. “Having a person with a weapon present – other than a member of law enforcement – can have serious legal implications for an institution, and those implications vary greatly from state to state.”
Communities should consider what licenses will need to be acquired for legal compliance, as well as liability issues.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to the issues surrounding firearms and security,” the report said. “Each congregation is different.”
Fingerhut said that the paper comes at a time when antisemitism and violent hate crimes are “very much on people’s minds” in the United States. “It is a reality that you just cannot ignore.”
In 2018, according to the FBI’s “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States” report, there were 27 active shooter attacks that killed 85 people and wounded 128 others.
Furthermore, according to FBI hate crime dates, in 2018, there were 1,500 offenses motivated by religious bias, of which 57.8% were rooted in anti-Jewish bias.
In the last two years, there have been three deadly incidents at Jewish establishments: the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018 that killed 11; the Poway synagogue shooting on April 27, 2019 that killed one; and the recent Jersey City kosher grocery store attack, which killed three.
“We have crossed the line from these being of isolated concern,” said Fingerhut. “It is a concern across all of our federations.”
He told the Post that federation leadership launched a fundraising campaign to ensure that SCN can proactively extend its services to all Jewish institutions, whether they have experienced an attack or not.
“Unfortunately, the concern about attacks on Jewish institutions is not restricted only to those places that have the largest Jewish populations,” Fingerhut said. “Hatred spreads on the Internet, people connecting to various antisemitic movements and ideologies, and you have lone wolfs – you don’t know where they are located and don’t know what institution in their imagination is a target for attack.”
Fingerhut continued, “None of us wants to open our phone or the news, or wake up in morning and know an attack happened at any place in our Jewish community and we had failed to take the necessary steps for protection.”