Is it time for American Muslims to defend themselves from mass shooters?

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, argues that Muslims need to arms themselves to protect themselves from racist and Islamophobic mass murderers.

As a Muslim civil rights attorney who has spent years responding to racist mass shootings, I support many reasonable policies that could reduce the frequency and severity of such violence.

Universal background checks. Red flag laws. Bans on high-capacity magazines. Limiting access to the weapons of war favoured by school shooters and white supremacists. In a rational world, members of Congress would adopt these and other policies unanimously.

But our politics is not rational. Despite over 300 mass shootings so far this year, Congress lacks the willpower to enact significant gun safety reform. The bipartisan law that President Biden recently signed is better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough to stop the violence.

Even if a future Congress enacts more comprehensive legislation, those laws would not change the fact that countless Americans have already bought millions of weapons and untold amounts of ammunition. An AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine and a bump stock would still be available to anyone who already owns it or anyone willing to skirt the law to acquire it.

So, then, what should Muslims and other minority groups who have been repeatedly targeted by racist mass murderers do? Wait around for members of Congress to radically change course? Hope that white supremacists suddenly realise that racism is evil?

No. Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, Jews, Sikhs and others who have been repeatedly attacked by mass shooters cannot wait. We have to defend our houses of worship, schools and community centres from this clear-and-present danger.

Means of defence

Some of the ways to do so are not controversial.

Practice an emergency evacuation plan. Maintain few entrances and many secure exits. Use high-definition, remotely accessible security cameras. Apply for no-strings-attached FEMA funding to bolster security features. Arrange for staff to participate in mental health workshops so that they can recognise signs of crisis and find help for people in need.

Most importantly, and perhaps most controversially, vulnerable institutions should consider investing in an armed security presence: hiring private security guards, using off-duty police officers, or even authorising trusted, trained and licensed community members to carry concealed firearms.

I know firsthand that this is a difficult step for some minority communities to take. Like many other Black Americans, I was once uncomfortable with gun ownership. The prevalence of guns in America has contributed to accidental shootings and violent crime that have taken thousands of lives, including Black youth.

U.S. mosques are currently undefended

With good reason, most African American voters have consistently voted for candidates who favour gun control measures. Gun ownership among Black Americans also lags behind White Americans. According to a 2017 Pew poll, 49 percent of white Americans either own a firearm or live in a household in which someone owns one while only 32 percent of Black Americans do.

Although data on gun ownership among faith groups is scarce, my experiences delivering self-defense seminars to American Muslim communities leads me to believe that gun ownership among most Muslims is low and that few mosques use armed security.

After Oak Creek, Charleston, Christchurch, Quebec City, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Colleyville and Buffalo, that may need to change.

When NRA president Wayne LaPierre tried to dismiss the pressing need for gun control measures after Sandy Hook by infamously claiming that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he was wrong — but not completely wrong.

Preventing a bad guy from acquiring a firearm in the first place is the ideal solution that groups like the NRA have spent decades blocking. But once a mass shooter starts a violent attack, confronting the shooter with force is often the only remaining option.

The failures by heavily armed police officers in Uvalde and Parkland, and the escape of the Highland Park shooter, don’t prove that armed defence never stops a mass shooter; those failures just show that armed defence won’t always stop a mass shooter.

Neither does calling 911 and waiting for competent officers to arrive. As a law enforcement official told me after doing a security assessment of my local mosque, a mass shooter could rapidly kill many worshippers before the police arrived — even with a miraculous 30-second response time.

Protecting worshippers

So what was that official’s advice for our mosque? Authorise trained and trusted members to carry so that they can immediately respond to a mass shooter.

After hearing this perspective and after years of personal exposure to the threat of white supremacist violence (an anonymous emailer once offered me the choice of death by shooting, hanging, decapitation or being burned alive), I changed my mind about armed self-defence.

I purchased a firearm and secured a concealed carry permit. My local mosque also authorised me and a few other licensed community members to carry in order to protect worshippers from a mass shooter.

Whatever the institutions of American Muslims and other targeted minorities decide to do about our safety — enhancing building security, embracing armed security or something else altogether — we must do something.

Just as we are calling on Congress to take action to save lives, we must take action to protect our own lives. May Allah the Glorified and Exalted, the Ultimate Protector, shield us.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a civil rights attorney who serves as the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This article first appeared on the CAIR website.

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