On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, three Palestinian college students were shot while walking home from a birthday party in Burlington, Vermont. They had been speaking a mix of English and Arabic, and two of them wore a keffiyeh, a traditional scarf worn across the Middle East that’s become a symbol of Palestinian pride and political resistance.
A 48-year-old white man was arrested and charged with three counts of attempted second-degree murder. He is being held without bail. “Although we do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, I do want to be clear that there is no question, this was a hateful act,” Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said after the arraignment.
The Vermont attack was not an isolated event. Since October 7, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been four gun-related bias incidents in the U.S. thought to be motivated by the Israel-Hamas war. On October 22, in Skokie, Illinois, a 39-year-old Chicago man fired shots into the air after being confronted by multiple people during dueling rallies for Israel and Palestine. Police presented the case to the State’s Attorney’s Office, but the man has a valid concealed carry license and prosecutors declined to bring charges.
On October 14, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Richard Kevin Blandy, 56, pointed a gun at a group of people at a rally for Palestine while hurling racial slurs. As he brandished his firearm, he reportedly said, “Is this what Hamas did?” He was charged with ethnic intimidation, terroristic threats, and simple assault by physical menace.
These events come amid a surge in antisemitic and Islamophobic episodes across the U.S. since the Israel-Hamas conflict began on October 7. They follow a similar pattern to previous times in history, when war rages in the Middle East and washes up on America’s shores in the form of hate crimes and violence.
Devorah Halberstam, a founding member of the New York City Police Department’s Hate Crime Review Panel, has been steadily sounding the alarm for decades about the prospect of international conflicts spilling over into the United States in the form of hate crimes and terrorism. Halberstam’s 16-year-old son, Ari, an Orthodox Jew, was killed in a 1994 mass shooting in New York City that was perpetrated in response to the Israel-Palestine conflicts.
Since October 7, Halberstam said she’s been on edge. “In their mindset, it’s us against them,” she said, referring to people who wish to perpetrate violence in response to this latest conflict. “And they’ll use whatever weapon is available.” In America, that’s most often a gun, because of their sheer ubiquity. Halberstam said she’s urged law enforcement to be on the lookout for occurrences that don’t fit the mold. “In 1994, law enforcement said to me [of her son’s killer], ‘He used guns, so he’s not a terrorist.’ They thought, ‘But he wasn’t wearing a bomb vest.’” That lack of imagination could cost American lives, she said.
In addition to the shooting in Burlington and the altercations in Skokie and Harrisburg, there was an episode in Greenwood Village, Colorado, on October 11 in which a bullet was fired into the home of the director of a local Palestinian club. She believes she was targeted, as she’s also received death threats at her business.
Another event, on October 19, is tangentially related to the current conflict: A 20-year-old Jordanian citizen with a Palestinian passport was arrested in Houston on illegal gun possession charges; FBI Director Christopher Wray later told a Senate committee that the man had “posted online about his support for killing Jews.”
Janice Iwama, an associate professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University, whose research includes both hate crimes and gun reform legislation, told The Trace that global conflicts like Israel-Palestine give people with biased views a way to take out their global prejudices on a local population. She points to a spike in anti-Arab crimes after 9/11, but says the divisive rhetoric around this particular conflict online and on college campuses could exacerbate the conditions for bias-motivated confrontations, particularly in a country with more than 400 million civilian guns.
Events like the Israel-Hamas war “allow for an environment in which they feel that it’s OK to attack an individual because of their ancestry or their perceived ancestry,” Iwama said. “And of course nowadays, compared to the 1990s, it’s more so reinforced online.”
Guns and Hate Crime: What We Know (and Don’t Know) About the Role Firearms Play in Bias Attacks
Gun-related hate crimes have fallen in recent years, after a rise in attacks motivated by white supremacy during the Trump presidency. According to GVA, which tracks shootings through news and police reports, there were 10 incidents in 2022, down from the 29 per year on average between 2017 and 2020. There have been 10 incidents so far this year, according to GVA.
Quantifying gun-related bias episodes is an inexact science, because federal law enforcement agencies typically don’t break out hate crimes by type of weapon used, or even indicate whether a weapon was used at all. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, pegs the number of hate crimes involving the use or threatened use of a firearm at around 10,300 events per year, based on Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates. That works out to around 28 per day. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2017 found that 5 percent of violent hate crimes between 2006 and 2015 involved a firearm.
In late October, the Department of Homeland Security warned of a rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic episodes tied to October 7 and its aftermath. “Targeted violence attacks may increase as the conflict progresses,” the assessment said. It’s happened before, in the form of mass shootings. Ari Halberstam’s 1994 murder was perpetrated by a Lebanese national who was reportedly angry over a shooting at a mosque in the West Bank that killed 29 Palestinian Muslims. Four days after that shooting, he fired into a van carrying more than two dozen Orthodox Jewish students on the Brooklyn Bridge while yelling “kill the Jews” in Arabic. Three other people were wounded.
And in 1997, a Palestinian man who reportedly wanted to punish the U.S. for its support of Israel opened fire on the Empire State Building observation deck, killing one person and wounding six others. The shooter, a New York City resident, bought his gun during a trip to Florida. In lieu of a home address, he gave the gun dealer the address of his hotel, prompting then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to call the state’s gun laws “absurd.”
Few laws exist to disarm people who espouse hate. Gun background checks don’t include a review of social media accounts in all but one state: New York, which passed a law in response to the 2022 killing of 10 people in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo by an avowed white supremacist. At least half a dozen perpetrators of racist shootings in the last decade have acquired their guns legally.
In the absence of regulations, minority groups are taking matters into their own hands. Firearms instructors and gun-shop owners report an increase in Jewish customers since October 7. A similar spike was reported after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Jews are flocking to gun ranges, many for the first time. Jewish schools in several states are shelling out funds for private security, as are synagogues from Seattle to Honolulu. Meanwhile, mosques in Houston, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are also fronting the cost for extra security.
At the Islamic Society of Vermont in South Burlington, located just a few miles from where the Palestinian college students were shot, at least two police cars have been stationed in the parking lot since the incident. “When the Israeli war started, we paid the police extra hours” to patrol the 400-member mosque, said Fuad Al-Amoody, the mosque’s vice president. But it’s a cost they’re willing to incur, he said. The mosque also has security cameras and panic buttons that summon police.
Vermont is a permitless carry state, meaning residents don’t need a license or training to carry guns in public. But the mosque’s members aren’t eager to carry guns themselves, Al-Amoody said. While he knows of a few who are considering getting a gun for self-defense, “many of them came from overseas, they’re refugees. Owning a gun, to them, only police and soldiers do that.”
Al-Amoody stressed that Vermont is “very safe.” The police chief has assured him that Muslims’ safety is a priority, and non-Muslim residents have offered their unequivocal support. But the barbarity of the shooting “kind of shook people up in their core,” he said.
On November 1, the Department of Justice announced $38 million in grants to investigate and prosecute hate crimes and prevent future attacks — but that wouldn’t cover security. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut subsequently called for increased funding for FEMA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program so synagogues, community centers, mosques, and religious schools can upgrade their security.
Halberstam, whose son was killed on the Brooklyn Bridge, said armed security is necessary to confront the threats people are facing right now, particularly at Jewish institutions. “We have to be very aware, and we have to be prepared,” she said.