Think About It: Guns, homicide and the US debate
While firearm-related homicides in Israel occur at one-seventh the US rate, in the case of all forms of homicide the proportion is two fifths.
Sandy Hook Elementary memorial. Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
The facts have been known for a long time. Among Western democratic countries
the United States has the highest rate of intentional homicide resulting from
the use of firearms. According to US government figures, in 2008, for every
100,000 inhabitants in the US 5.5 were killed in all forms of homicide, and 3.7
in firearm-related homicide.
In Israel the figures were around 2.3 and
The US also holds a dubious record regarding the
percentage of citizens who own guns – close to 88.8 percent, a direct
consequence of Americans’ Second-Amendment right to hold and bear arms for
self-defense. In Israel the official figure is 7.3%, (though this does not
include guns belonging to the IDF, police and companies offering security
services, which are held by citizens).
Are these two sets of statistics
related? At least until recently a majority of US citizens were apparently
either ignorant of these statistics, or believed the two had nothing to do with
The rest of the democratic world seems to have no doubts
whatsoever – another bewildering dissonance between the greatest democratic
nation and the rest of the democratic world, which also includes issues such as
national health insurance and limits on free expression.
massacre in the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school on December 14,
President Barack Obama decided to take a stand based on the belief that the two
sets of statistics are connected, and that it is consequently vital to do
something about the excessive ease with which any mentally disturbed person in
the US with an ax to grind may acquire arms – including automatic weapons – and
mow down a random crowd of innocent men, women and children.
with the firearms issue is that the idea that every individual has the right to
defend himself as part of his basic right to freedom is deeply ingrained in the
unique history of the United States. The fanatic objection to national health
insurance, as an interference with the freedom of the individual to take
decisions relating to his own welfare, has similar origins.
that the number of superfluous deaths caused by the latter is even higher than
by the former.
Strangely enough, those who object to gun control and to
national health insurance in the US are usually the very same persons who object
to abortion, an incoherence that is difficult to explain.
Among the many
arguments made by the supporters of the gun lobby in the US which have been
heard in the past week are: the massacre in Connecticut could have been
prevented if the school had held guns of its own, or employed armed guards, so
that the murderer could have been shot dead immediately (in other words, the
problem is not too many guns, but too few); the problem is the absence of
religious (i.e. Christian) education in schools, emphasizing the command “thou
shalt not kill”; the problem is that there is no education to teach gun owners
to act responsibly.
The argument that was not heard was that of the
firearms producers, who represent a business worth $11 billion in annual
revenue, that any significant limitations on arms sales would lead to a collapse
of the industry and endanger the jobs of its 35,000 employees.
arguments (except for the latter), which came largely from the mouths of
Republican Congressmen and laymen (though there are also Democrats among the
supporters of gun rights), can be easily refuted. All the statistics show that
the fewer arms there are the less arms-related homicide takes place – not the
opposite. There is no correlation in the US (at least among Christians) between
religion and homicide. In fact, the statistics show that in most of the
Bible-belt states the percentage of arms-related homicides is higher than in the
rest of the US (except for the District of Columbia). And finally, how does one
convince a mentally disturbed individual to act responsibly, especially if he is
a school dropout? But it is not these arguments that are likely to stand in
Obama’s way, but rather the argument that was not heard – that of the firearms
producers and their lobby. Hopefully, given the current state of shock in the
US, some minor changes might be possible if the president is able to act fast.
Furthermore, since the availability of arms is only a facilitator of the problem
of homicides in the US and not its cause, there is much that can be done in
At the outset I cited some statistics regarding
firearms-related homicides and private gun ownership in Israel. From its
earliest days the government of Israel insisted that the state should have a
monopoly over the holding of weapons. That was, in fact, the background to the
unfortunate Altalena episode, that came up for discussion last week in the
Knesset House Committee, against the background of the decision to locate and
recover the remains of the IZL vessel sunk by the IDF in June
Especially after settlement activities began in the West Bank in
earnest after the Yom Kippur War, the number of citizens allowed to carry
weapons for purposes of self-defense started to soar. Nevertheless, despite the
noticeable presence of non-uniformed civilians bearing arms in public, with the
exception of the case of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 praying Palestinians
and wounded another 125 in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, Israel
has not experienced massacres of the sort seen much too frequently in the
However, while firearm-related homicides in Israel occur at
one-seventh the US rate, in the case of all forms of homicide the proportion is
two fifths. In the case of the United Kingdom the proportions (compared to the
US) are 1/30 and 1/4 respectively. So while we are certainly better off than the
citizens of the US in this respect, we really have no reason to rest on our
laurels. One problem that must be addressed urgently is the unbearable ease with
which illegal arms can be acquired in Israel.