Spent cases litter the floor of the indoor shooting range. The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air and mingles with the heavy odor of rubber, which covers the walls and ceiling to prevent ricochet. The heavy steel door shuts behind my instructor and me. A fresh target - not a circle, but a red "x" - has been hung seven meters away, on the opposite side of the room.
The time has come to pick up the gun, a lightweight .22, and take aim...
Many are under the illusion that Israel is some sort of lax-law, gun-lover's paradise. The media's well-worn images of the country's heavy military and security presences betray the fact that, according to the most recent figures released by the Interior Ministry, a whopping 129,893 of the 193,666 people in Israel who have a private weapon with a valid license are security personnel.
In fact, the vast majority of the shooting that takes place at Israel's 63 ranges - including one in the basement of the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem - falls under the classification of gun license renewal training for public and private sector security companies.
Perhaps less obvious is that Israel produced the current European Olympic rifle-shooting champion Guy Starik, with Olympic shooters numbering a total of 800 across the country. Equally surprising is the country's leisure sports shooting component, which boasts the participation of over 700 members at more than 20 gun clubs nationwide.
So, what possible interest do civilians, from a country with mandatory conscription, have in guns?
THE COLD, HARD FACTS
Despite the high number of registered guns, ranges and clubs and the relative popularity of gun sports in Israel, the country has one of the strictest sets of criteria for obtaining a permit to possess a firearm.
Although Israel's gun laws haven't altered much since they were inherited from Britain in 1949, the Interior Ministry's Licensing Department requirements have grown more strict over the years. There is some controversy about when the harsher guidelines were instated.
According to Haim Funes, of Bul Transmark in Tel Aviv, one of the country's two pistol manufacturers, it became more difficult to obtain a gun license after former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995.
"That was the milestone," says Funes, who explains that assassin Yigal Amir obtained his gun legally. "The number of license approvals has decreased every year, ever since. Nowadays, it's almost impossible for a regular civilian to get a license."
Professor of Law at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya Yoram Shachar says the increased regulations have not to do with the Rabin assassination, but that the department's degree of leniency depends on the government's declaration of emergency states. For example, he says, it was easier to obtain a weapon during the height of the intifada than it is now.
Until 1999, Israelis in possession of a firearm were only obligated to renew their license every five years, a process which did not entail any training.
Nowadays, renewals must take place every three years, and both renewals and original applications must be accompanied by a certificate indicating the applicant has completed a course of instruction.
In addition, both expired license-holders and new applicants are subject to psychological testing and background checks. Gun owners must have permanent status in Israel, they must have lived here at least three years, they must be at least 21 years old and they must obtain a recommendation - either from an employer, gun club or Olympic coach - to verify that the application for a gun is justified.
"The permit is only valid as long as the grounds on which you applied for the gun in the first place remain valid," explains Yaakov Amit, the manager of the Permits Department at the Ministry of Interior.
Only civil guard volunteers, independent or salaried drivers transporting the public, explosives transporters, owners of a business dealing in jewelry, residents of or security personnel in front-line settlements in Judea, Samaria, or the Gaza Strip, IDF, Israel Police Force or Prison Services retirees and souvenir-keepers are eligible for permits for one handgun. With a valid license from the Nature Reserves Authority, hunters can apply for up to two shotguns.
There are, of course, breaches of the process. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are currently some 33,000 Israelis in possession of a firearm who have not renewed their licenses. Over the past two years, the Ministry has attempted to reduce that number by first publicizing the new law in the media and then contacting gun holders to remind them of the necessity to renew their licenses and finally - as of a few weeks ago - preventing those in possession of an expired license from leaving the country.
Last year, the Ministry of Interior approved 70 percent fewer applications for guns than they did five years ago - about 4,000 of which were rejected by the police due to a history of violence in the family.
That said, gun violence in Israel is fairly low, especially given the number of civilians who carry guns. Although organized crime is an increasing phenomenon in Israel, says Shachar, there is virtually no gang war. In general, he says, violence tends to be concentrated in males aged 15-25. But - guns or no guns - Israeli youth do not tend to act violently toward one another.
In any case, getting and keeping a gun permit is no mean feat.
"As a country, we are somewhere in the middle between total permission - like the US's constitutional right to bear arms - and nearly total ban, like in Canada," says Amit. "The best description of Israel, although vague, is that if you have a good reason to have a gun, you will get one. And this is how it should be."
Gun permit regulations interfere little with Israel's Olympic shooters.
"Almost all Olympic shooters want their own gun, and almost all of them get one," says Yair Davidovich, manager of the Israeli Shooting Federation, the administrative body in charge of the Israeli national Olympic shooting team and all qualifying Olympic shooting competitions that take place in Israel.
According to Davidovich, of the country's 800 registered Olympic-style shooters, more than 500 compete in 86-89 international competitions per year to qualify for the Olympics. Minor matches are framed throughout the year by four world cups and the European shooting championship, which takes place every two years.
There are several different Olympic shooting events, each using different types of rifles and pistols. The main idea behind Olympic shooting is accuracy. Shooters have one hour and 15 minutes to score up to 600 points with 60 rounds.
The sport necessitates the use of a special heavy rifle, weighing up to eight kg., with a much more responsive trigger than a regular gun.
"Most people don't understand Olympic sport shooting. It looks stationary to them," says Israel's shooting star Starik, who represented Israel at the Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996, in Sydney in 2000 and in Athens in 2004, and who has scored 599 at three separate international competitions. Like most of Israel's Olympic shooters, Starik practices at the National Olympic Ranges in Herzliya.
"It's a slow sport. It takes a lot of concentration and self-discipline, and you have to control every muscle in your body."
FUN WITH GUNS
Sport shooting, or practical shootingâ€š attracts a significantly smaller number of participants than Olympic shooting - 700 are registered with Israel's chapter of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC), which conducts the Ministry of Interior's mandatory 40-hour course for new gun owners, provides refresher courses for gun license renewals and imposes standards for safety regulations at shooting ranges and league competitions.
Only about 550 of the 700 are "active shooters," meaning that they participate in competitions, which are much more lively than Olympic ones and involve not only accuracy but speed. Competitors aim to hit a variety of stable and moving targets on an outdoor course in as short a time span as possible.
National matches take place nearly every month, attracting shooters from across the country. A shooter must participate in at least four such matches in order to qualify for the Israeli nationals, which are held in April during Pessah at the outdoor shooting range in Caesarea across from the Hadera power station.
"People like the sport because it's active. You move. There are obstacles. It's more athletic than Olympic shooting," explains Nachum J. Zarzif, Regional Director of IPSC Israel. "Israelis especially like it because it reminds them of their exercises in the army, police force or Special Forces."
Starik points to the same reason to explain why sport shooting draws less numbers than Olympic shooting.
"If you compare sport shooting in Israel to sport shooting in the US, we are a hundred years behind. There is no real tradition of sport shooting in Israel," he says. "Perhaps it's because we have mandatory military service, and people see guns all the time in everyday life, so they don't feel like shooting in their spare time."
Funes points out that there is a big distinction to be drawn between the shooting that takes place in the military and the shooting done for sport. To start, the army uses rifles, not pistols.
"In the army you are dealing with combat tactics, and shooting is nerve-racking," he says. "In sports, you are shooting for fun, and it's relaxing. It's completely different."
So what does account for the discrepancy in popularity between Olympic and sport shooting?
Davidovich attributes the divide to a lack of funding and government support afforded sport shooting.
"It's very big in the US and Europe," he says. "In Israel, it's much smaller." Zarzif adds another reason for the reduced participation: a lack of recognition by the Ministry of Interior.
"They don't recognize practical shooting as a legitimate reason to obtain a gun," he says. "Not many people in Israel can exercise the sport because they can't get a gun license.
"In general, people have trouble recognizing practical shooting as a sport," adds Zarzif. "It's like bows and arrows - they can be more dangerous than a pistol - yet bows and arrows are legitimated as a sport. Not so when it comes to guns."
Funes has a similar bone to pick.
"There is a clear and present tendency of the Ministry of Interior to reduce the possession of firearms as much as they can," he says, adding that the Licensing Department is inclined to nix sport gun applications until they receive an appeal through a lawyer.
"By decreasing their access to licenses, they are only creating a situation where criminals have more and more firearms and law-abiding citizens have less and less."
Unfortunately for Funes, there is no National Rifle Association (NRA) equivalent in Israel. While the recently elected Jewish female President of the NRA Sandra Froman quotes Israel on her platform for pro-gun advocacy in the US, no such lobby representing private gun owners exists in Israel.
Even when a sport shooter is able to obtain a gun license, without subsidization the sport is a relatively costly one. While the three-year license costs only 150 NIS, there are a lot of expenses surrounding license issue - the instruction course, the doctor's form, the official police form - all add up. Funes estimates that the cost of preparation rings in at around NIS 500-600 before the purchase of the gun.
Bul Transmark guns, which have been manufactured in Israel since 1990 (the only pistol manufacturer next to the Israeli Weapons Industry - IWI), cost anywhere from NIS 3,000 to NIS 12,000 for a high-end competition pistol. Add NIS 1.5-2 per 9-mm. round, and the total cost of shooting is rather grand.
That's why, says Funes, the vast majority of clientele at the Bul Shooting Range in Tel Aviv - like all ranges across the country - are either security personnel engaged in license renewal, or new gun owners enrolled in the IPSC course. "Sport shooters account for a very small segment of our clientele," says Funes, explaining that the gun club gathers at the two indoor ranges - one seven meters in depth, the other 16 meters in depth - only once a week, for a few hours. "Most people come because they have to, by law."
NATURAL BORN THRILLERS
A Canadian immigrant of three years, I am among the smallest segment of the non-military Israeli shooting population: namely, thrill-seekers who just had to try it once.
Funes, my instructor, repeatedly reminds me to relax my grip on the handle of the .22, which I unconsciously squeeze with all my might. He says to watch not to rest my right index finger on the trigger - its most natural position. My palms begin to sweat, and my safety goggles begin to steam as I prepare for my first shot. I breathe in, place my finger gently on the trigger, pull back and bang!
The ear-shattering sound reverberates through my safety earphones. The bullet goes flying in a spurt of fire.
"I like the thrill of shooting," Funes reveals. "It calms me down."
"People generally think that shooters are macho-macho," he adds. "They're not. They're real sportsmen."
In an attempt to earn the sport more recognition, Davidovich is trying to launch a project in conjunction with the Education and Defense Ministries to bring school-age kids to the shooting range a few times each year.
"If this program is a go, more young people may be attracted to the sport," he says, adding that nowadays, most kids are more inclined to pursue soccer or basketball - or computers - over shooting. "But kids stand to learn a lot from shooting - responsibility, self-control, and self-confidence."
In fact, there is a lot of power behind the gun. As the gunpowder settles after my first round - eight bullets, all on target - I am most impressed by how light the gun feels in my hands, how light and responsive the trigger, and - most of all - how easy it was to shoot.