Controlling guns

Violent shooting at Beersheba bank Monday prompts calls to evaluate Israel's gun control policy.

May 21, 2013 22:23
4 minute read.
Gun [illustrative].

Gun [illustrative] 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri )


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The despicable act of violence perpetrated in Beersheba on Monday has sparked fresh calls for an evaluation of Israel’s gun control policy.

Undoubtedly, the fact that Itamar Alon had access to a handgun at a critical time when he was overcome by anger made possible the shooting rampage that left four innocent people dead and four families mourning, with five more people wounded.

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Reportedly, Alon’s bank had refused to reach an arrangement with him over his NIS 6,000 debt. In Alon’s warped mind, this somehow justified a shooting spree. The same sort of public discourse over Israel’s gun-control laws followed the tragic shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 that left 26 dead, including 20 children.

Further fueling the local debate was a bizarre comment by the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, made shortly after the Newtown massacre.

Strangely, LaPierre invoked Israel to support his own organization’s campaign for the right of American citizens to bear arms.

In an interview with NBC News’ David Gregory on Meet the Press, LaPierre called on the US to implement a school guard policy similar to Israel’s.

“Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing,” LaPierre said. “They said, ‘We’re going to stop it,’ and they put armed security in every school and they have not had a problem since then.”


Besides being wrong about Israel having had “a whole lot of school shootings” (Israeli authorities who called him out on the comments could recall only two in the past four decades), LaPierre was also misguided in comparing America’s gun control policy to Israel’s.

The two countries are worlds apart when it comes to the right of civilians to bear arms.

Yaakov Amit – head of the Public Security Ministry’s Firearms Licensing Department – told Army Radio on Tuesday that there are just 160,000 handguns privately owned by Israeli citizens in a population of nearly 8 million, approximately 2 guns per 100 people. In stark contrast, in America there are 88.8 guns for every 100 people (according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey), by far the highest rate in the world.

Gun rights activists in the US view gun ownership as a basic right anchored in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

In Israel, on the other hand, bearing arms is prohibited to all but those with special permission: security guards, residents or employees in settlements, citizens who regularly work with large sums of cash or jewels, IDF officers of certain ranks, and select few others. Ammunition ownership is greatly restricted.

In part, this is a result of historical developments. In America, the military forces that fought for independence were often made up of local militias. As such, there was a decidedly decentralized approach to the political and military autonomy of individual states that made up the Union.

In Israel, David Ben-Gurion took extreme measures as the Jewish state’s first prime minister to consolidate the central government’s powers. The June, 1948 Altalena Affair – in which Ben-Gurion ordered the nascent IDF to open fire on a Jewish cargo ship transporting arms to the Irgun’s military arm – is one example. The disbanding of the Palmach is another.

But there might be a deeper, cultural reason for the strict control Israel maintains over firearms. Jews have historically had an ambivalent attitude toward the idea of bearing arms.

In a famous dispute that appears in the Mishna (Shabbat 6:3) the Sages and Rabbi Eliezer debate whether it is permissible to carry weapons on Shabbat. While Rabbi Eliezer permitted carrying them, the Sages posited that bearing arms – while necessary in our imperfect world – should be viewed as a disdainful practice that will one day be made unnecessary and therefore should not be permitted on Shabbat.

To back up their position, the Sages quote from Isaiah (2:4): “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

The very presence of weapons among us attests to our imperfect world. They can be – and for the most part are only – used by Israelis for protection and defense. But sometimes they are misused.

In a way, Itamar Alon encapsulates this potential for doing either good or evil with firearms. Ironically, the last time Alon made headlines over a decade ago, the context was altogether different: He was honored for bravely rushing to the scene of a terrorist attack and shooting dead the perpetrator.

Guns are, unfortunately, a necessary evil. We cannot do without them. By embracing the approach of our rabbis to bearing arms and striving for an era in which weapons will be obsolete, we can go a long way toward preventing their misuse in the imperfect reality in which we live.

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