It's hard to find a more emotional issue roiling our American friends than guns and what's associated with them. Who can have one or lots of them, what the Constitution guarantees, how much damage they produce, and what benefits they offer.
A close cousin to gun control are issues of crime and police. These, too are emotional, with claims of rampant violence among Blacks, the threats young Black males present to Whites, and the violence of police toward Blacks. More than a thousand Blacks were killed by cops in 2015, with a least a quarter of those unarmed. Blacks have died at the hands of police after incidents of shoplifting, walking in the road, and failure to use a turn signal.
There are Americans who assert that Black organizations manufacture their truth, and that none of the statistics showing the US on the edge of the Third World can possibly be true. Or at least not in their upscale neighborhoods.
We've long known that violence is as American as apple pie, with recent murder rates per 100,000 population more than twice or four times what prevails in other western democracies.
I grew up at a time and in a family that described Europe as degenerate and violent. Later I acquired European relatives who described the US as the Wild West with Chicago gangsters.
The fury of Americans wanting to control or eliminate guns, and the counter fury of those wanting to preserve them, knows no limits. Ideology, beliefs, dramatic anecdotes, animosity and ridicule mark the discussion, with neither side offering statistics without a great deal of qualifications.
The President has taken on the project of gun control, speaking with tears on his cheeks after dramatic cases of slaughter, proposing reforms that few think will reach the stage of implementation or deal with the problems underlying violence.
A long article in The Economist comes close to ridiculing the President's posture on guns, so far from what other western governments are able to do, and likely to be far from what he is able to accomplish..
One issue is how many people are killed each year by guns.
The most dramatic round figure is 30,000.
However, some two-thirds of that number are suicides.
Shouldn't us old folks, fearing to be trapped in painful illness, applaud the opportunity to end it with a gun, overlooking the mess we'll be leaving for those who find us?
However, an unknown number of suicides are basically healthy, who could get over their problems with counselling and Valium, but were tempted by easy access to a gun.
Whatever we think about suicides, 10,000 Americans have been killed annually by someone else using a gun.
Among the slogans of gun advocates are that if you regulate guns only the criminals will have them, and guns are essential for self defense in a society with a high incidence of crime.
There's no quarrel with the incidence of crime in the US. The country has between three and six times the people in prison per 100,000 population as other western democracies. Americans quarrel as to how many of their crimes merit imprisonment. Here we encounter those who think that drugs, or some drugs are fine, or a matter of personal choice, and should be de-criminalized.
Searching the Internet for guns used successfully in self-defense, produces numerous anecdotes. We can suspect that some are not true, or not true in their entirety, but we don't know for sure. We also find assertions that the number of innocent people hurt or killed by the improper use of guns is several times higher than the number of cases when people use guns properly in self defense. Here, too, we are in the realm of stories and feelings, rather than any reliable statistics.
If we Google for the number of privately owned guns per capita by country, you can guess which country heads the list. There are more guns than people in the US. It scores between three and twenty times the incidence of guns in other western democracies.
Arguments about gun control in the US begin with assertions about the Constitution.
This does not assure absolute freedom, as shown by considerable state and local regulation already in force. For some critics of the gun lobby, the amendment also links arms to "a well regulated militia." They read that as allowing guns for the National Guard, but not the private ownership of guns."A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
US courts and public opinion are still working on the issue.
Israel is a country with a relatively high incidence of guns in private possession, but still only 1/15 the figure for the US. During the current wave of terror, a number of gun owners found themselves alongside an incident, and used their weapon effectively.
Israel demonstrates a level of gun control far beyond anything conceivable in the United States. Those whose Hebrew is up to it can examine the official explanation of who can have them.
The emphasis on that web site is that government officials will determine who needs a weapon. Among the criteria they employ is residence in Israel for a number of years, fluency in Hebrew, service in the IDF, a clean police record, age, place of residence, nature of occupation, physical and emotional fitness, and capacity to use the weapon property. For those who pass muster, they are allowed one pistol and 50 bullets.
Penalties are severe for the illegal possession or use of a firearm.
Criminals manage to evade the regulations. We hear about considerable weapons in the hands of the underworld, as well in the Arab community. Soldiers and others steal them from IDF bases, and sell them to clients.
There is chronic violence among criminals. Family feuds and honor killings, as well as deadly competition between drug dealers occur in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, villages in the Galilee, and Bedouin settlements in the Negev.
Arabs like to shoot guns into the air at weddings, high school graduations, and other times of celebration. The use of real bullets rather than blanks has had disastrous consequences, and the police have pressed the community to replace guns with fireworks.
The police are likely to show special concern when warfare among criminals spills over to the killing of innocent bystanders, or when Arabs use their guns in anything that hints of a campaign against Jews.
Israel's cops justified their reputation for toughness, after a week of testing, by locating the Tel Aviv murderer in his home town. When he shot at them, they ended his career. Now they are going after relatives and friends who may have helped him.
None of the above is expected to silence my Internet friends and others who pride themselves in multiple gun ownership, and certainty about the justice and wisdom, or those who see them as intellectually limited and fantasizing about the mythic stories of minutemen they heard as children.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem