Must armed mean dangerous? Israel's gun control scheme

As the U.S. grapples to cope with a rash of shootings in schools and other public places, many believe that Israel may hold the key to containing the problem.

A WOMAN checks out a new pistol at a gun shop in Tel Aviv in 2015 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A WOMAN checks out a new pistol at a gun shop in Tel Aviv in 2015
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
The first time I saw a group of girls in the mall with an M-16 slung over their shoulders, I was startled. But then I saw off-duty soldiers in a taxi and on the train, security guards in front of the movie theater, a couple walking a dog – and all were carrying guns. In time, I began to care less, until I stopped noticing altogether.
At least 17 dead in Florida high school shooting, February 14, 2018. (Reuters)
Firearms seem to be an integral part of everyday life in Israel. To outsiders, the country can seem like a heavily fortified place, armed to the teeth. Yet school shootings, like the one that took place in Florida last month in which 17 people were killed, are virtually unheard of.
Sheriff: Maryland high school shooter dead after exchange with officer, March 20, 2018 (Reuters)
Just earlier this week in the Maryland, a 17-year-old male opened fire with a handgun in the hallway of a Maryland high school, critically wounding a female student and a male victim. The school resource officer at Great Mills High, Deputy Blaine Gaskill, intervened, firing and hitting the shooter with a single round, thereby preventing an even greater tragedy. The shooter, who was identified as Austin Wyatt Rollins, later died in a hospital.
The recent shootings add fuel in the debate over gun laws in the United States.
“We call it the ‘copycat effect,’” says Prof. Mally Shechory Bitton, head of the Department of Criminology at Ariel University. “One person imitated the act of the other. It is like a snowball. It increases with every incident.”
Indeed, in the US that snowball seems to be growing bigger and bigger. According to CNN, the shooting in Maryland is the 16th incident in which a gun has been discharged on a school campus in the US this year.
Israel, by contrast, has only rarely experienced the type of large scale shootings involving schools that have unfortunately become commonplace in the US. In 1974, heavily armed Palestinian terrorists infiltrated an elementary school in Ma’alot, near the Lebanon border, and killed 22 children and three adults. In 2008, another Palestinian terrorist killed eight young students during an evening study session at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. However, both gun rampages occurred in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Incidents involving lone and mentally disturbed males shooting at classmates and teachers, cinema-goers or large crowds of people – as happened last year at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and more than 850 wounded – do not occur in the Holy Land. However, there are other incidents involving guns.
In 2009, deaths resulting from guns in Israel stood at 1.8 per 100,000 people. In the US, the rate was a staggering six times higher, with 10.3 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people. Is it just a question of population difference, with the US seeing more incidents simply because it has a much larger population? Or do other factors, such as gun culture and licensing, account for the difference?
With such numbers, it comes as no surprise that American gun rights advocates cite Israel as a country with gun policies that the US should adopt. Oddly enough, gun control advocates also point to Israel as a role model, praising the country’s strict licensing measures. But is Israel’s gun policy the key reason for the lack of the kind of gun violence here that we are seeing in the US?
Right vs privilege
Israel’s approach to weapons “is deeply rooted in a unique combination of culture and access to firearms,” says Dan Levinson, a Canadian- Israeli security researcher at Mount Royal University in Calgary, who specializes in public safety.
The US considers gun ownership a constitutionally protected right, while Israel considers it a privilege, Levinson explains. The Public Security Ministry states unequivocally on its website that Israeli law does not recognize the right to bear arms. So even though military weapons are a common sight throughout the country, civilian firearm ownership is strictly controlled.
In the US, while gun advocates say weapons are needed for self-defense, it is hard to avoid the impression that guns have become something of a hobby or a sport. Shooting is an activity many brag about. Just witness the many videos posted on social media showing Americans at gun ranges shooting all types of firearms, and in their backyards, demonstrating the merits or drawbacks of a recently acquired handgun. There are an awful lot of guns in America: up to 265 million at the last count.
In the US, firearms seem to have been transformed from a tool for self-defense into a show-off toy. Does this use of firearms contradict the intentions of the founding fathers? Is it part of a “well regulated Militia,” the formation of which is constitutionally guaranteed? And is such a militia really “necessary to the security of a free State?”
Or has the Second Amendment (concerning the right of the people to keep and bear arms) become an empty shell? Are Americans now prisoners to it?
During the March for Our Lives rally in the US scheduled for March 24, teenagers will take to the streets of Washington DC to demand that politicians end the epidemic of school shootings. According to the organizers, both sides of the political aisle are to blame.
As Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old survivor of the Florida attack and activist for the rally, puts it in an open letter: “The Republicans, generally speaking, take large donations from the NRA and are therefore beholden to their cruel agenda, and the Democrats lack the organization and the votes to do anything about it.”
But it was teenager and student Emma Gonzalez, 17, who spoke most bluntly to hundreds of people who gathered at the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse, about 45 km. from where the shooting took place.
“The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” Gonzalez said. “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA [National Rifle Association], telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this – we call BS!”
Comparing the situation in the US with that of Israel, could it be that gun ownership here may be closer to the original intent of the Second Amendment?
In Israel, Levinson says, “Guns are seen as a tool for communal defense, not even for individual self-defense. They are supposed to be used primarily to protect the public.” This is the main difference between the two countries, he explains. You carry a gun for the safety of others, not for yourself. Biton adds: “Guns are a necessity in Israel, not a right.”
Biton explains that there is a psychological element to firearms that is lacking in the United States of today.
“In the military, we are trained to see guns as a tool to be used only in moments of danger,” she says. “The danger, in Israel, is perceived as coming from the exterior of the country, the exterior of society.”
This creates a subconscious feeling of loyalty, she explains, and it might be one of the reasons why “regular” armed crime has always been low in the country.
This underlying attitude of communal defense is the main reason why Israel started issuing more gun licenses during the upsurge of Palestinian violence in 2015, says Levinson. During that time, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who reportedly carries a Glock 23 semi-automatic pistol as a civilian, urged Israelis with licensed firearms to carry them at all times, saying they should think of it as “military reserve duty.”
Nevertheless, it was also Barkat who told CNBC that he sees a big difference between the US and Israel. “There is no misuse of rifles and guns in Israel. On the contrary, they give extra measures and extra security. It’s exactly the opposite, I believe, of what is happening in the United States.”
In Israel, soldiers are issued guns for their period of service. “The first thing they learn is to protect and respect their gun,” Levinson says.The punishment for neglecting a weapon is severe and can lead to detention on the base or a weekend in military jail. While Israel may seem to a casual outsider like a trigger-happy place, it is more difficult here than in the US for non-soldiers to get their hands on a gun.
Gun ownership in Israel
What are the criteria for getting a permit in Israel? First, applicants must be Israeli citizens over the age of 21 (27 if they did not serve in the IDF). Second, they need a signed bill of health and a clean criminal record. Third, they have must have a basic knowledge of Hebrew in order to participate in an annual training session at a shooting range.
Levinson ticks off additional limitations on gun owners.
“People are given a maximum of 50 bullets. Guns must be carried without a bullet in the chamber and licenses are usually only given out for a single handgun per licensee,” he says. Furthermore, bullets can only be obtained at tightly regulated shooting ranges where each bullet’s sale is registered and licenses have to be renewed every three years; many are easily turned down.
Yakov Amit, head of the firearms licensing department at the Public Security Ministry, reports that the ministry turns down around 80% of license requests per year.
“People need to provide proof that they are actually in need of a weapon,” stresses Biton. Only personnel working in security and emergency services, some farmers, tour guides, veterinarians, registered hunters as well as citizens who live in dangerous regions are considered for licensing procedures.
The so-called danger zones that would permit gun ownership include the West Bank, along with a number of communities along the Green Line that either border Palestinian towns or lack adequate defenses.
Israel and the US gun debate
Taking all of this into consideration, Israel fails to fit the narrative of right-wing gun rights advocates in the US. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, reacted to the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, by comparing America’s gun policy to Israel’s. On Twitter, he said that Israel had “pretty much eliminated” school shootings by “placing highly trained people strategically to spot the one common thread – not the weapon, but a person with intent.”
The sentiment is reflected in a phrase that is repeated ad nauseam in the US as Americans grapple with the fallout from the Florida shooting: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
Huckabee’s tweet was liked over 28,000 times and retweeted more than 10,000 times.
In 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, leader of the NRA, made a similar claim, arguing that Israel’s experience points to the need for more guns, not fewer. Following US President Donald Trump’s lead, LaPierre proposed arming teachers as a measure to prevent school shootings.
“Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing: 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,” LaPierre said on NBC News. Apart from the fact that Israel never had more than the two school shootings mentioned above (which were terrorist-related incidents), LaPierre fails to make a distinction between strategic protection and an armed citizenry.
Referring to the US, Levinson says: “Armed teachers would be a feasible solution only if they were initially screened and vetted. They must also undergo regular training and recertification. Then these civilians could effectively intervene in gun violence.”
Because, as Levinson points out, the most critical time is of course between the emergency call and the intervention of the police. The case of the Maryland shooting earlier this week demonstrated the life-saving potential of having armed professionals on the premises who are ready at a moment’s notice. Gaskill, the school resource officer, responded to the shooter in less than a minute.
Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman during the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, said: “We’re fighting terrorism, which comes under very specific geopolitical and military circumstances. This is not something that compares with the situation in the US.”
Amos Shavit, spokesman for the Education Ministry, had a similar reaction to Trump’s suggestion. He stressed that the guards stationed at schools are under the authority of the police: “The guards are there for other reasons, mainly terrorism. Professionals deal with the security. Not the teachers.”
We shall see how the debate over guns plays out in the US. Perhaps it will soon reach the boiling point, if it hasn’t already.
Will Israel’s gun policies serve as a model for pro-gun lobbyists in US? Or did they simply get their facts wrong about guns here? Israel, after all, ranks 81st in the world for per-capita firearm ownership, with fewer than one in 10 Israelis owning firearms. The US ranks first, with one firearm for every person.
As we have seen, Israel has much stricter regulations. While in 30 states in America, surprisingly, a child can legally own a rifle or shotgun, federal law generally does not allow handgun ownership by any person under 18. Yet there is no minimum age for long gun (rifle and shotgun) ownership. Perhaps this fact alone is enough to underline the significant discrepancies between the two countries.