My Word: Smoking guns and guns; safety and security

Gun ownership in Israel is a privilege rather than a right and, like most privileges, there are strings attached.

A SALESMAN shows a pistol to a customer at a gun shop in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
A SALESMAN shows a pistol to a customer at a gun shop in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Many of the teachers in my son’s school are armed. It’s not in preparation for the possibility that a disgruntled pupil with access to weapons will open fire. It’s a precaution to allow a swift response in the event of a terrorist attack. That’s the reality of school life in Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular.
Two years ago, a terrorist attacked vehicles on a road so close to the building that staff and students inside clearly heard the shots. The principal swiftly sent out a cheerful SMS assuring parents that “Everything is tranquil and calm by us. Hoping for a continued peaceful day.....”
The incident came to mind this week as friends in America asked my opinion on the latest school massacre, which claimed the lives of 17 victims in Parkland, Florida. Several noted the interview on Fox TV in which former judge Andrew Napolitano recommended what he called “the Israeli model,” noting that nearly all teachers have been in the IDF, and claiming, not quite accurately, that “They are teachers... who have been trained and practice every week and silently, stealthily, not ostentatiously carry a gun.”
It is true that most Israeli teachers, and citizens in general, have had weapons training. Even unarmed, the constant threat of terrorism keeps Israelis alert. It also makes them quick to react. One of the first things I learned in a self-defense course is the value of not freezing with fear. Israelis, famous for their improvisation, joke about the “weapons” that have been used by ordinary citizens in an effort to stop a terrorist: These include a selfie stick, a large wooden platter at a pizzeria, a guitar, and a nunchaku, a traditional martial-arts weapon of consisting two short sticks connected by a chain.
As David Ben-Gurion used to say, in an emergency, “even a broom can shoot.”
Once upon a time, weapons weren’t sophisticated pieces of technology. Following the Las Vegas massacre last October, Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El noted that when the Second Amendment was ratified more than two centuries ago, the weapons it allowed Americans to bear were “elongated, heavy, wooden muskets that had to be reloaded after each shot, with bullet and gunpowder inserted separately.”
It is true many terrorist attacks have been prevented, or halted before the toll grew higher, because alert armed security guards, police officers or off-duty soldiers (who travel with their arms) took swift action. But this doesn’t mean more people need to be armed to provide security. On the contrary, the general public in Israel does not go around with weapons and relies on the security forces to do the job of protecting them.
Gun laws in Israel are restrictive, despite the fact that so many people have at some time or another trained on a firing range and even fought in very real battles and wars. Citizens applying for a gun license must prove they need one, either because of the nature of their jobs or because they live or work in an area considered high-risk for terrorism. Before being granted a license, which is valid for only three years, they need to undergo screening including background checks into their mental health and to make sure they do not have a criminal record. They also need to undergo training or a refresher course at a firing range. Licenses are not renewed automatically and, talking of automatic, the licenses are for small firearms. A revolver is not an assault rifle. One is for defense, the other to attack. Guns are not (legally) available to anyone who wants, and only a limited number of bullets are sold with the firearm.
As many commentators have noted, gun ownership in Israel is a privilege rather than a right and, like most privileges, there are strings attached. When not being carried by the owner, weapons by law need to be locked up safely. With so many security checks in Israel – at the entrance to every mall, station and government office – carrying a gun and having to constantly produce a license is a hassle which can dampen the enthusiasm of many owners. Imagine having to produce your driver’s license every time you parked your car.
There is no “free-for-all” gun culture; no Second Amendment (no Constitution, in fact); and Jewish Israelis, the vast majority of the population, do not count hunting as a hobby in their (limited) leisure time – not by a long shot.
There is no secret cure for school massacres in the US. And part of the tragedy is that the topic is so polarized politically. Perhaps, as a colleague of mine suggested, the Parkland massacre will be a #MeToo moment, a turning point when it becomes clear that what has been accepted in the past as almost natural collateral damage will be seen for the utterly unacceptable behavior it is. It’s time to bite the bullet and recognize that circumstances have changed. As Asa-El put it: “Now America’s freedom requires not arming the people who settle its hinterland but disarming the people who unsettle its towns.”
ISRAELIS TEND to obsess about security while neglecting safety. Three incidents in particular this week brought the tragic result closer to home.
On Sunday, a crane at a construction site collapsed on a parked vehicle, crushing a 52-year-old woman to death. (Last year, in a similar incident a crane crashed down on a car with a father and daughter, who escaped alive but traumatized.) On Tuesday, a 40-year-old man was killed in Jerusalem in a gas explosion that is still being investigated. Gas technicians were working on the infrastructure of the apartment block at the time. It is not the first fatal gas explosion in the city. Four people were killed as the result of an explosion following a gas leak in the Gilo neighborhood in 2014.
And then there are the road accidents. On Monday, Sgt. Shiloh Siman-Tov succumbed to the wounds he sustained last week when a truck plowed into a convoy of military jeeps. Two other Golani Brigade soldiers, Ashto Tapso and Bar Yaakovian, died in the accident.
Many accidents involve drivers who have previously been stopped multiple times for road-safety offenses, but whose drivers’ licenses have not been permanently rescinded. Sadly, while a multiple offender cannot get a gun license in Israel, someone with a bad road-safety record is able to return to the roads, an accident waiting to happen. A homicide, rather than an accident.
Part of the problem is the typically Israeli “Yihiyeh beseder” – “it will be all right” – mentality.
Over the years there have been several road-safety campaigns in Israel with memorable slogans. One was “Li zeh lo yikreh,” “It won’t happen to me,” an effort to get people to drop their complacency and realize that it can happen to anyone. The slogan “Al tihiyeh tzodek, tihiyeh hacham,” “Don’t be right, be smart,” is a favorite motto of mine, and well suited to Israelis who famously fear being freierim (suckers) more than they fear anything else, even with potentially fatal consequences.
A recent campaign urged drivers to imagine the person struggling to cross the road is a loved one – a grandparent, parent, sibling or child. It was complemented by a campaign aimed at getting pedestrians (a third of the road-accident fatalities) to “Look the driver in the eyes. Give him a chance to stop for you!”
It is a motto that suits many circumstances. It’s better to be careful and look someone in the eye than to end up unable to look at yourself in the mirror.