A 36-year-old mother of four was killed Tuesday by a gunshot in the Galilee village of Rama. Preliminary evidence shows she was killed while her husband, a career soldier in the Israeli army, who possesses a registered weapon as part of his duties, was cleaning his weapon. The loaded firearm apparently discharged a bullet by accident, hitting the woman.
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This incident raises – yet again – the question of whether there is a need for all members of the Israeli armed forces to retain their weapons while off duty, and if current regulations are enough to prevent such incidents.
While the gun-control debate currently taking place in the U.S. revolves around what some see as the excessive use of personal firearms, authorities in Israel are focusing more firearms issued to security guards, which have been used in several crimes in recent months, rather than on the numbers of guns in people’s hands.
It is common practice in Israel to see uniformed soldiers getting on a bus and taking a seat while bearing their weapons, or seeing a pistol peeking out from under a father's shirt as he picks up his daughter. Yet, few Israelis, it would seem, openly question the need for weapons in public places as part of our daily routines.
According to data from the Public Security Ministry, Israeli civilians currently own 292,265 weapons. Of these, 157,000 are privately owned. These numbers, which do not include weapons belonging to the Israel Defense Forces, show that one in 19 adults in Israel owns a weapon.
The Knesset House Committee on Wednesday discussed the widespread possession of firearms. Despite the numbers quoted above, the committee dealt mainly with ways to collect guns carried by security guards at the end of their shifts – following several incidents in which security guards used their work-issued weapons to commit murders. Representatives of the police and security firms who took part in the debate wanted to broaden the discussion and include the issue of IDF personnel carrying weapons while off-duty. However, the committee chairperson, MK Miri Regev (Likud) refused to address this issue and insisted on focusing on security guards.
Since 2002, 16 women have been murdered by partners who were employed as security guards, using weapons they obtained at work. Maj. Gen. Nissim Mor, head of the Israel Police operations division, presented a plan to diminish such incidents, by having security firms collect weapons from their guards at the end of their shifts. This plan would apply to guards at restaurants, shopping malls, banks and schools and is expected to be implemented gradually between now and September.
Israel Hasson, Kadima MK and former deputy head of the Shin Bet security service, blasted the plan, saying the solution lies in simply reducing the number of weapons. “What are all these guns for?" he asked. "When we feared suicide bombers, this was justified. But since then, we have held onto so many weapons mainly to fight vandalism. We must reduce the number of firearms in the hands of security guards from 40,000 to 5,000."
However, Pini Schiff, director of the Israel Security Organization, pointed out that efforts to collect guards' weapons at the end of their shifts may prove pointless, “since the people depositing the weapons will be open to open and close the safe at will and take a weapon with him."
MK and Maj. Gen (ret.) Moshe Nissim also said the issue of security guards should be addressed, noting that “security companies have become increasingly powerful, since personal security has undergone a process of privatization."
Meanwhile, security guards' weapons aren’t the only ones that enter private homes at the end of the workday. The IDF doesn’t release official numbers, but it is estimated that tens of thousands of guns, mainly M-16 and Tavor rifles, are used by soldiers in combat units or on training bases. In addition, the army possesses some 2,500.
According to army regulations, soldiers in combat units who have undergone appropriate training, or other combat soldiers whose personal firearm is their main weapon, can take their weapons home with them. The IDF also established that soldiers who serve in the Palestinian territories must carry their weapons with them. The army's regulations about bringing a weapon home are clear – it must be kept under two locks and keys. However, these regulations are rarely supervised or enforced.
An internal report from the Public Security Ministry points to another worrisome trend: firearm theft. Since the 1970s, 23,000 firearms have been stolen or lost reaching “unknown recipients." The actual number of illegal firearms in Israel is estimated to be much greater, since they also include weapons stolen from the army.
There have, of course, been cases in which Israelis carrying a personal weapon have protected civilians. In 2008, for example, an officer from the Paratroopers Brigade, rushed to the Mercaz Harav yeshiva near his home and killed a terrorist there. The same year, when a terrorist used a tractor to mow down pedestrians in Jerusalem, Moshe Flesser, a new recruit on leave, used his weapon to help stop the attacker.