Not even the scores of sales people, along with the co-owners, were enough to handle the long line of customers that formed at the L.H.B. gun and ammunition store in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Last week, too, it was mission-almost-impossible to place a call to L.H.B or any other Israeli gun store.
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“Usually it’s a lot of staff but no customers. About a week ago everything changed,” Yariv Ben-Yehuda, one of L.H.B.’s owners, said with a half smile.
Those in line could be divided into those who were there to get some practice at L.H.B.’s firing range or to upgrade their licenses to one that entitles them to carry a personal weapon. A lot were first-timers, hoping to apply for a license, after terms for acquiring one were eased last week after the spate of stabbing attacks by Palestinians.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan approved easing restrictions so that officers with the rank of first lieutenant or higher and NCOs with the rank of master sergeant or higher would be entitled to obtain weapons, as will former and current members of special units serving in regular or reserve duty.
Those who have come for less-lethal defenses, like pepper spray or a club, are disappointed. L.H.B. has a sign posted saying its supply of pepper spray was sold out, but customers can add their names to a waiting list. A new stock should be arriving next week.
“Our weapons sales alone have risen in the past two weeks by about 30%,” noted Shaul Derby, manager of the store. “A large part of the sales are to weapons traders and part of it to people who want to replace their gun with something else, mainly Glocks or Smith and Wessons,” said Derby.
In addition there’s been a 50% increase in requests to use the shooting range L.H.B. operates while sales of clubs, flak jackets and pepper spray has also shot up by hundreds of percent.
The store was founded in 1949. Traffic of the kind they have been experiencing this week comes in intervals of 20 years — during the wave of terror attacks in the 1970s, during the first intifada that broke out in 1988 and now.
During Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day war Israel fought against the Gaza-based Hamas movement last year, demand picked up only a little. Likewise during the second intifada from 2000-2005, even though Israelis were faced with a wave of suicide bombings.
A pistol runs for between 2,800 and 4,500 shekels ($730-$1,170). Target practice is just 35 shekels, not including ammunition, which costs about 120 shekels for a package of 50 bullets. “We’ve extended the hours at the shooting range and staff is at the store every day into the evening to handle the chaos,” said Derby.
Uri David, the Israeli importer of Glocks and a member of the firearms and shooting ranges section of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, said he had seen a 50% increase in demand for pistols. Ordinarily between 1,000 and 1,200 pistols a year are sold in Israel.
“Already last year, we saw an increase in sales during Protective Edge, mainly from people living in the south,” said David. “Right now the demand is reaching levels never seen before. As an importer, it usually takes a while for new orders to starting coming in from dealers. This time I was surprised by how fast new orders started rolling in.”
Two of the customers in line at L.H.B. on Sunday were Dr. Yaron Minitz, a 55-year-old surgeon from Ramat Hasharon, and Kobi Shmuel, a 46-year-old art dealer and leader of bicycle tours, who arrived together to look into getting a gun license.
“It’s been many years that I’ve wanted to get a license but didn’t do it,” said Mintz. “The situation right now convinced me to do it. I want a Glock 19. I don’t think we’ve displayed a trigger-happy attitude toward terrorists — the public has been acting reasonably. ‘If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first’ – that’s the attitude of everyone the world over.”
Shmuel agrees. “Every citizen in the country needs to put on the uniform of a ‘security guard,’ meaning they have to be vigilant and be ready to help,” he said, explaining why was getting a gun license.
The new openness towards people carrying a personal weapon marks a reversal in policy. For years authorities, led by former public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, made it harder to get a license and the number of Israelis holding them declined. People who didn’t renew their license before they expired had a hard time getting them validated again.
“In addition, they set criteria and put obstacles to getting a license like, for example, you needed to work or live over the Green Line and to be over a certain age,” said Derby. “A lieutenant in the army couldn’t get a license; they took licenses away from taxi and bus drivers and others.”
Estimates are that Israelis own about 90,000 firearms. Prior to the assassination of then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, about 350,000 Israelis had gun licenses.
The eased rules also apply to civilians who have taken courses as security guards.
With government offices overwhelmed by applicants, many potential gun owners are going straight to weapons dealers to find out whether they meet the new criteria and fill out the required forms (which can also be downloaded from the internal security ministry’s website).
The catch is that even though the ministry's directives went into effect immediately, people seeking a license will have to wait months to get one.
“Last week I tried to make an appointment at the Internal Security Ministry for a customer who wanted to replace his gun,” said Derby. “I waited 35 minutes until someone answered the phone and they gave me two options: An appointment in December at an office far away or one in February near his home in Ramle. They’re making it easier to get a gun but not easing the time it takes.”