I Didn’t Carry a Gun in Jerusalem; Do I Need One in Boca Raton?

American politicians suggest I come to campus armed, but I never did in Kabul or Baghdad – so why start doing so in Florida?

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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A screengab from Amy Schumer's powerful parody on the gun issue in “Saturday Night Live.”
A screengab from Amy Schumer's powerful parody on the gun issue in “Saturday Night Live.” Credit: Screenshot
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Just a week after I started my new job teaching college journalism in the United States, two television journalists not much older than my students were gunned down by a disgruntled former colleague on live television. I sent my students out to report on reactions to it the next day.

President Barack Obama promptly called for “common-sense gun legislation.” The father of 24-year-old Allison Parker, a promising reporter executed before a live audience, challenged the U.S. media to keep the issue in the public eye once the shock value of the August 26 on-air shooting had passed.

It seems that lately, Americans don’t get as much time to sweep the issue under the rug because the shootings just keep coming, to the tune of about one mass shooting per day, according to The Washington Post. Between the time I finished my first version of this post early Friday and the time I was ready to publish it, two more new campus shootings had happened, one at Northern Arizona University and another at Texas Southern University.

A week earlier, a 26-year-old man in Roseburg, Oregon, walked into a writing class at Umpqua Community College and opened fire. He killed nine people – including a teacher – before being shot and killed by police.

Obama flew across the country to visit Roseburg, pop. 21,000, on Friday to meet with the families of the victims. He was greeted along the way by protestors who held signs that read, among other slogans, “Don’t Mess with My Guns.”

The issue recently hit a little too close to home – with a scare on my own campus. A few weeks ago, a freshman at Florida Atlantic University mused about shooting up the Breezeway, the school’s central pedestrian corridor, on the social media site Yik Yak. Naturally, students and faculty were horrified and concerned, and some steered clear of campus the next day, even after the danger had passed. Police had quickly tracked down the student, who said his post was misunderstood – he was repeating what he’d heard someone else say – but he was swiftly expelled anyway.

For a change, guns are staying on the agenda, and being addressed in debates between presidential candidates. Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, says that gun control legislation is not the answer. Rather, he said last week, school shootings – close to 50 so far this year – could be scuttled more effectively if more teachers were armed.

Trailing right behind Trump in the polls is Ben Carson, who also said last week that it would be best if teachers would pack a pistol on their way to the schoolroom. If he had kindergarten-age children, as I do, he’d feel “much more comfortable” if those teachers were armed than if they weren’t, he told USA Today .

So for the two top contenders for the Republican nomination, the best answer is for me to arrive in my classroom armed. I never carried a gun in Jerusalem, Kabul or Baghdad – should I start doing so in Boca Raton?

Of course, it’s hard to compare America and Israel. In America, the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1791. If the danger is the disgruntled ex-employee or other unstable person going off the deep end, many Americans seem to believe that the prophylactic is more guns at the ready to stop the crazed shooter before too many people get killed.

Israel, on the other hand, is a young country without a Bill or Rights or a Constitution. Israelis worship their security apparatus like Americans worship the Constitution, and if security officials say to go forth and be armed, so it will be. Guns are ubiquitous, but on a completely different scale. In Israeli eyes, guns are seen as an extension of the army and police. When held by someone not in uniform, they’re seen as extra weapons that might suddenly be enlisted in the fight against terrorism.

Of course, to Israel’s Arab minority, it doesn’t exactly work across the board. The controlling majority gets trained for free during army service, making it easier to hold onto a gun for good. With a new intifada brewing, officials including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Ashdod police commander Noam Shekel have urged all citizens with licensed guns to carry them regularly. The mayor himself, his assistants tell reporters, has been packing heat, particularly when he goes to East Jerusalem.

This is a way of thinking that is shunned in many parts of the civilized world, but makes sense to many Israelis – and Americans. European critics of America’s gun culture, for example, think it’s backward to have citizens widely armed, taking the responsibility from the police and placing it into the hands of the masses. But the message in America is similar to the one in Israel: The police can’t be everywhere and can’t possibly be on hand to stop every attack, so you, average citizen, must do your part.

In Israel there were 157,000 legal weapons in private hands in 2013, according to a Knesset report, and 2,312,600 households. Assuming that people aren’t keeping more than one gun at home, that means about 6.8 percent of Israelis not working in the military or law enforcement keep guns at home. Compare that to American gun ownership. One expert, Edward Hill of Cleveland State University, says in 2013 there were between 262 million and 310 million registered guns in the U.S., and that about 44% of households held at least one gun.

It’s a stunning comparison. Israel is a place where, arguably, keeping a gun is more likely to be justifiable given the security situation. But far fewer Israelis than Americans keep a gun for personal use, despite their relative accessibility. And outside of gun use in underworld crime, drug feuds and domestic violence, we don’t see Israelis turning the weapons they do hold on fellow Israelis very often.

Is that because there are too many opportunities to turn them on Palestinians? And what does it tell us that Palestinians, who can find guns relatively easily on the black market, are choosing to take a step backwards in time and choosing old-fashioned knives in their attacks on Israelis?

Now more than ever, I can understand why Israelis and Palestinians would want to be armed. But do the dangers that Americans face in their daily lives justify carrying a weapon in the numbers they do? Sure, it depends on where they live. But the interesting thing is that to many Americans, that doesn’t matter. In most states, a person doesn’t need to give a reason to apply for a gun license, whereas in Israel that’s a key part of the process, and applicants can be turned down if they don’t prove they have a need for the weapon.

America’s insistence on holding on to antiquated everyone-can-own-a-gun laws baffles me. Yes, the Constitution says so, but it also treated slavery as acceptable.

At least I can turn to one corner of sanity that I missed in my years away from America: “Saturday Night Live.” In a powerful parody this weekend, comedian Amy Schumer poked fun at the issue with a faux feel-good commercial about guns. “From first loves to new beginnings, and wherever life takes you,” a voice reads, sounding like an emotionally manipulative cellphone ad, “guns are there.”

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