Analysis

Israel's New Gun Policy Is Straight Out of Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Who Is America'

Baron Cohen's latest character would love Israel's public security minister, who's implementing a policy to drastically lower the bar to gun ownership

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan / Sacha Baron Cohen as former Mossad officer Col. Erran Morad.
Rami Shllush, SHOWTIME

The resemblance between comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional ex-Mossad officer and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan doesn’t stop with their booming voices and macho swagger. Both men wholeheartedly endorse the conviction of conservative forces in the United States that more people with guns means a safer environment – and scorn liberals who think otherwise.

Unlike the Cohen character Erran Morad, Erdan doesn’t use this belief to ridicule the right-wing faithful on cable television. Instead, he’s implementing a policy that would drastically lower the bar to gun ownership and let more than half a million Israelis walk the streets armed.

>> Why Sacha Baron Cohen's targets agree to be so colossally humiliated Netanyahu's dangerous plan for arming Israel more will actually make us less safe | Opinion 

“Skilled civilians carrying a gun in public contribute to a sense of security, act as an important line of defense against lone-wolf terror attacks and ... thus increase public security,” Erdan said in announcing his decision Monday.

Sacha Baron Cohen as former Mossad officer Col. Erran Morad.
Screenshot / SHOWTIME / YouTube

To be sure, the gun-ridden American landscape hardly resembles Israel’s streets. The tough criteria for an Israeli to become a gun owner – even after Erdan’s regulatory changes are in place – greatly exceed those of anywhere in the United States. These include more demanding requirements regarding physical- and mental-health screenings, and checks on whether the applicant has a criminal record or how much training he might need.

As a result, the United States tops the list of civilian gun owners per capita – 120 guns for every 100 citizens, more than double the number of guns in the number-two country – Yemen of all places. Israel appears far down that list, far below every European country.

This is why many Israelis cried foul when, after the February 2018 Florida school shooting, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee claimed that such incidents didn’t occur in Israel due to its vigilance, not its restrictions on weapons.

Erdan’s move has been a long time coming, starting from when he took over as public security minister in 2015. He quickly sought to reverse regulations put in place two years earlier; those rules addressed the problem of women who were shot to death by partners who worked as security guards.

Women’s and human rights organizations that formed the group Gun Free Kitchen Tables lobbied to require such employees to lock up their weapons at the end of their shifts, not take them home. Erdan insisted that the guards bring their weapons home. He said the 38,000 guns carried by off-duty security guards would help make the streets more secure.

Wild Wild West Bank

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in Or Akiva, May 22, 2018.
Rami Shllush

Erdan’s crusade gained momentum after the so-called knife intifada began in September 2015, during which some armed civilians were able to intervene quickly against lone-wolf attacks, especially in West Bank settlements, where gun ownership is far more common than across the Green Line.

This week’s culmination of Erdan’s efforts permits any citizen with infantry firearms training to be eligible for a gun permit. Until now, Israelis had to prove that gun ownership was necessary because of a dangerous environment, whether in a settlement, near the West Bank separation barrier or near the border with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. Someone with a high rank in the army could also bear arms.

Opponents of Erdan’s move sound a lot like gun-control advocates in the United States. Dominated by advocates for women’s causes, they quote statistics showing that any increased public safety is significantly outweighed by the dangers of having a gun at home.

“Instead of protecting us, Erdan is ignoring flashing red warning lights,” MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) wrote on Twitter and in the Israeli media. She said he’s making a dangerous move despite “evidence that the reform could significantly increase the risk to women and children.”

Rozin has called for an emergency Knesset meeting on the topic in a last-ditch attempt to stop Erdan’s initiative. Members of the Israeli Arab community are equally concerned, worried that the problem of unlicensed weapons in Arab towns would only grow.

But the arguments on the pro-gun side are very different from what one might hear from the Republican Party. Erdan may advocate expanding gun ownership, but no one claims that monitoring should be loosened. There is no Israeli equivalent of a National Rifle Association pushing back against Gun Free Kitchen Tables

“Gun ownership in the U.S. is a constitutional right,” notes Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “In Israel it’s not a right – it’s supposedly a privilege, and so the filtering is always going to be more vigorous and serious.”

'Permanent state of war'

According to Pinkas, the threat posed by Erdan’s move will never approach the dangers in the United States because civilians are only permitted to carry handguns, not automatic weapons, and because the number of guns carried in the United States is so incredibly high.

Still, Pinkas believes there is no justification for what Erdan is doing and calls it a “silly and dangerous” proposal trying to fix a situation that isn’t broken.

“Think about Israel’s current situation,” he says. “At any given moment we have so many young people – especially young men – walking around with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, yet we have no mass shootings.”

The introduction of more civilian weapons, he says, increases the chances of mistakes, misjudgments and accidental shootings far more than it increases safety. If Erdan has evidence that proves otherwise, Pinkas says, “he should show it to us.”

Ultimately, Pinkas believes Erdan’s decision has much more to do with right-wing politics than safer streets or saving lives. “I think it’s posturing – part of the right-wing zeitgeist that benefits from making us feel as if we're in a permanent state of war for which we all need to be armed.”

If this is right, Erdan may have more in common with Erran Morad – and his targets of mockery on the conservative right in the United States.