Likud lawmaker Amir Ohana announced the establishment of a Knesset caucus for “the promotion of the right to self-defense in Israel” on Tuesday, only days after Omer Bar-Lev, his successor as public security minister, announced that he was examining possibly tightening restrictions on gun ownership.
In a Facebook post announcing the move, Ohana declared that while the “supreme and primary role of the state is to protect the safety and security of the individual,” citizens also have the right to defend themselves when “the state is unable to do so.”
The Facebook post featured a photo with the signatures of 22 Knesset members who have joined the caucus.
Current legislation enshrining the right to self-defense is “almost a dead letter and even in circumstances in which the citizen is right, he may find himself suspected and even charged with serious offenses,” Ohana wrote in the Facebook post. He also questioned Israel’s strict gun control laws in light the fact that “many of its citizens are skilled and trained through their military service.”
Despite prior efforts to allow more Israelis to purchase firearms in the wake of a series of lone wolf attacks in 2015 and 2016 – when Israelis disarmed Palestinian assailants with a variety of makeshift weapons including as selfie sticks and pizza trays – current Israeli firearm policies are “still limited in a way that endangers human life,” the former public security minister claimed.
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Some 140,000 Israelis hold firearm permits, not including members of the security services. Most of the licenses have been issued to former combat soldiers and to those living in specific locations. Applications for gun licenses increased dramatically after the military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in May, which sparked civil unrest and clashes between Jews and Arabs around the country.
Following his election to the Knesset in 2016, Ohana, who served in the military police and the Shin Bet security service, founded a Knesset group called the Caucus for Shaping the Gun-Carrying Policy in Israel. In an interview with Australia’s J-Wire Jewish news website several months later, he complained that “current restrictions are so tough that only a small fraction of Israelis … are allowed to carry weapons.”
“Only around 3 percent of Israelis can be licensed to carry a firearm for self-defense. In the U.S., there are 112 guns per 100 citizens,” he said, and called for Israel to permit “citizens who have no criminal record, no psychiatric or relevant medical record and who [serve] in the [Israeli army] reserves” to own a firearm.
Israeli regulations largely restrict gun ownership to people working in professions such as security, as well as farmers, volunteers in medical rescue services and Israelis living in the West Bank. To obtain a gun license, Israelis are required to demonstrate their ability to handle a firearm and to provide documentation regarding their medical history and the absence of a criminal background. They also must prove a compelling reason for applying for a gun permit.
The criteria for gun ownership were significantly expanded in 2018 by then Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. He did so by way of executive order, despite claims that such policy changes required the approval of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee.
On the grounds that the sensitive security situation in Israel justified an increase of the number of civilians licensed to carry weapons, he issued an executive order permitting any former combat soldier to obtain a gun permit, subject to the approval of the police and the Health Ministry. Previously licenses were generally restricted to combat veterans of the rank of first lieutenant or higher.
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A coalition of groups calling themselves the Gun on the Kitchen Table project filed a petition with the High Court of Justice challenging Erdan's authority to make the policy changes without approval from the Knesset Interior Committee. Their stance was supported by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
After taking over as public security minister, Ohana bucked Mendelblit's position and also asserted that the public security minister has the authority to make such changes on his own. In late May, following the civil unrest in the country, Ohana defended a call by a Jewish city councilman in Lod for armed Jews to protect the city's Jewish population against the backdrop of the violence that erupted there between Jews and Arabs.
In response to a letter from Joint List Knesset member Ofer Cassif, who claimed that the Lod city council member's call constituted incitement, Ohana said it was legitimate for "citizens to defend themselves against their attackers by means of firearms for which they have a legal license."