Why School Shootings Don't Happen in Israel

Why is it that in Israel – a country surrounded by weapons of war – we don't see the same gun violence as that which cost the lives of students in Oregon and little McKayla from Tennessee?

Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar
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A candlelight vigil for victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting in Winston, Oregon, October 3, 2015.
A candlelight vigil for victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting in Winston, Oregon, October 3, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar

I spent most of last Wednesday renewing my gun license. Contrary to what many in the United States believe, owning a firearm in Israel is neither common nor easy. Applying for a license is a grueling process, often taking months of security checks and training courses. Keeping that license requires an investment of time, effort, and money.

In my case, the license was a legacy of many years as a volunteer in the Israel Police sniper unit and later in the Israel Defense Forces reserves. It had been years since I was actively involved in security work, aside from the occasional civil guard patrol. But, given the rather volatile security situation, it’s considered desirable that those who have the training keep up their proficiency and continue to carry.

And so, on Wednesday morning I drove into the nearest town to get the necessary forms signed by my family doctor, who certified that I’m not taking any medication that might impair my alertness, that I have no history of psychological disorders, and that I’m more or less in my right mind—at least most of the time.

And then it was off to the shooting range. Together with 15 others, I stood in line for half an hour to have my designated self-defense weapon examined, tested for any malfunctions that would endanger myself or passersby. The serial number was matched with the paperwork to make sure the weapon was legally mine and had not been put on any watch lists. Another 40-minute wait (part of it spent in the Sukkah outside the range chatting with an elderly veteran of four of Israel’s wars) and we were ushered into the range for our training session.

The session was conducted by someone whom I had known as an instructor back in my days in the police sniper unit. He went over changes to the laws of owning a firearm: “If your weapon is stolen from your house and you cannot prove that a safe was broken open to get at the weapon, then you are a criminal and may do jail time.”

And if we ever have to use a weapon in self-defense? “You had better be certain that you had no other recourse, that you did what you could to warn the attacker, and that had you not taken action, at least one innocent life could have been lost. And you may still do jail time.”

We spent about an hour at practice, refreshing our ability to deal with safety issues and malfunctions, honing our skills. One by one, we were certified as competent and sent out to collect our paperwork, duly stamped and fed into the computer, from which it would go into some government database. The process took up most of the day.

I thought of all this when I read of yet another (reportedly, the 294th this year) mass shooting in the United States—this time at a small community college in Oregon. Four firearms. An attention-seeking, imbalanced, suicidal young man walked into a classroom with four firearms. Police later found five pistols and one rifle at the college, and another three pistols, four rifles, and a shotgun at his home. All the weapons were purchased legally by the shooter or his family members.

And then Tuesday's headlines tell us that an 11-year-old boy in Tennessee shot and killed an eight-year-old girl, his neighbor, when she refused to let him see her puppy. The boy retrieved his family’s 12-gauge shotgun from an unlocked closet, and fired at McKayla Dyer as she stood in her yard.

There is something seriously wrong about a system where a disturbed young man can acquire deadly weapons as easily as buying a new laptop. Where children can treat firearms as casually as toys.

I live in a country with wars raging on all sides, with failed states collapsing into a primordial stew of hatred and nihilism an hour’s drive north of me, with suicidal regimes seeking nuclear weapons in order to carry out their expressed goals of obliterating me, my family, and everyone with whom I interact on a daily basis. But for all this, I don’t feel as if I’m living in a war zone. We know about death and we know about weapons of war, but we don't fetishize them.

And the United States? A country bounded by friendly regimes and by neutral water. Apparently a nation lacking natural enemies may simply become its own enemy.

Yael Shahar divides her time between researching organizational dynamics and Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish topics can be found at

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