Piece Now? No, Israelis Aren't Gun-crazy

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The display at a Tel Aviv gun shop. October 20, 2015Credit: AP

Israelis seem to be going gun crazy. Gun-and-ammo shops are being swamped by customers and the number of applications has jumped more than 50-fold to 8,000 a day since Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced he was easing the rules for getting a license. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat urged residents to pack a gun: “In a way, it like being on army reserve duty,” he said.

Barkat is said to pack a Glock, but when he famously came to the rescue of a man last February he didn’t come in shooting but tackled him down. Anyway, at least four Knesset members and one cabinet minister (Naftali Bennett) say they are now going around armed.

What next – an Israeli version of the National Rifle Association? We could call it Piece Now.

Yet less than one in 10 Israelis owns a hand-gun, per capita, compared with almost 9 out of 10 Americans (there are 88 guns for every 100 Americans).In fact, gun-mania in Israel is something of a media figment. Reports of sudden interest in packing a pistol is part of a broader media hysteria creating by the wave of Palestinian attacks.

Of course, the attacks are real and scary, but even in the unlikely event that the pace of killing doesn’t let up, more Israelis were killed in road accidents (36 in August, and 130 seriously injured) than by terrorists (nine in three weeks). But after a lethal pile-up, you don’t see lines forming at driver-refresher courses or people staying away from busy streets.

The incessant media buzz – replete with videos and graphic pictures, detailed recounting of the latest outrage and politicians’ howling – creates a panic out of proportion to the threat. The gimme-a-gun phenomenon is just one facet of the panic that has people applauding rules that would allow police to frisk people not suspected of a crime or kick to death an innocent bystander.

Not a vehicle for self-expression

In any case, the waiting list for a gun licenses is likely is shorten quickly, because unlike America guns don’t  mean much to Israelis.

There’s no second amendment to the constitution that’s creation myth that established gun ownership as an inalienable right. There’s no NRA to cow lawmakers into refraining from interfering with someone’s right to an assault rifle. Literature and film doesn’t celebrate the gun as a vehicle for self-actualization.

Gun ownership in Israel is quite low, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, apparently the only one that has been done recently that compares worldwide data.

The number of guns per 100 people in Israel is just 7.3 – near the bottom of the range for Western European countries – versus 88.8 for America.  
In practical terms, the figure for Israel is higher because the survey doesn’t include guns soldiers take home on weekends or that the government lends to security guards in high-risk areas. But that extra weaponry isn't being used by people infatuated by guns, collecting small home arsenals, spending their leisure time at gun shows and shooting ranges, and waiting with gusto for someone to dare trespass on their property.  The Israelis that have guns, have them as part of their job.

It’s not just that the Israeli laws for owning and using a gun are strict. The Israeli nonchalance about guns goes a good way to explaining why they are so rarely used to settle personal grievances or commit crimes (the Israeli homicide rate was 1.8 per 100,000 people in 2012 versus 4.7 for the U.S.).

Buying a gun at a shop near Givat Ze'ev.Credit: AP

Watch out! Helmet alert!

Interestingly enough, at least some Israeli banks have a rule that you cannot enter a branch wearing a motorcycle helmet because there was a spate of holdups by bikers a few years ago. But you can go into a branch with an M-16, and no one gives you a second look.

True, a disgruntled client shot up a Be’er Sheva bank branch two years ago, killing four people, but it’s the exception that proves the rule that Israelis are not trigger happy. Israeli banks didn’t ban guns because they and their clients know that gun violence is not a problem (of course, they didn’t improve customer service either, but cultural imperatives have many dimensions).

If anything, Israel has been tightening the criteria for gun ownership over the last decade or so. Even now that the government is easing the rules again, Israel’s gun regulations remain very strict. The time it takes to actual get one is quite long; you can’t own an automatic weapon; you don’t have access to unlimited amounts of ammunition and you have to have to provide a good reason why you should be allowed a permit – it’s not a right.

Yet none the people interviewed in the media over the last few days, expressed outrage that their rights were being somehow being violated.

Israel, a model for the NRA

An Israeli training to shoot at a gun range near Givat Zeev, Oct. 11, 2015.Credit: AP

In America, one of the myths perpetuated by the NRA is that a place where everyone packs a pistol will be able to stop mass shootings and bank robberies. Dodge City of the Old West is the NRA’s model for law enforcement – everybody is armed except presumably criminals and the insane, they use their weapons smartly and responsibility, and in a sudden crisis act with careful, calculated precision to ensure that only the threat is eliminated.

In fact, it’s hard to find examples in America and its many mass shootings of an ordinary guy stopping a crime by pulling out his gun and eliminating the perpetrator. In Israel, cases like that are routine, but that is precisely because the right to possess a gun is a limited to a select few people, the great majority of whom have had army training and/or are still serving.
Settlers are allowed weapons, too, but that’s where you see the most abuse of the privilege, trigger-happy people pulling out a gun and shooting on the slightest of pretexts, such as stone-throwing Palestinian kids.

Both the NRA and advocates of gun control in the U.S. look to Israel as a model. The NRA points to all the weapons people carry around shopping malls, schools and synagogues while the anti-gun activists note the strict regulations on possession to explain Israel’s low homicide rate.

The gun control advocates understand the Israeli reality better: It’s not that so many people are armed. It is that they are armed out of necessity. For Israelis, a gun isn’t a symbol, a myth or an object of desire – it’s something that stays in your holster until you need it.