Rob Portnoe, a Jewish educator from Minneapolis, is visiting family in Israel. He thinks it’s his tenth visit, and one of his sons served as an infantry soldier in the Israeli army. He is accustomed to seeing guns in Israel, from those toted by soldiers on leave to those carried by security guards. But, he says, the gun culture in Israel is different than in the United States
“Israelis view guns as a necessity while Americans see them as a right,” Portnoe told The Media Line. “There is a sense in Israel that if people didn’t feel they needed those guns, they wouldn’t carry them. In the US, people feel entitled to carry a gun.”
As Israel has compulsory military service, many citizens receive military training in their teens and continue to do reserve duty well into adulthood. They are trained to see guns as dangerous, but are drilled in gun safety with stiff penalties for violating weapons protocols.
The official definition of a mass shooting is when a gunman kills at least four people. Outside of terrorist attacks, that has only happened once in Israel in recent years — in 2013, when a disaffected man killed four Israelis in a bank in the southern city of Beersheva before committing suicide.
Meanwhile, in the US, there have been 1,500 mass shootings since 2012. During that period, more than 1,700 people were killed and 6,000 wounded by guns. American statistics show that there are more guns than people and some people have ten or more guns.
Contrary to its image, it is very difficult for most Israelis to obtain a gun license. When they do receive permission, authorities limit both gun and gun ammunition: the permit being tied to a specific weapon. Government statistics say that 40 percent of applications for gun permits are denied and are only granted if the licensing authority believes that the applicant has a specific need for a gun – for example, if he lives in the West Bank where there have been many Palestinian attacks on both Israeli soldiers and civilians. Permits must be renewed yearly, and every six years, gun owners must undergo a psychological evaluation.
Supporters of Israel’s restrictive laws say they are the reason that Israel – which limits possession of ammunition to a mere fifty-rounds — has not had a phenomenon of mass shootings.
Robby Berman, the head of an organ donation society in Israel, applied for a gun in 1991 when he was living in Jerusalem’s Old City. His application was approved, and he purchased a pistol, and went to a shooting range where he learned to use the gun.
Several years afterwards, he says, he went through a period of depression, and began seeing a therapist. She insisted that he give up the gun, fearing he could harm himself, and he agreed. That said, there are times that he would have preferred to keep his handgun.
“Two years ago, when all of the stabbing attacks happened in Jerusalem, I wished I had the gun,” Berman told The Media Line. “So I started carrying a switchblade and mace with me. Once at a mall in Jerusalem, the knife set off the metal detector at the entrance. When I asked the security guard if he wanted me to leave it with him while I shopped, he said, “No, everyone here has a knife. Go ahead.”
The Israeli army has grown increasingly concerned about soldiers using guns for suicide. About 15 soldiers each year take their own lives with their army-issued weapons. The army has recently changed its regulations, with soldiers on extended leave being told to leave their weapons on base rather than bringing them home.
“I believe that the right to defend oneself and carry a gun is a basic human right, not a right that the government gives you,” Moshe Feiglin, a former Israeli Knesset member who has now formed his own party called Zehut, told The Media Line. “I am not talking about an AK-47 or an M-16 but a pistol for self-defense.”
As a first step, he said, anyone who has served in the Israeli army and knows how to use a gun should be given a gun permit automatically. He said that in the 1990’s, Israel made a mistake by allowing Palestinian policemen to carry AK-47s, and these guns have been used to kill many Israelis in the years since then.
Feiglin says the idea that more restrictive gun laws will protect people is a fallacy. In the US, he argues, the four cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Detroit are responsible for 25 percent of gun deaths, and all four cities have restrictive gun laws. In fact, he says, if more people in Las Vegas were trained to use guns properly, perhaps they could have stopped the shooter earlier.
In Israel, during the wave of stabbing attacks that began two years ago, several of the attackers were shot and killed by civilians. In addition, in July, a Palestinian attacker walked into a home in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, killing three Israelis. He was shot and wounded by an off-duty Israeli soldier who had brought his army-issued gun home with him. The soldier heard the screams from next door and fired one bullet through the window, wounding the attacker.