National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Thursday announced plans for an overhaul of the ministry’s firearm licensing department, aimed at streamlining the process for civilians looking to carry a gun following a series of terror attacks.
Gun control in Israel is relatively strict, and weapons are generally only granted to those who can show a need for extra security in their line of work or daily life. Citizens in nearly all cases can only own one gun and only 50 bullets at a given time.
According to data released by the National Security Ministry on Monday, there were 147,248 issued gun licenses, compared to a high of 185,399 in 2009.
According to the ministry, 42,236 applications were submitted in 2022, an all-time record. Before 2021, gun ownership had been on the downswing, with an average of 13,000 applications a year between 2016 and 2020.
The rise in applications has been attributed to the May 2021 Jewish-Arab race riots in many cities during a war with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.
Of the applications last year, 10,986 licenses were issued, and 4,404 were given conditional approval. Another 17,373 applications were still being looked at by the department, 10,773 were awaiting an interview, and 6,600 were missing paperwork. Also, 9,256 applications were rejected and another 217 expired, according to the data.
Ben Gvir on Thursday said he decided on doubling the firearm licensing department’s personnel and expanding its work hours in order to issue thousands of licenses per month, his office said in a statement.
The minister also decided to nullify the requirement of interviews for security officials seeking a personal license. That would mean IDF officers, police officers, Shin Bet officials, Mossad officials, Prison Service wardens, and firefighters would no longer need to wait for an interview to get their license.
“This will save time and lighten the burden on the interview department, significantly shorten the procedure, and allow the issuance of thousands of weapons licenses per month,” the statement said.
Veterans of the IDF’s infantry units are eligible for gun permits, along with police officers who received the equivalent training. Additionally, army officers ranked first lieutenant or higher, as well as noncommissioned officers ranked first sergeant or higher, who carried a weapon during their military service, are no longer required to return their guns and permits when they are discharged from reserve service.
Some 23 percent of gun licenses are held by members or former members of security forces, according to recent ministry data.
The ministry said its goal was to conduct 5,000 to 8,000 interviews per month “and ease the long waiting list that has accumulated in the ministry.”
Ben Gvir tied the move to expedite the gun license issuing process to two terror attacks in Jerusalem over the weekend.
“Two incidents that took place over the weekend proved the difference between an incident in Neve Yaakov, where there was no civilian with a weapon and with great sorrow seven holy Jews were massacred, and the incident in the City of David, where thankfully a civilian fired his personal weapon and quickly neutralized the terrorist,” he said in the statement.
The terrorist who killed seven in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood on Friday night was killed by police officers within five minutes of the first reports of gunfire as he fled the scene. In the second attack on Saturday morning, the 13-year-old Palestinian attacker was shot and wounded by an off-duty IDF officer, who was seriously hurt.
“This is an excellent example of the great necessity and importance of citizens carrying weapons and we have the duty to speed up the process and dramatically shorten the bureaucracy, for our children, for the lives of all of us,” Ben Gvir added.
Critics, especially women’s rights activists, lament loosening gun ownership restrictions.
According to data from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, of 32 women murdered with firearms between 2019 and 2021, nine were killed by people with licensed guns.
ACRI said some 200 licensed guns are stolen each year, and around 11% of suicides per year are committed with firearms.
In a report issued Sunday, the association warned that the “growing excessive armament undermines civil security and causes proven damages.”
It said there was “no factual basis for the claim that expanded civilian armament increases security,” citing data from the ministry that of 264 terror incidents between 2018 and 2020, an armed civilian or a security guard was involved in just 5% of the cases.
Most of the terror incidents occurred in the West Bank, where civilians can already apply for a license. Currently, some 13% of gun licenses are based on home or work location criteria.
Under loosened directives issued in 2018, individuals who have been in continuous possession of a firearm permit for 10 years are allowed to keep the permit indefinitely, without undergoing periodic tests to prove they still meet the requirements. Ministry data shows nearly 60% of all gun licenses are granted under this criterion.
Meanwhile, volunteers in certain police units and in medical organizations Magen David Adom, ZAKA and Hatzalah are eligible to receive a gun license, yet less than 1% of permits have been issued under this criterion, according to ministry data.
The ministry has yet to address the lack of firearms in Orthodox neighborhoods and towns. Most ultra-Orthodox Israelis do not serve in the military, meaning they could only apply for a license based on their home or work location. Meanwhile, some Haredim consider carrying guns on the Sabbath to violate Jewish law.