On February 14, a 19-year-old former student at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, walked into the school and opened fire, killing 17 students and teachers and wounding 14 more before his shooting spree was done. It was one of the deadliest shootings of its kind in modern American history.
The next morning, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, on a visit to Israel, tweeted, “Just waking up in Israel to news of heartbreaking school shooting in FL; Reminded that Israel pretty much eliminated it by placing highly trained people strategically to spot the one common thread–not the weapon, but a person with intent. #PrayForParkland”
The tweet was “liked” over 28,000 times and retweeted more than 10,000 times. It played into a recurring refrain on the American pro-gun right that sees in Israel an example of the American conservative’s ideal of a well-trained, heavily armed citizenry.
There’s just one problem: It isn’t true.
Israelis are well-armed, of course, but any similarity to conservative Americans masks a fundamental difference: In Israel, guns are tightly controlled and carefully tracked by the state.
Israelis must meet a detailed list of criteria (Hebrew link) to be allowed to own a firearm. They must ask the state for a license, are permitted only one gun at a time, and must even ask for permission to sell their gun. And the Firearms Licensing Department is no rubber stamp: Roughly 40 percent of requests are rejected.
Indeed, before even requesting a license, Israelis must meet minimum age requirements, be in good health and of sound mind, and have no criminal record, among other preconditions.
There’s more. Once they are granted the right to carry a gun, Israelis are limited to just 50 bullets in their possession at any given time. They must shoot or return old bullets before they can buy new ones, a process that can only take place at tightly regulated shooting ranges where each bullet’s sale is carefully registered. The types of guns permitted also depend on the reason for the license – i.e., a veterinarian may only purchase a gun approved by the government for the killing of animals, a hunter’s license only permits the purchase of a firearm from an approved firearms list kept by the Parks Authority, and so forth.
In other words, as the Public Security Ministry explains on its website, Israeli law “does not recognize a right to bear arms, and anyone wanting to do so must meet a number of requirements, including a justified need to carry a firearm.” There is no inkling of a belief among Israelis that citizens should be permitted to own guns as a check on government power — that is, as a limit to the sovereignty of the state expressed in its monopoly on violence.
Israel’s social reality – the large number of firearms on the country’s streets – may look like an American conservative’s utopia, but it got there via a domineering statist regulatory regime that American gun control activists can only fantasize about.
And that’s no accident. A comparison of the gun control regimes of the US and Israel lays bare some fundamental differences between the two societies.
For one thing, Israelis are much more likely to trust in state power than are Americans.
When it comes to guns, Israelis want a well-armed society, and expect the state to manage things in such a way that only the right people are armed. In other words, Israelis are armed not against the state, but by the state against external threats like terror attacks.
For American gun advocates, of course, the right to gun ownership is, at its core, a right to defend one’s self from the state – and from one’s neighbors.
“The United States is deeply heterogeneous, and deeply aware of its heterogeneity, and that fosters deep distrust generally,” explained Daniel Correa, who teaches law at the University of North Texas at Dallas.
“There is a triple fear that drives” the American gun debate, he said, and “every one of these fears is internal to the US, not external. Right-of-center people are afraid of the federal government becoming so powerful that states can’t retain their sovereignty. Among libertarians, there’s a fear that government generally, whether state or federal, will run amok unless citizens can protect themselves from it. The third level is the distrust people have toward each other in the United States.”
Those fears are not limited to conservatives, Correa said. “The Democratic base has the same type of fear, but tries to promote the idea that government is good, or at least capable of being good, so people don’t need to be armed the way governments are armed — you don’t need AR [assault rifles] or tanks, but only the bare minimum for personal defense, like a handgun.”
Since the state is the danger, American laws don’t just permit owning guns; they actually forbid the government from tracking those guns.
For example, the so-called “Dickey Amendment” passed by the US Congress in 1996 (PDF of the law, amendment appears on p. 245) ensures that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
As columnist Charles Blow noted in The New York Times this week, that amendment denied the CDC millions of dollars over the past two decades for the study of the public health aspects of mass shootings and gun violence generally.
That was “disastrous,” Blow argued, because “we now propose policy prescriptions largely in an information vacuum.”
But isn’t that the point? Information is power, and the gun fight in America is really about where power resides in society, about statist impulses vs. individualistic ones — competing with each other to shape the ethos of American society.
The federal government is literally forbidden under law to track gun sales because knowing where the guns are would make it possible to take them away.
So while the Israeli state deigns to grant its citizens permission to carry firearms as part of a multi-layered national security strategy that sees a carefully selected and even more carefully regulated cadre of armed citizens as one of several lines of defense against terror attacks, the American state isn’t even allowed the ability to reliably know which Americans are armed, or with what.
There is an irony to Huckabee’s confusion: The situation in Israel may be closer to the original intent of the authors of America’s Second Amendment than the situation in the US.
That amendment, adopted in 1791, reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It was incorporated into the Constitution of the nascent United States at a time when the Spanish controlled Florida and French and British forces threatened in the north and west. An armed society was a vital bulwark against external threats.
Over time, with the decline of such threats as America pushed westward, and with advances in military technologies that rendered personal firearms all but useless against professional armies, US domestic fractures replaced those external threats as the organizing rationale for the Second Amendment.
Israeli Jews lie deep within the liberal Democratic camp when it comes to gun control
It doesn’t take much imagination to grasp how, in the aftermath of the Civil War, southerners might have come to see the right to bear arms as a kind of rallying cry in defense of their states and local cultures against the imposing Yankee-led federal juggernaut, or how many northerners and African Americans might have come to view gun ownership as a check on the efforts by those very states to rob individuals of their hard-won freedoms.
Israeli Jews, meanwhile, lie deep within the liberal Democratic camp when it comes to gun control. They believe the state can and should do good. Despite their deep social and political divides, Israeli Jews maintain a deep and abiding faith in their shared fate and communal solidarity. After the Jewish experience of the genocidal 20th century, the Israeli state represents for them an instrument of collective action that literally rescued them from oblivion. A powerful state is thus synonymous with both national security and personal safety.
In glossing over such differences, Huckabee neatly avoided the yawning gap between Israelis and Americans — the fact that similar results were achieved via diametrically opposed visions of society’s relationship with state power — so he could pretend to have a pro-gun ally in Israel that simply isn’t there.
This is not unusual when it comes to Israel, which seems to serve as an inexplicably potent symbol in innumerable foreign political narratives. Friends and foes alike project onto Israel’s complex reality their own moral and political stories, insisting that the Jewish state be the avatar for whatever imagined good or evil most vexes them.
Huckabee was doing just that in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. Israel, or at least a caricature of Israel he feels connected to, provided living proof of his deeply held beliefs about individualism and state power. Israel understands, he suggested, that it was “not the weapon, but a person with intent” that caused the Parkland massacre.
But the facts of Israel’s gun control regime show that Israelis expect strict and invasive state oversight over “the weapon” too, and do not share the American conservative’s wariness of either her government or her neighbor.
In the end, neither American conservatives nor liberals can really hold up Israel as evidence for their side in the culture war. Israel is too well-armed to be an example for Manhattanites, but too well-regulated to be an example for Huckabee’s home state of Arkansas. Israelis’ fears are directed in very different directions from those of Americans.
Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from Israel’s failure to fit neatly into either American narrative is simply that the public debate about guns in America is too narrow. There may be more policy options available to Americans than are imagined by the two sides, and these can only be seriously explored by moving beyond the usual fight about whether “guns kill people” or “people kill people” to the deeper disagreements about the character and future of American society that underlie this divide and lend it its potency.