In Israel, unlike the US, a privilege — but no right — to bear arms

As America grapples with gun control after the Connecticut shootings, Israeli experts note that only 2.5% of civilians here are licensed to carry a firearm. Yet mandatory training, and a profound sense of shared responsibility, says one scholar, have seen those civilians frequently intervene to foil murderous attacks

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An Israeli parent on the first day of school in 2009 (Photo credit: Gershon Elinson/ Flash 90)
An Israeli parent on the first day of school in 2009 (Photo credit: Gershon Elinson/ Flash 90)

Israel, a country that often appears to be inundated with weapons, actually extends very few gun permits to civilians — only 2.5 percent of the population can legally carry a firearm. But those who are licensed to carry a weapon have proved capable of acting swiftly and effectively time and again to neutralize attackers during acts of terrorism.

“In 40-50 cases over the past 10 years, armed Israeli citizens have intervened during terror attacks,” said Dr. Shlomo Shpiro, a senior research fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center and the author of a forthcoming paper on the armed Israeli civilian’s role in foiling terror attacks.

“In 70 percent of those cases, their intervention was crucial,” he said.

In the United States there are an estimated 280-300 million guns in the hands of some 47 percent of all Americans, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, meaning that close to half the population possesses an average of two firearms. Yet in the past several years some of the most gruesome public killings — including the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first-graders and six women were killed — ended with the suicide of a surrounded perpetrator rather than rapid intervention from armed civilians.

Although the divide is far from absolute, there can be several explanations for what seems to be a distinctive difference between the two groups of civilians.

For one thing, US police, perhaps to a greater extent in suburban areas and on college campuses, have in several instances refrained from charging at gunmen, setting an example of passivity for civilians. Rarely has this been more evident than in the 1999 Columbine, Colorado, shootings in which 13 people were killed while the Jefferson County police waited for a SWAT team to arrive.

Similarly, during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, in which 32 people were killed, police rushed to the scene and sought to make contact with the killer but still waited outside the chained doors of the university hall for five crucial minutes while Seung-Hui Cho murdered people within.

Additionally, some have suggested, the nature of the assailant and his motivation may play a role. Shpiro examined cases of nationalist terror attacks by Palestinians on Israelis. In these instances, the attacker is not exacting ostensible revenge against a limited, specific group of people, but rather targeting the entire collective, all Israelis — and, therefore, armed individuals within the collective are more likely to respond.

But Shpiro, who examined cases from the 1930s and onward, rejects this notion. The two critical factors explaining Israeli civilians’ relatively effective responses, he argues, are training and an embedded, perhaps biblical and religious sense of responsibility for one another.

The training begins with the military, where combat soldiers are taught from day one to charge the enemy. The army’s psychological screening tests are also used to determine who may carry a weapon post-army, as a civilian.

“If you did not serve, they want to know why,” said Ronen Rabani, the manager of Krav, a Jerusalem gun store and shooting range where gun registrations can be renewed and mandatory gun-training courses are given. “And if you got a 21 profile” – a psychological exemption from the draft – “then there’s no way you will ever get a license” as a civilian.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, which is in charge of both the police force and the licensing of civilian firearms, a citizen must also show that he or she lives in a border region or in the West Bank or spends most of their time there in order to be eligible to carry a firearm.

“If you are a lawyer who lives in Jerusalem but only represents the citizens of [the settlement of] Kiryat Arba,” you might be eligible, Rabani said, by way of an example.

The police conduct a background check and pass the information on to the ministry’s Firearm Licensing Department, which also requires that applicants present a medical form signed by a physician. The form consists of 24 questions, ranging from a patient’s physical health to his or her history of substance abuse and psychiatric care.

“In Israel it is not a right to bear arms, but a privilege,” said Rabani, standing in front of a case of 9mm. handguns.

And in recent years the privilege has been extended to fewer citizens.

The trend began in 1992 with a Knesset committee, but took root in 1995 when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down and killed by an assassin, Yigal Amir, who used a legal, properly licensed firearm. “After the murder, they inserted a new article whereby if the grounds for issuing a weapon have changed” — if, say, the person has moved– “then the license is canceled,” Yaakov Amit, the head of the Ministry of Public Safety’s Firearms Licensing Department, told Army Radio on Sunday. (It is not clear whether Amir would have been stripped of his license under the more stringent regulations.)

Today, Amit said, there are 170,000 Israeli citizens licensed to carry a weapon, a mere 2.5 percent of the population. Of these, 40,000 are security guards who work in supermarkets, malls and schools.

All licensed gun owners undergo mandatory training, which Shpiro said makes citizens more likely to respond in the event of an attack.

But the real reason that civilians banish the human instinct to flee in the face of terror, he said, relates to a deep-seated empathy in this small country.

He noted the July 2008 case of a terrorist who plowed toward the crowded Mahane Yehuda market at the wheel of a heavy construction vehicle, flipping over a bus and killing three people. An unarmed off-duty soldier, riding a bicycle, charged the vehicle and, in the midst of a hand-to-hand struggle, grabbed a weapon from a civilian security guard nearby and shot the attacker in the head.

“The willingness to risk life,” Shpiro said — stressing that he has never lived in the United States and cannot speak to the norms there — “is rooted in an Israeli culture of involvement, and a deep societal commitment to saving lives.”

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