OCTOBER 19, 2017 – JERUSALEM – Anyone who travels to Israel probably sees more firearms per square foot than anywhere short of a battlefield. This is primarily due to the fact that Israel has, historically, been a battlefield, with ongoing security issues that require a strong and permanent presence of armed authorities.
These authorities include the police, men and women in blue who generally carry sidearms; members of the Border Guard (a body that operates under the aegis of the police force), who wear dark green uniforms and usually carry assault rifles or carbines, sometimes in addition to sidearms; and soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, whose primary weaponry is full-fledged assault rifles, many of them tricked out with accessories that make them more accurate and lethal than the manufacturers intended.
Almost all of these state-sanctioned security personnel take their weapons home with them, so you also see this hardware on public transportation and at bus and train stations throughout the country.
In addition, there are private, uniformed security guards with handguns at the entrances to malls, hospitals, government buildings, cinemas, and supermarkets. (Oddly enough, you don’t always see them at banks.) There are also tens of thousands of civilians armed with handguns because they either live or work in areas considered high-risk, which in most cases means settlements or other areas of the West Bank.
That’s a lot of hardware.
Sometimes, these weapons are abused. Accidents happen both on-duty and off. They are used in suicides and domestic violence, and in the odd instance of political violence against Arabs.
In February 1994, 37-year-old Baruch Goldstein used the Israeli-manufactured Galil assault rifle he had been issued as a Hebron settler to kill at least 40 Palestinians and wound at least 100 more as they prayed in the city’s shared Cave of the Patriarchs. In May 1990, Ami Popper, a 21-year-old from Rishon LeZion, took his soldier-brother’s Galil and mowed down 18 Palestinian laborers waiting for early-morning rides to their jobs, killing seven.
Still, why has Israel seen so few non-political mass murders by firearm? Perhaps it’s a matter of culture.
I held my first lethal weapon when I was all of 8 years old. It was a bolt-action, single-fire, .22 rifle and it was on the outdoor firing range of a YMCA summer camp in Connecticut. The instructors emphasized safety, but I have distinct memories of rifles chained to the floor in a way that they could only be pointed in the general direction of the paper targets 20 yards off.
It was cool to fire that rifle. It was a rush. And I was pretty good at it. Yet it was not until I was 24 that I got to fire a real weapon, an M16, as a recruit in the IDF. I was still pretty good at it. And while it was still cool and a rush, any enthusiasm I had was tempered with the realization that I was now learning to use a weapon to kill and keep from being killed.
As for safety, the weapon was not chained to the floor. Shooting accidents happen in the IDF, as do suicides, and army psychologists are known to have soldiers who show previously undetected signs of emotional instability disarmed, if not discharged. But overall, the attitude toward the weapon you end up holding as a combat soldier is one of respect – and even discomfort.
Until the day I was released from reserve duty, I made it a habit to clear the firing chamber of my assault rifle every time I picked it up or put it down. It was the same with the Glock 19 I carried as part of a quick response team at a think tank facing the prime minister’s office, where it was believed that terrorists might stage an attack merely to demonstrate how close they could get to Israel’s leader.
The fear that one tiny mistake could make these weapons go off was sobering. But just as much, it was the constant realization that I was carrying hardware for reasons far more serious than mere sporting activities or to mask physical or emotional insecurities – the way it seems to be these days among so many in America who pose proudly with the weapons they can get down at Walmart.
Some of the people I came to know while in the Army or on the quick-response team had a more relaxed attitude toward their weapon (although hardly cavalier). But like me, they knew exactly why they were packing, meaning the stark realization that we were obligated to run toward the danger rather than away.
In a country where 99.9 percent of the weapons in use are meant for this reason only, it is the prevailing attitude. And it becomes the culture. Unfortunately, it’s not a culture that can be replicated overnight.
People also cite Israel’s strict gun laws, which require thorough background checks, as well as physical and psychological exams before someone is granted a permit to obtain a handgun. They were tightened in 1992 after a security guard licensed to carry a firearm entered a psychiatric outpatient clinic in Jerusalem – where he was under treatment – and killed four staffers (one the wife of an acquaintance of mine).
The relatively few hunters in the country must undergo the same process before buying a shotgun. As for assault rifles – which can be unleashed in a fully automatic mode at a rate of fire that’s faster than Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was able to obtain with his “bump stock” or any other add-on he might have used – they are available solely to members of the security forces.
Only theft puts assault rifles in the hands of civilians, where the going rate can be over $10,000 per unit. This means almost all of them end up in the underworld (which is bad enough), but not in the hands of disgruntled psychopaths toying with a Las Vegas of their own.
But to get to the very essence of the legal argument, in Israel, being able to lawfully carry a firearm is a hard-earned privilege, not a right. There is no Second Amendment to debate. The only old writings we parse are the Torah, the Talmud, and centuries’ worth of rabbinical teachings.
Such debates, thankfully, have to do with somewhat more mundane matters, like prayer at the Western Wall and who is a Jew. They don’t dwell on the difference between a muzzle-loaded musket and a souped-up AR-15 or the definition of a “well-regulated militia.” And if only for that, we in Israel are better off.
Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.