Monday, December 31, 2012

Guns and Israel: Why what you think is probably wrong

Two weeks ago, I turned on my computer after Shabbat to discover what everyone in America had already been grappling with for a day: Newtown. And in the days that followed, in the news--well, you all know what you read, about gun control, the NRA, mental illness, and gun control. And every so often, Israel would come up, as a place where people are all armed to the teeth and ergo these things do not happen. A school massacre could never happen here, because we have armed security guards, and, well, people here are armed.

Well, no. School massacres like the ones in Newtown haven't happened here, because mentally unstable teenage boys here don't have access to guns, and the Arab terrorists who would very happily shoot up a classroom full of children aren't given the chance to do so.

Rates of gun violence in Israel are not low because everyone here has a gun. Rates of gun violence are low because guns here are very tightly regulated, and because the guns that are out there are in the right hands.

In  Israel, there are 7 privately owned guns per 100 people. In the US, there are 89. The US rate of firearm deaths per capita is five times as high as the rate in Israel. Even though we have, you know, this terrorist problem.

Guns in Israel are ubiquitous. Yes, this is true. You see guns everywhere. You see guns on the bus, guns in the bus station, guns on every policeman and security guard. You see soldiers in uniform carrying guns, and you see soldiers on leave, not in uniform, carrying guns. So the sight of a 19-year-old boy with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, eating a hamburger, doesn't get a second glance.

It's easy to see this and think that Israel is the NRA's version of paradise. Actually, this is pretty far from the truth, because when you get down to it, you cannot have a gun in Israel unless the government specifically says you can--and unless you have a very good case to own a gun, they're going to tell you no.

Guns in Israel exist for a very clear reason. They're there, to be blunt, to keep Arabs from killing Jews. There: I said it. That is why we have guns on the streets here: so that when a terrorist gets on a bus with a bomb, or walks into a pizza restaurant with a bomb, or starts mowing down passersby with a stolen bulldozer, or climbs through your bedroom window to murder your family, you have a chance to kill him before he kills you or anyone else. It's pretty straightforward. We have off-duty soldiers, policemen, and security guards carrying guns for this reason, and we have the guns visible for this reason.

Attitudes toward gun ownership in Israel are completely different. Gun ownership is not a right. It's something you avoid if you can. There is nothing cool, exciting, or sports-related about guns in Israel. You do not use them to go target shooting for fun or, for the most part, to go hunting (although I'm told some people do hunt here, it's nothing like deer hunting in, say, upstate New York). Military service is mandatory, for the most part, because Israel is constantly fighting for its own existence. You learn to use a gun with every expectation that at some point, you will be using it in a situation where you might die. Guns are large, smelly, greasy, heavy, awkward and dangerous. You do not collect them, you do not show them off. They are a necessary evil. And because of the mandatory military service, people understand this, they understand guns, they respect guns and they know how to use them. There are very few gun accidents here; people do not accidentally shoot their own kids in parking lots. Stolen guns are rare, because if you have a gun, you have to keep it behind two locks at every moment it is not on your body. If someone steals your gun because you were negligent, you--yes, you--can be held responsible for crimes committed with it. It's a pretty strong disincentive for being negligent.

In Israel, you cannot just walk into a store and walk out with a gun. You have to have a reason to own a gun, and you have to demonstrate that you have a need for a gun, and you have to prove that you are capable of owning your gun responsibly. If you live in the West Bank, if you are employed in security, if you transport valuables, if you travel in the West Bank--these are reasons to own a gun. Usually, they are reasons to own one pistol, which you plan on carrying. One pistol. Not a Bushmaster.

If you apply for a gun permit, you stand a 40% chance of being rejected. If you have a gun, the police check up on you regularly, to make sure you haven't done anything you shouldn't have. And you have to reapply, at least annually, to demonstrate that yes, you still need your gun.

We live in the West Bank, within a literal stone's throw of lots of Arabs who would very much like to kill us. We are not allowed to have a gun, simply because we haven't been here long enough and, I would imagine, the Israeli government doesn't have confidence that we are Israeli enough to handle one safely. My husband looked into it when we moved, and was told, sorry--not for another year. If we'd stayed in Jerusalem, we would have been refused even after that time. Because we didn't have a good enough reason.

But it doesn't matter, because we're not going to have a gun in our house. With a houseful of curious little kids, we're much safer without one. And unless you live in Givat Assaf, or Efrat, or Afghanistan, or Yemen--so are you.


OJ said...

You are wrong. Studies show that increases in legally owned guns decrease crime, not increase them.

The US has high rates of gun massacres because its the US, no other reason.

Otherwise there would be far more deaths in areas that have more guns and also more deaths in Switzerland.

You want to see what happens when too much gun control goes wrong? Look at Norway where the killer killed well over a hundred people.

Alisha said...

OJ, how does what you said make her wrong? What she said is that in Israel there is a more responsible attitude towards guns, which is related to how ubiquitous they are in public society and also to how carefully regulated private ownership is.

Although there are fewer privately-owned guns here that in the US, there are more that are carried in a professional capacity. Also, many more of the people who are licensed to carry weapons are professionally trained to do so, even if the particular gun they are carrying is privately owned.

It's not about the raw numbers of guns, it's about a mentality. Children grow up with an understanding that guns are serious business and not something to mess with, and this carries over. There are many fewer gun-related accidents due to negligence and also many fewer incidents of firearms deliberately used inappropriately. A mutual friend of ours -- who carries a pistol himself -- tells about having watched two armed men get into a fistfight on the street, without it occurring to either one to actually use the weapon he was carrying. It's simply in a different category.