Nine days after the Newtown, Conn. massacre in which 20 children died, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, broke his group’s long silence with a bristling attack against gun regulation that included a theme heard frequently among gun rights advocates.
“Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing,” LaPierre said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They said, ‘We’re going to stop it,’ and they put armed security in every school, and they have not had a problem since then.”
LaPierre made the analogy because he thinks that America should bring armed guards into its schools, too. Trouble is, Israeli officials strongly reject this argument.
Just one day after LaPierre’s appearance, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Jerusalem Post: “We’re fighting terrorism, which comes under very specific geopolitical and military circumstances. This is not something that compares with the situation in the U.S.”
Gun rights advocates have nevertheless persisted in citing Israel as a country with gun policies that America should emulate.
Yet, oddly enough, gun control advocates have done so, too.
While supporters of gun rights point to the widespread use of arms for civil defense in Israeli society, arms control advocates cite the strict measures that Israeli law imposes on civilian gun ownership outside the military.
LaPierre’s invocation of the “whole lot of school shootings” that Israel experienced, moving its government to put “armed security men in every school” may play to American images of Israel as a land beset by constant terrorist attacks. But it is factually incorrect.
The country’s only large-scale terror attack against a school occurred in Ma’alot, near the Lebanon border in 1974, when Palestinian assailants killed 22 children and three adults at an elementary school. The attackers’ goal was to take the children hostage and trade them for jailed militants.
In 2008, another Palestinian assailant killed eight young people, most of them teens, at a nighttime study session at a Jewish religious seminary in Jerusalem. An off-duty soldier who happened to be in the area killed the attacker with his personal firearm.
But Israel didn’t mandate armed guards at the entrances to all schools until 1995 — more than two decades after the Ma’alot attack. In the United States, which has an estimated 130,000 schools, such a measure would require mobilization on a much larger scale. Israel’s lightly armed school guards are also backed up by special police forces on motorcycles who can be on the scene within minutes. And they, in turn, are part of a broader defense strategy that focuses on prevention.
These factual discrepancies, however, are less important than a larger issue that makes Israel a dubious North Star for pro-gun activists: Israel’s gun-control laws are among the toughest in the world.
In Israel, carrying a gun is not a right granted by the constitution, but rather a privilege given to those few who pass background checks and who can demonstrate a real need for possessing firearms.
The list of requirements is long. Israelis seeking to own a gun need to be a citizen or permanent resident over the age of 27 (or 21 for those who have completed military service). They must have a basic knowledge of Hebrew. Applicants for a gun permit also need to show a clean criminal record and to have the Ministry of Health certify that they are physically and mentally capable of using a gun.
After passing this initial screening, Israelis wishing to own a gun need to demonstrate a genuine need for it. This need can be based on several criteria: living or working in specially designated areas (mainly Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and areas close to the boarders); working as a civilian security guard, or being an active or reserve officer in the Israel Defense Forces and holding the rank of captain or higher. Registered hunters and sportsmen belonging to certified gun clubs can also qualify.
For most, licenses are given for handguns only, and need to be renewed every three years. Gun owners also have to undergo practice in a shooting range before receiving or renewing a license. Yakov Amit, head of the firearms licensing department at the Ministry of Public Security, said 80% of the license requests are turned down each year.
As a result of these restrictive policies, gun possession in Israel is low compared with that of the United States. Only 7.3 out of every 100 Israelis possessed a gun in 2009, compared with 88.8 of every 100 Americans.
The numbers, however, could be deceptive. They do not include firearms used by soldiers, who carry them not only while on base or in mission, but also when traveling and while on vacation within the country.
Furthermore, designated civilian security guards in areas of high risk, mainly West Bank settlements, are provided guns by the military for use as a local security force. The firearms are usually automatic and semi-automatic rifles, including Uzis, M-16s and Israeli-made Galil rifles.
In addition, following the second intifada and the rash of suicide bombings that occurred in 2000, many Israeli establishments, including stores, shopping malls and restaurants, placed armed security guards at their entrances, adding thousands of guns to the mix. According to estimates, there are nearly half a million guns in Israel, a number that includes privately owned weapons, those held by security and military servicemen and illegally owned guns.
Still, when comparing gun control measures in Israel with those proposed in the United States, the differences are striking. Recent proposals being introduced in Congress include a ban on sales of semi-automatic assault rifles, a limit on the size of bullet magazines and comprehensive background checks for buyers. Even if approved, these measures would significantly fall short of the strict rules in Israel.
Gun laws in the United Stated vary widely from state to state. Federal law only requires that gun dealers perform a background check of potential buyers to ensure they are not prohibited from owning a firearm. The prohibition applies only to convicted felons, fugitives, the mentally incompetent, illegal aliens or minors.
The background check requirement does not apply to those purchasing a gun from a private owner or at gun shows, which make up about 40% of all gun sales in the U.S.
The federal government also prohibits carrying guns in areas designated as gun-free school zones.
Gun-related violence in Israel remains low by international standards. In 2009, the death rate as a result of gun use in Israel stood at 1.86 per 100,000 people. In the United States it was almost six times higher, with 10.3 gun related deaths per 100,000 people.
Among Arab citizens of Israel, gun-related violent crime is significantly higher than in the rest of the population, a fact that experts see as tied to the abundance of illegal weapons in Arab towns.
There is no dispute over the facts, which show that Israel is a nation with strict gun control, significant gun availability and a low gun-related crime rate. It is the interpretation of these facts that splits gun control supporters and opponents.
“Countries like Israel refute the claim that more guns lead to more violence,” said John Lott Jr., author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” published most recently in 2010. But Arye Rattner, director of the Center for the Study of Crime, Law and Society at the University of Haifa, argues that low crime rates have to do with the fact that firearms don’t end up in the wrong hands. “When control over guns is better, the number of violent crimes involving guns decreases,” he said.
The debate also has a flip side: How do gun control laws in Israel affect the country’s security?
Lior Nedivi, a former Israeli police officer now in the process of setting up an Israeli pro-gun lobby, argued that the answer is clear. “It is a matter of fact,” he said, “that armed civilians in Israel have in many cases prevented crime and even stopped terror attacks.” Nedivi advocates easing gun ownership laws in Israel to allow more people access to firearms. Lott added that civilians carrying guns can be the only solution for blocking suicide attackers, before law enforcement forces arrive on the scene.
But Israeli authorities are leaning in the direction of further limitations rather than relaxing regulations. Following an increase in homicides carried out by civilian security guards using their handguns, Israel’s state comptroller announced shortly after the Connecticut shooting that he would conduct an investigation into the use of guns by private security companies and would examine the existing requirements in order to see if they are sufficient.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.