Rob Portnoe, a Jewish educator from Minneapolis, is visiting family in Israel. He thinks it’s his 10th visit, and one of his sons served as an infantry soldier in the Israeli army. He is accustomed to seeing guns in Israel, from those toted by soldiers on leave to those carried by security guards. But, he says, the gun culture in Israel is different than in the United States.
“Israelis view guns as a necessity while Americans see them as a right,” Portnoe said. “There is a sense in Israel that if people didn’t feel they needed those guns, they wouldn’t carry them. In the U.S., people feel entitled to carry a gun.”
“Israelis view guns as a necessity while Americans see them as a right. There is a sense in Israel that if people didn’t feel they needed those guns, they wouldn’t carry them. In the U.S., people feel entitled to carry a gun.” – Rob Portnoe, a frequent American visitor to Israel.
Israel has compulsory military service and many citizens continue to do reserve duty well into adulthood. They are trained to view guns as potentially dangerous and are drilled in their safety.
What is regarded in Israel as a mass shooting occurs when a gunman kills at least four people, and outside of terrorist attacks, this has happened only once in recent years. In 2013, a disaffected man killed four Israelis in a bank in the southern town of Beersheva before committing suicide when police arrived.
In the U.S. during the same period, there have been some 1,500 mass shootings, which killed more than 1,700 people and wounded 6,000 more, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The Congressional Research Service estimates Americans own more than 300 million guns.
Israel limits the approval of gun permits, with 40 percent of applications denied. Permits are granted only if the government believes the person in question has a specific need for a gun — for example, if an individual lives in the West Bank, where there have been many Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Permits must be renewed yearly, and every six years, gun owners must undergo a psychological evaluation.
Gun owners in Israel are allowed to own only one handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition. Supporters of these restrictive laws say they are the reason Israel has not been plagued by mass shootings.
Robby Berman, the head of an organ donation society in Israel, applied for a gun permit in 1991 when he was living in Jerusalem’s Old City. His application was approved, and he purchased a pistol and went to a shooting range, where he learned to use the gun.
Several years later, he says, he went through a period of depression and began seeing a therapist. She insisted that he give up the gun, fearing he could harm himself, and he agreed.
“Two years ago, when all of the stabbing attacks happened in Jerusalem, I wished I had the gun,” Berman said. “So I started carrying a switchblade and Mace with me. Once at a mall in Jerusalem, the knife set off the metal detector at the entrance. When I asked the security guard if he wanted me to leave it with him while I shopped, he said, ‘No, everyone here has a knife. Go ahead.’ ”
The Israeli army has grown increasingly concerned about guns being used by soldiers to commit suicide. About 15 soldiers each year do so with military-issued guns. The army recently changed its regulations, with soldiers going home on extended leave told to leave their weapons on base rather than bring them home with them.
Some in Israel, however, believe the country should be more like the U.S. when it comes to owning guns.
“The right to defend oneself and carry a gun is a basic human right, not a right that the government gives you,” said Moshe Feiglin, a former Israeli parliamentarian who recently formed his own political party called Zehut. “I am not talking about an AK-47 or an M-16 but a pistol for self-defense.”
As a first step, he said, anyone who has served in the Israeli army and knows how to use a gun should be given a gun permit automatically. He said that in the 1990s, Jerusalem made a mistake by allowing Palestinian policemen to carry AK-47s, and these guns have been used to kill many Israelis in the years since then.
In the U.S., the cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Detroit are responsible for 25 percent of gun deaths, and all four have restrictive gun laws. Accordingly, Feiglin says the idea that more restrictive gun laws will protect people is a fallacy. By contrast, he says that if more people in Las Vegas were trained to use guns properly, perhaps they could have stopped the recent mass shooting earlier.