Israel to Loosen Legal Gun Licensing

After a weekend of violence and growing tensions with the Palestinians, the government plans to ease restrictions on who can obtain a weapon, but while some applaud the move, not everyone is convinced this is the right step
February 2, 2023
An Israeli man fits a holster for his pistol at a gun shooting range on October 15, 2015 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

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Late Friday night, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the scene of the attack in which seven Israelis were murdered by a Palestinian assailant outside a Jerusalem synagogue. He hugged a sobbing local resident in the crowd.

“If I was armed, I would have saved three or four people,” the eyewitness told Ben-Gvir as he cried. 

Several police officers arrived at the scene minutes after the shooting began and ended the killing spree. 

Hours later, a 13-year-old Palestinian shot at Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem. One of them, a soldier on leave, was armed. He immediately fired at the boy, likely preventing a wider attack. There were no Jewish fatalities in the incident and the Palestinian assailant is still in an Israeli hospital.

Reeling from this bloody weekend, the Israeli government is now planning to loosen gun laws and enable thousands of Israeli civilians to carry weapons, in addition to those who already do.

“The police cannot be everywhere,” said Itzik Chiprout, chairman of the Israeli Legal Weapon Association. “Even a swift police reaction is sometimes not enough. Civilians that are armed save lives.”

Rela Mazali is the co-founder and project coordinator of Gun Free Kitchen Tables, an NGO that operates for stricter gun control and small arms disarmament. She is highly opposed to any loosening of gun licensing.

“Arms proliferation only increases violence, we have seen this in recent years in Israel,” she told The Media Line. “But also, in this move, the state is privatizing the maintenance of public safety.”

Private gun ownership in Israel is legal. It is not a right protected by law, like in the United States, and is not easily accessible. There is a list of criteria that an Israeli needs to meet in order to get a license, including medical approval of mental and physical health. A clean criminal record and gun safety tests are also required. 

Once a license is obtained, there is a continuous training requirement and there are stringent rules regarding weapons storage. According to the Firearm Licensing Department, which is under the National Security Ministry, there has been an increase in the number of applications for gun licensing since 2021. Data from the ministry shows that a majority of the applications for weapons are either not followed through by the applicants or denied.

Due to a lack of personnel to process the requests and a lot of bureaucracy, applications often take months to be approved. But in the midst of a flare-up, many Israelis do not want to wait and the current Israeli government is looking to change just that.

A major turning point for Israelis was the internal violence that erupted in May 2021, when during an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, there were massive clashes in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel.

On the heels of the violent internal rift that was exposed, Ben-Gvir emerged as a politician who vocalized the fear of many Israelis who felt their personal safety had been compromised. Rushing to scenes of attacks, criticizing the previous governments for being weak, his often inflammatory rhetoric helped his party become the third largest in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). His political power was translated into his appointment as Israel’s first minister of national security, an expanded portfolio from the previous Public Security one.

“I have ordered the manpower in the firearms department to be doubled. Weapons for more civilians is a quick and lethal response against terrorism,” Ben-Gvir tweeted in the aftermath of the latest attacks. 

According to Chiprout, the current situation – in which there is a major backlog of requests since the 2021 upheaval – was “comfortable” for Ben-Gvir’s predecessor in the ministry, Omer Barlev. 

“His policy was to cut the number of weapons in civilian hands,” he said. 

In addition to over 140,000 personal firearm licenses that exist in Israel, it is unclear how many people have expired licenses but still hold onto their weapons. With a large army, there are also many soldiers walking around with different types of weapons. 

According to a parliamentary report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, there has been a sharp rise in gun violence in Israel in recent years. While Israelis are feeling increasingly unsafe, not only due to violence from Palestinian militants, will more guns on the streets make them feel more confident?

“There is no doubt that when someone carries a weapon, they feel safer,” said Sharon Gat, CEO of Caliber 3, Israeli Counter Terror and Security Academy. “You can also see in all the recent incidents, wherever there was a firearm in the hands of a civilian, a greater disaster was prevented.”

According to Gat, since April last year, when tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalated, there has been an increase in people coming to his academy. They come either to train at a shooting range for a first-time license application or license renewal. 

In the aftermath of the weekend attacks, Gat sees a spike in requests, not only for firearms but also more purchases of pepper spray and more people signing up for self-defense classes. 

“Weapons give the feeling of safety, but this is an illusion and the reality is grim,” said Mazali. 

It is important to note that there is also a proliferation of illegal weapons in Israel. Estimated at hundreds of thousands, those weapons are often involved in violent incidents. 

“You do not see a lot of murders with legal weapons,” said Gat. “The process of getting a license is highly supervised in Israel. Expediting the process like the government wants to, is not a bad thing.” 

In recent years, there has been more violence within Israeli society. Arguments over parking spaces and road rage have ended in death. Data from The Israeli Observatory on Femicide showed a 50% increase in femicide cases in the country in 2022, with 24 women killed in different domestic violence incidents. 

In 2018, there was a minor change that allowed more people to apply for licenses by abolishing the need to demonstrate a clear necessity for one. According to Gun Free Kitchen Tables, the result of this change was an immediate increase in the number of violent incidents that involved the usage of live fire, with a 40% rise in murders carried out using guns.

“The trend is clear and the process of more violence is already underway,” said Mazali. “Is this really what we want, more guns on the streets?”

Yet, many Israelis see the threat of Palestinian attacks as the one which most erodes their sense of safety.

“Usually the people who chose to carry a weapon are very responsible,” said Chiprout. “Any involvement in a violent incident, without even using a weapon, would revoke their license under the current criteria.”

The first change in the law will likely be to allow more people who have served in the military to apply.

“There mustn’t be a compromise on the strict criteria to obtain a license,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), told The Media Line. “But the process needs to be shortened, it is important to operate efficiently. All the while, the high level of supervision must be maintained.”

Currently in Israel, not all soldiers who have combat experience meet the criteria to apply for a private license, and the majority of Israelis who served in the military are not eligible. In fact, only a minority of soldiers who have been in elite commando units are allowed to apply for a privately held weapon. Lawmakers have tried to change this. Now, with government support, the criteria will probably be widened, allowing more people to try.

“The process needs to remain as it is, highly supervised and with stringent training conditions,” said Gat. “Expanding the number of people eligible for a license is a positive development.”

“The constant coordination between the different authorities in Israel is critical to guarantee the safety of this process,” Gat added. “If someone commits a crime, the license is immediately revoked.”

Mazali also points out that the need to obtain a physician’s approval is only at the beginning of the process. A change in the status of the psychical or mental health of a gun owner will not necessarily come across the radar of authorities in charge of gun control.

“The interface between the authorities is not reliable and there is no good filter. The operative guideline is not prevention of violence,” she told The Media Line.

Yet, there is still concern that the anti-Arab rhetoric with which Ben-Gvir is often associated could encourage people to use their weapons more freely.

Chiprout believes the process to obtain a license and maintain one should not be changed dramatically, other than allowing more people to apply.

“The surveillance on people with licenses should continue and perhaps training requirements should be even tougher than they are today,” Chiprout said, suggesting an annual training mandate, rather than one every 18 months as currently stipulated by law. 

There is always a risk that more guns on the streets could lead to more violence. First the government will want to deal with the backlog, and then loosening the criteria. 

“It is a matter of changeover – what is less harmful?” Inbar said. “When faced with terrorism, this is a necessary step. But in the end, civilians holding weapons is only one small facet of the battle.”

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