Israeli gun laws are much stricter than some U.S. gun advocates suggest

December 28, 2012

Young Israeli settlers play with unloaded guns at a 1994 army exhibition. There are only 7 privately owned guns for every 100 Israelis; the rate in America is 89. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States stands truly alone in the developed world for its lax gun laws, which have contributed to Americans owning guns at a far higher rate than anyone else. The National Rifle Association, in its pushback against calls for gun restrictions after the Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting, has portrayed things somewhat differently. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre has drawn comparisons to Israel, saying that the U.S. should follow Israel's example of loose gun laws and of responding to mass shooting by posting armed guards at schools.

  LaPierre echoes a number of commentators who oppose gun restrictions and cite Israel as an ideal example. The argument goes like this: Israel has lots of guns and lower rates of gun violence, so clearly the problem with America is not our guns but something else.

The only problem is that Israel actually has quite strong gun restrictions and very low gun ownership rates, some of the lowest in the developed world. This confusion has gotten so bad that even Israeli government officials are now chiming in to knock back the claims, though the NRA is seen as a close ally of the U.S. Republican party, which positions itself as strongly backing Israel.

LaPierre appeared to take his Israel-model advocacy a step too far when he declared on Meet the Press this weekend, "Israel had a whole lot of school shootings, until they did one thing. 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."

A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry told the New York Daily News that this was simply wrong. "We didn’t have a series of school shootings, and they had nothing to do with the issue at hand in the United States. We had to deal with terrorism," he said. "What removed the danger was not the armed guards but an overall anti-terror policy and anti-terror operations which brought street terrorism down to nearly zero over a number of years.” The spokesperson added, “It would be better not to drag Israel into what is an internal American discussion."

Israeli guns laws, it turns out, are much stricter than America's gun laws. This may help explain why Israeli gun ownership is just one thirteenth of what it is in the U.S. To bring that number into focus, it would likely be even lower if not for mandatory military service, which means Israelis are more likely to be familiar with guns. Israel's unique security challenges and its periodic bouts with terrorism would also seem to bolster an NRA-style case for allowing more privately owned guns so that more citizens can defend themselves. And yet, there are far fewer guns in private citizens' hands, and far less gun crime.

So why does Israel look more like gun-controlling Britain than gun-loving American? Why are Israel and the U.S. near opposite extremes among Western nations when it comes to gun laws? As American scholar Janet Rosenbaum put it in an article for ForeignPolicy.com, "Israel has well-known security concerns, but it limits security to the professionals." Whereas Americans laws privilege free access to guns and then restrict them from there, Israeli laws, Rosenbaum writes, "are designed to keep amateurs from carrying guns in the street -- even amateurs who have served 3 years in the army.

Israel limits gun ownership to security workers, people who transport valuables or explosives, residents of the West Bank, and hunters. People who don't fall into one of those categories cannot obtain a firearm permit. Moreover, Israel rejects 40 percent of firearm permit applicants, the highest rejection rate in the Western world. Both Switzerland and Israel require yearly (or more frequent) permit renewals to insure that the reasons are still applicable.

The hope for a U.S. political consensus on gun control may already be fading, the Post's Tom Hamburger recently reported. So, if nothing else, maybe the post-Sandy Hook gun debate would be an opportunity to clear up the long-held misunderstanding of Israeli gun laws. For example, as Rosenbaum told Ezra Klein in a phone interview, there's a misconception that Israel promotes security through gun ownership. "Ten years ago, when Israel had the outbreak of violence, there was an expansion of gun ownership, but only to people above a certain rank in the military," she said. "There was no sense that having ordinary citizens [carry guns] would make anything safer." That's the Israeli thinking, anyway. That doesn't necessarily mean it's right or wrong for the U.S., but if we're going to debate national models, it's worth at least getting them right.

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Max Fisher · December 28, 2012