Israel gambles on guns

Guns credit: Reuters Ilia Yefimovich
Guns credit: Reuters Ilia Yefimovich

Since the October 7 atrocities, Israel’s gun laws have been eased, but some believe the proliferation of firearms could backfire.

Since the slaughter of October 7 and the deep anxiety that Israelis can find themselves catastrophically trapped in their homes, without the security forces coming to rescue them, gun ownership has been proliferating in Israel.

Guns are everywhere. Within a week of the start of the war, the Knesset passed an amendment easing the criteria for owning a gun. Estimates are that the number of guns owned by Israeli civilians is set to double from 160,000 to 300,000. Since Black Saturday, 225,000 applications have been filed for gun licenses. These numbers do not include the emergency squads set up around Israel and the thousands of soldiers home on leave with their rifles. The Ministry of National Security is running an ad campaign urging Israeli civilians to buy guns, under the slogan "Israel is arming."

Prices advertised on the Internet show that a pistol costs between NIS 1,200 and NIS 1,500, depending on the type of gun and whether it is new or second hand. The price of a new Glock 19, for example, is between NIS 3,800 and NIS 5,000, while a second-hand model costs between NIS 2,300 and NIS 3,800. The price of a Glock 43 is between NIS 3,800 and NIS 4,500, while a second-hand one costs about NIS 3,000.

But will this make our lives more secure, or perhaps the opposite? Is there any way of making sure that all these guns are not used for the wrong reasons?

"Studies have found that the presence of a weapon in the home increases the risk of shooting incidents three to five times," says the representative of Gun Free Kitchen Tables, a coalition of civil society organizations working against easing the granting of gun licenses. For this article, the representative was afraid to be interviewed by name, as the coalition receives many threats due to its activities. "The position of the professionals, in Israel and in the world, is that weapons in the hands of civilians is a dangerous thing. I'm sorry to say, but we in the coalition are already anticipating the next massacre, as happens in the US."

Who is permitted to carry a gun

In Israel a person is permitted to carry a gun subject to the following criteria: if they are part of the security forces, a soldier or a policeman for example, a member of an emergency squad, if they work in a job that requires carrying a weapon, such as security, or has a gun license from Israel Police. Over the years, questions have arisen about these criteria.

For example, whether soldiers should be able to return home with guns. In the past, the answer to this was self-evident. Today, many guns are stolen and end up in hostile hands, such as terrorist and criminal organizations. Another issue concerns security guards, following murders of their spouses, their children or simply people they got angry with. There is also the issue of privately-held guns, which people keep for reasons of personal security or simply as a hobby.

In 1949, the Knesset enacted the Firearms Law which stated that possession of a gun depends on a license. Unlike the US, where according to the constitution citizens have the right to bear arms, in Israel the general rule is that the state, and only it, decides whether you can bear arms and also imposes restrictions.

The question was not ‘if’ but ‘who’ - and subsequently how many weapons should be in the public space. Because it is clear, for example, that a rule according to which all men over the age of 21 can carry guns significantly increases the number of weapons in society, compared with allowing only those in the security forces and police to carry guns.

Over the years, the question of ‘if’ and ‘who’ and ‘how many’ has returned in different ways and has been divided into threshold conditions (such as age and health status) and criteria.

No country will protect the Arabs

In 1996, the criteria for obtaining a gun license were published for the first time as administrative instructions by the Ministry of Internal Security. Among others they included qualified tour guides with a valid license, current police officers or those who have served in permanent police service for at least two years, as well as active firefighters who were required to meet certain conditions.

Over the years, following the escalation of the security situation, the criteria were expanded to include former combat soldiers. It was then also decided to allow security guards to carry weapons not only during their work. This decision, which was passed as a temporary order of the hour, sparked a public debate which reached the High Court of Justice. During the hearing of the petition submitted by Gun Free Kitchen Tables, the representative of the then Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit clarified that all these criteria would be enacted as regulations by the end of the 2022 Knesset summer session.

Meanwhile the government fell. The draft regulations changed hands, and in July 2023 the ministry, now called the Ministry of National Security, published draft regulations to expand the criteria. But then they went on vacation, and with it came the horrors of October. The lack of security forces on the first day of the war and the abandonment of the people of the south to their terrible fate met with nationwide anxiety, and led many people, regular citizens, to ask for the first time in their lives to carry a gun.

"People buy weapons when they feel their lives are in danger," explains Prof. Badi Hasisi, head of the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law. "When they looked into why Arab society accumulated weapons, one of the answers was that the Arabs felt that there was no country to protect them. They said: well, someone shot at me today, what am I going to do? I'm going to buy a weapon."

Prof. Hasisi says the weapon not only provides a sense of security, but is sometimes used for defensive purposes. "There have already been cases in Israel where terrorists were neutralized by passers-by. If there were no weapons, the terrorist would have continued to kill people. Citizens can be a very important auxiliary force."

Far-reaching regulatory change

So, after October 7, demand for weapons increased. In January, after the massacre at the synagogue in the Neve Yaacov neighborhood in Jerusalem, the Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir announced that he would handle the license issue. Now it was only necessary to take the draft regulations from July, remove some dust from warnings from civil society organizations, and pass them.

Under the new regulations, which were pushed through the Knesset on October 15, in just one day, those who have completed one year of military service as combatants, or two years for those who are non-combatants, will also be entitled to receive a gun license. The same applies to Israeli citizens over the age of 27 who have not served in the IDF, as well as permanent residents over the age of 45. All of these are valid on the condition that the license applicants live, work or study in places that the police have determined justify the carrying of privately-held guns. As for women, they are allowed to carry guns if they have completed one year one of regular service or national-civilian service. "Out of 100% of firearms license holders, women currently make up between 2% and 3%," Israel Avishar, director of the firearms licensing and inspection division at the Ministry of National Security, explained to the committee. "This was a ministerial decision. whose purpose is to produce corrective relief. That's why we included women, including those who did national service."

The new regulations were not implemented as a temporary order, which would limit them for a certain period, although this was the condition set by the Department of Counseling and Legislation (Criminal Law) in the Ministry of Justice for approving them. Pressure from MKs led to the establishment of a permanent mechanism, even though it is a far-reaching regulatory change, which was passed in one day by the Knesset.

Monitoring and reporting mechanisms are required

It is worth understanding what the potential consequences of the proliferation of weapons are. The basic premise of every common criminologist, says Prof. Hasisi, is that when there are more weapons, there are more shooting incidents, the victims of which are the people closest to the shooter. Conflicts that used to end in blows now end in shooting, and shooting, unlike punching, kills. It is enough to look at the US to see what quantities of weapons are doing, and in Israel, he explains, we also have a home-made laboratory trial. "The Arab population has always been overrepresented in violent crimes. This trend was observed back in the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, but the total number of murders was not particularly high," he clarifies.

Prof. Hasisi adds, starting in 2005, when Arab towns began to accumulate weapons, many shootings were also recorded. "More than 90% of the shooting incidents in Israel take place in Arab society. Since the weapons came in, the murders have also increased by hundreds of percent." This increase, he emphasizes, is not derived from demographics. It is exceptional. The number, he adds, has tripled in a few years. "This means that weapons have a correlation to shooting crimes. But is this the only reason? It is not clear."

Prof. Hasisi says that the answer to the question of whether a gun will serve negative purposes is derived from three variables: the profile of the gun owner, the motivation behind carrying the gun, and the context in which it is given, or in other words - am I part of a group that is committed to certain norms and has responsibility, or am I a lone wolf? "Many young people in Israel carry military weapons, and yet, we don't hear about soldiers shooting in the streets on weekends. Part of this is socialization: the weapon is not your private property, but something that is given to you in a broader, group context, and it is supervised." Hasisi stresses that if the emergency squads adopt paramilitary models under the auspices of the police, this may reduce the risk they pose to the public.

"If people are invited to training and briefings, they will feel part of a group. It's different from a person who submits a (gun license) application by themselves and doesn't owe anything to anyone. It's just him, his gun and his thoughts. It should be made clear to people that a weapon is a big responsibility. If they want it, no problem. But then You should know that it comes with big demands."

Prof. Hasisi also raises the issue of the supervision of the weapons carried by individuals. The Ministry of National Security's response to a Freedom of Information request made by Gun Free Kitchen Tables last July revealed that guns are not being supervised after they are issued. The response was, "The Firearms Licensing and Inspection Division does not supervise firearms and private firearms carriers, but only 'organizational' firearms carriers. It also appears from the ministry's reply that no reports are received from the Ministry of Welfare at all. In fact, it is not an authority in this equation. It should be noted that the issue of inter-ministerial coordination and the integration of all the relevant factors in order to prevent cases of domestic violence and youth suicides, is the thing that most worries the Arrangements Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office. All the new regulations were implemented without consulting it, as required by law.

Prof. Hasisi insists, "It’s possible to create supervision and report mechanisms like tracking changes in the criminal and welfare status of a person, and to track domestic violence incidents and psychiatric developments and consider submitting jeopardy reviews. That doesn’t mean we would take away guns from everybody who gets divorced, but we could consider this possibility for a certain period. We would return the gun if the danger, if it exists, falls.

Prof. Hasisi’s comments are in line with the recommendations of the Ronen Committee, the public committee for examining procedures for receiving a firearms license, which published its recommendations in June 2020. The 118-page report points out the necessity of information from the Ministry of Welfare and the National Insurance Institute regarding each gun license holder. The routine supervision checks by the Ministry of National Security also received sharp criticism: "The main deficiencies are reflected in the field of supervision and control. This area is one of the main functions of the division, and as of today it is not professional, ineffective and lacking in abilities and powers. In addition, the division between professional responsibility and administrative responsibility does not contribute to the functioning of the system."

From the report it emerged that the ministry only employs six district inspectors. Gun Free Kitchen Tables says that even when dozens of regulations were added to the Firearms Licensing Division after the events of October 7th, none of them served supervisory functions, but only streamlined licensing procedures.

Apart from the issue of the lack of supervision, Gun Free Kitchen Tables is very disturbed by the fact that the regulations will lead to an intensive weaponization of public spaces, without the Ronen Committee's recommendations being implemented. The organization says, "We understand the panic the public is in right now. However, the solution is the state's responsibility. It must restore citizens' trust in the police and the army. Giving weapons to citizens without a thorough examination of the gender implications, for example, how does it affect a woman who knows that at any moment she can have a gun pulled on her, is a very dangerous solution." Gun Free Kitchen Tables also mentions State Comptroller's reports that specifically stated that a high number of weapons in the civilian space ends up with criminal organizations.

On top of all this, broader questions arise concerning the relationship between the state and the citizen. "This issue can be conceptualized in a more theoretical way - the meaning of an armed society," says Prof. Adam Shenar, an expert in constitutional law at Reichman University. "We transfer to the state the authority to maintain order and security, but also our rights. When we transfer power to the state, it is with the expectation that the power will be exercised according to certain criteria. The fear is that when you transfer power to the citizens, and you do it without transferring the civil service ethical code that goes with it, you transfer the violence without its restraining mechanisms. And there is also the fear that our rights will not be protected, or will not be protected equally."

Prof. Shenar claims that in this action, giving weapons to citizens, there is an element of privatization, which hits on the nerve that bothered the Supreme Court justices in the case that dealt with the privatization of prisons. "This move removes responsibility from the state. It could have said and we will build police stations and hire more police officers, but instead it arms civilians. It violates the state."

The Ministry of Justice said, "The position of the legal authorities was that it is correct to approve the regulations in the form of a temporary order, in order to examine the broad implications and the potential risk of expanding the criteria for civilians carrying guns. Despite the above, the committee held a vote and decided to approve the regulations as a standing order."

No response was received from the Ministry of National Security.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on November 19, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Guns credit: Reuters Ilia Yefimovich
Guns credit: Reuters Ilia Yefimovich
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