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Israel and Gun Violence

At Tablet, Liel Leibovitz takes a look at why gun violence is less common in Israel–where many carry guns openly–than in the U.S.:

Why? In the days since 27 innocents, most of them children, were murdered in Sandy Hook Elementary School, all have been asking that question, trying to make sense of an ultimately senseless act. Simpler minds insisted that anyone who has ever argued in favor of anything but the absolute abolition of firearms was complicit in the murder of innocent children, while more astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, they often ended up looking to Israel, a nation, went the argument, whose citizens are heavily armed yet rarely use their guns to shoot each other. This, more than one report noted, was due largely to Israel’s surprisingly strict gun-control legislation: Assault rifles are banned, registration is necessary, and a whole system of checks and requirements is in place to keep weapons out of the wrong hands. A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans.

It’s a compelling story. It’s also wrong: There’s much that we can learn from Israel when it comes to firearms, but it’s the state’s gun culture, not its gun laws, that keeps its citizens safe. …

How, then, to explain Israel’s relatively low rate of gun-related deaths? For Lior Nedivi, an independent firearms examiner in Jerusalem and the co-author of a comprehensive report comparing Israel’s gun laws and culture to that of the United States, the answer lies far from the law books. “An armed society,” Nedivi wrote, quoting the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.” It may be a bit odd to think of Israeli society as polite, but when it comes to guns it is, and for just the reason articulated by Heinlein: When everyone has a gun, guns are no longer seen as talismans by weak, frightened, and unstable men seeking a sense of self-validation, but as killing machines that are to be handled with the utmost caution and care.

Leibovitz goes on to argue that the U.S. should focus on educating people about sensible gun ownership, which seems too optimistic. Someone who is intent on carrying out a large-scale massacre at an elementary school is not going to be dissuaded by classes on gun rights and responsibilities. If there is a simple reason for the relatively small number of mass shooting spree events in Israel, it may have more to do with another point Leibovitz touched on. When a society is heavily armed and knows how to use these weapons, there is a much greater chance a gunman will be killed before he can reach his desired death toll–and maybe that alone is enough to stop some would-be killers from even trying.

Most of the mass shootings that have taken place in Israel were related to the conflict in the region, and the vast majority have been carried out by Palestinian terrorists against Israelis. In the last 10 years, at least two of these firearm terrorist attacks occurred at schools (both yeshivas). In both cases, the gunmen were not given the chance to end their own lives. They were killed by people at the schools who had guns.

That’s definitely not to argue that arming more people is a solution to mass shootings in America. Israel is different because many of the people who carry guns in public are trained soldiers, and military service is mandatory for almost everyone. The heroes who stopped the gunmen at the yeshivas were reportedly all either soldiers or enrolled in pre-military preparatory programs. But it also contradicts the notion that fewer guns equals more safety. There may be policy responses to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that could be helpful in small ways–a review of mental health treatment in this country is warranted, and even a debate about gun laws isn’t a bad idea. But there are no obvious, all-encompassing solutions and anyone who argues otherwise is selling something.



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