by Ben Hartman
There is no full-auto Friday or Ladies night at the “Lahav” gun store in TA, a store that bears little resemblance to its US counterparts.
Photo: Ben Hartman
A Gun lover’s dream or a stringently controlled police state that would make a National Rifle Association supporter’s blood boil? In recent days, following the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut that left 26 dead, including 20 children, Israel has been mentioned as a country awash in guns yet still free of such massacres and virtually bereft of random killings among strangers, while others have pointed out that the difference is not in the prevalence of guns, but the regulations that accompany them.
According to Yaakov Amit, the head of the Ministry of Public Safety’s Firearms Licensing Department, the difference between the gun laws in the United States and Israel are as clear as night and day.
“There is an essential difference between the two. In America the right to bear arms is written in the law, here it’s the opposite. Here you don’t have the right to bear arms, only those who have a license can bear arms and not everyone can get a license.”
Amit described how gun licenses are given out only to those who have a reason to carry a gun because they work in security or law enforcement, or people who live in areas such as the West Bank, “where the state has an interest in them being armed.”
He added that former IDF officers above a certain rank can get a license.
Anyone who fits the requirements, and is over 21 years old and a resident of Israel for more than three years, must also go through a mental and physical health exam, Amit said, and then pass shooting exams and courses at a licensed gun range, as well as background checks by the Public Security Ministry, which is in charge of the Israel police. Once they order their firearm from a gun store, they are allowed to take the firearm home with a one-time supply of 50 bullets, which Amit said they cannot renew.
The gun owner then must come back for a new license exam and testing at the gun range every three years. As of this January, Amit said a new law will go into effect requiring gun owners to prove that they have a safe at home to keep their firearm in.
Amit said that since 1996, not long after the Rabin assassination, there has been a continuous reduction in the amount of weapons in the hands of the public, largely due to the stricter regulations. By his estimate, there are now around 170,000 privately-owned firearms in Israel, or enough for around one out of every 50 Israelis, far less per capita than the US, where there are an estimated more than 300 million privately owned guns for a population of a little more than 300 million. To make matters more un-American, Amit said there are only around 2,500 people in all of Israel who have received gun licenses in order to hunt, and they also need to get approval from the Parks and Nature Authority first.
Even with the over 170,000 privately-owned guns and far greater number of military-issue firearms in the country Israel still hasn’t seen massacres like the Newtown shooting. Reasons for this can be attributed to the country’s closely-knit family structure, small size and intimacy and informality between strangers or the universal health care which makes mental health services available for all. Another are Israel's stringent gun laws.
When asked why Israel doesn’t have such killings, Amit said “you can’t prevent this entirely. You can’t ensure that someone won’t someday go crazy and do something like this, but we do our best to prevent it from happening.”
There is no full-auto Friday or Ladies night at the “Lahav” gun store and shooting range in Tel Aviv, a store that bears little resemblance to its counterparts in the United States.
“Those people over there [United States] are barbarians when it comes to weapons, the situation there is insane, but here we’re too far to the other extreme,” said Yiftach Ben-Yehuda, 30, whose grandfather Yisrael opened the store with two friends in 1949.
Located around the corner from a row of peep shows and African migrant pubs near the new Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, Lahav is the oldest gun store in Israel. It presents a clear contrast between the culture of free for all gun stores and lax regulation in the United States, and that of Israel, where guns are subject to strict regulation and gun stores don’t resemble the mini-mall arsenals that dot the American landscape.
There was a very small amount of guns for sale, and most of the items on the racks appeared to be accessories for IDF-issued firearms, for Israelis looking to customize the weapons they use in the reserves. The guns on display included a few 9mm pistols, but no assault rifles, hunting rifles, or shotguns were to be found - a poster of a bikini-clad woman holding a Glock .40 one of the few similarities between its American counterparts.
“The private gun sales market is virtually non-existent. Almost all of our business is in selling slots at the range and testing people looking to renew their gun licenses”, Ben-Yehuda said, sounding like a man whose clientele has dropped off significantly in recent years.
“The problem is that the law makes it very difficult for the good people to get guns. The number of legal guns in recent years has gone to around 170,000, but there are a half a million illegal guns floating around the Arab sector, no one knows how many. There’s no reason someone who was a fighter pilot shouldn’t be able to get a license to carry a gun.”
Ben-Yehuda pointed to a screen showing footage from four CCTV cameras set up in the firing range, where two shooters were on the range standing next to guides, while another guide spoke to a prospective shooter in his office. According to Ben-Yehuda, the range only sells two hour blocs, with 50 bullets included, for a price of well over 200 shekels ($50) far more expensive than in the US.
Ben-Yehuda said he doesn’t know of anyone who has received a new carry permit in the past two years, and that potential clients are deterred by the stringent regulations.
“I don’t even have a gun license and I work here.”
For Boaz, a hi-tech worker and IDF shooting instructor who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, the licensing process was no walk in the park, even though he lives in a settlement and applied for his license during the Second Intifada.
“It actually took a few months to get the license and this was back when buses were being blown every day, so there was pressure to arm people but they still weren’t in a hurry.”
After three months he said he got a license from the Interior Ministry and then went to a shooting range where he took a test, and then was allowed to purchase a gun through the range, a CZ-75 pistol that took around a week to receive. He then had to go through a three-hour course with the instructor on gun safety and the use of the particular firearm, even though he serves in an IDF combat reserves unit and was a shooting instructor in the army.
With four kids at home, Boaz said he always keeps the gun on him, and while he sees the need for having armed citizens on the streets of Israel, considering the threat of terrorism, he doesn’t think the situation should resemble that of the United States.
He added that his license must be renewed every three years through the same extended process, and that he is still restricted to the same lifetime supply of 50 bullets at home.
“It reminds me of what a shooting instructor in the army told us. If you need more than 50 bullets, a pistol isn’t going to solve your problem.”
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