After some of the most horrifying school shootings in the U.S., prominent gun-rights supporters have cited Israel as a potential model. Here’s a look at that.

Share story

JERUSALEM — Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, knows a thing or two about taking on assailants. A former Israeli paratrooper with combat experience, he packs a Glock 23 semi-automatic pistol as a civilian.

In 2015, after a series of stabbings in the city by Palestinians, Barkat urged Israelis with licensed firearms to carry them at all times, saying they should think of it “like military reserve duty.”

The debate on guns

Northwest stories
National and world stories

In Israel, armed guards stand outside movie theaters and shopping malls, and off-duty soldiers go to the beach or the bar with an M-16 slung over their shoulders. The seeming availability of guns, savvy intelligence gathering and the can-do, tough-guy image of Israelis like Barkat have impressed some American gun-rights advocates.

Indeed, after some of the most horrifying school shootings in the United States, gun-rights supporters like Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, and Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, have cited Israel as a potential model.

In fact, contrary to the advocates’ arguments for more guns, Israel has strict gun control. Those citizens who are licensed to own a personal weapon have generally undergone some military training. Guns are not seen as a hobby, but as a tool for self-defense, and if necessary, to help protect others from terrorism. And while Israel has sophisticated policing and intelligence aimed at stopping terrorism, it has little experience with the kinds of civilian mass shootings that have become the source of anguished debate in the United States.

Even Barkat, who once told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that Americans could benefit from armed civilians and “smart” profiling, sees a big difference.

“There’s no misuse of rifles and guns in Israel,” Barkat said. “On the contrary, they give extra measures, extra security.” That, he said, was “exactly the opposite” of what was happening in the United States.

The issue came to the fore again last week. Huckabee was visiting Israel when a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. On Twitter, he said that Israel had “pretty much eliminated” school shootings by “placing highly trained people strategically to spot the one common thread — not the weapon, but a person with intent.”

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 28 people were killed, LaPierre praised Israel for placing armed guards at schools. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.

A 2012 study by Janet E. Rosenbaum, an epidemiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, examined the perception of many gun-rights advocates that Israel and Switzerland were “gun utopias” that had fairly permissive firearms laws and widespread gun ownership, and encouraged armed civilians to intercept shooters.

She found that gun ownership was in fact far lower in Israel than in the United States. In the United States, there are roughly 310 million firearms in the hands of civilians, nearly one for every adult and child. In Israel — which has a population of about 8.5 million, not counting about 5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza — about 135,000 citizens are currently licensed to own guns. Of those, 37,500 work as guards, according to the Ministry of Public Security, which issues the permits.

Comparing attitudes, laws

The United States considers handgun ownership a constitutionally protected right, while Israel considers gun permits a privilege, granted by the Ministry of Public Security strictly on the basis of need.

It is true that Israelis tend to exhibit more comfort with firearms than, say, civilians in countries like Germany and Japan, where handguns are almost impossible to obtain.

Most Jewish Israelis are conscripted for mandatory military service at 18 for a period of at least two years, and receive at least some formal firearms training. Soldiers are issued guns only for their period of service.

“As we are a people’s army, a lot of the population has at least undergone basic training and knows how to handle and conduct themselves with a weapon,” said Simon Perry, a criminologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “We don’t have a gun fetish here,” he added.

Israelis who have completed military service or national service may apply for a gun license at 21; others must wait until 27. Those who are eligible include civilians who live or work in areas considered dangerous; people working in security and emergency services or as civilian security guards; and some farmers, tour guides, veterinarians and registered hunters.

Applicants must go through background checks and need a signed bill of health from their doctor. Gun licenses have to be renewed every three years and require an annual practice at a shooting range. Many requests are refused.

A majority of the licenses are granted for 9-mm pistols. The few licenses for automatic rifles are reserved for people who need them for ongoing security roles. Annual bullet supplies are limited to 50 per licensed individual, or 100 for security guards.

The gun death rate in Israel is low by international standards: about two homicides per 100,000 people in Israel, according to Arye Rattner, a criminologist at the University of Haifa. Some years in the United States the rate has been four or five times higher.

“I would say that for many males, especially, military service serves as a kind of catharsis for their aggressive emotions, therefore much less of it is being expressed in civilian circles,” Rattner said.

Civilians who carry licensed guns are expected to use them if confronted with a dangerous situation, but “only if in a life-threatening situation can they open fire,” said Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman.

Gun violence has been mostly political

Israel has had horrific experiences with gun violence, but nearly all of them in the context of political violence.

Yigal Amir, the right-wing extremist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, did so with a licensed gun. There have also been occasional nationalist attacks against Palestinians by armed Israelis, such as the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994 with an army-issued automatic rifle. He was an officer in the reserves.

Palestinian gunmen carried out deadly terrorist attacks on a school in Maalot, near the border with Lebanon, in 1974 and at a rabbinical seminary in 2008. But both attacks were in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Licensed commercial security firms guard schools; contrary to some perceptions, armed civilians have not been deployed as school guards on a large scale since the 1970s.

Civilians’ mixed record on attacks

At times, civilians have used guns to stop attacks. Last year, a tour guide was among those who opened fire at a Palestinian driver who plowed his truck into a group of soldiers in Jerusalem. But on other occasions, a civilian response has caused harm, as when a civilian guard shot an Eritrean asylum-seeker during a Palestinian attack at the Beersheba bus station in 2015, mistaking him for one of the assailants. And occasionally, Rosenfeld said, security guards had used their work-issued weapons to commit deadly acts of domestic violence, prompting new limits on taking weapons home.

Amid the upsurge in Palestinian stabbings, shootings and car rammings that began in the fall of 2015, the Ministry of Public Security eased the criteria for obtaining a gun permit but maintained the same levels of supervision and control.

Among Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up more than 20 percent of the population, there is a proliferation of illegal weapons, mostly kept for self-protection or used for criminal purposes or in internal feuds.

That has been worrying police and community leaders. In June 2017, Muhammad Barakeh, a then lawmaker and the chairman of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, said after a week in which six Arab citizens were murdered, “There is no structured decision within the government and police to control crime on the Arab streets.” But he added, “We also bear responsibility internally regarding education, conflict resolution and more.”

Earlier this month, a 17-year-old student was shot and wounded by masked men inside a school in the Arab town of Jaljulya in central Israel.

Still, Israelis tend to reject any comparison with the United States.

“We don’t worship guns, we don’t sell assault rifles to people, we don’t have a genius creation like the NRA, we don’t regard every bunch of guys a ‘well regulated militia’ and we’re pretty much done fighting the British,” Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who has advised several foreign ministers and served as his country’s consul general in New York, wrote in a sarcastic tweet responding to Huckabee.