U.S. right to bear arms perplexes Israelis

U.S. right to bear arms perplexes Israelis

Asher  Wiseman
Asher Wiseman

KIBBUTZ KFAR RUPPIN, Israel — Though utterly deplorable, the American public can hardly claim that the Dec. 16 Newtown shootings came out of the blue.

In 2012 alone, we have shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movieplex, at a Wisconsin Sikh temple, and at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif. — a public execution that left seven dead.

The gravity and grief of Newtown shouldn’t be diminished by our recent history, but public shootings have become commonplace in the United States. The issue will either be dealt with or ignored.

Being that Israel is a European-style democracy, gun laws here are much more comprehensive. Israel, with its civilian army and abundant security issues has no need for a populace that packs heat. Naturally, the overwhelming majority of Israelis are skeptical about the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms,” and they would firmly support gun legislation in Congress.

Though gun laws vary from state to state, the following statistics from gunpolicy.org may help illustrate the drastic differences between the American and Israeli relationships with guns:

• For every 100 Israelis there are about 7.3 owned guns, compared to 88.8 in the United States.

• The reported asking price for the illegal AK-47 in Israel is approximately $3,000 while a legal sale of the Kalashnakov in America might only cost $500.

• In Israel, every small arms transaction is registered in a government database; the minimum age for receiving a gun license is 21.

• Each Israeli must present his/her reason for gun ownership, and submit to periodic license renewals and background checks.

• In 2009, gun homicides in the United States were numbered 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 people. In Israel, the mortality rate was .96.

(Just to put things into perspective, Brazil’s gun homicide rate hovered at around 18.1 per 100,000 that same year.)

The gap between the U.S. and Israeli figures might well be explained by the American gang culture, the polarization of American society and by lax gun laws that make firearms ubiquitous.

However, something is lost upon the Israeli population when discussing American gun policy. Thanks to groups such as the National Rifle Association, the sanctity of the Second Amendment is now on par with biblical verses. Furthermore, the Constitution was not written as part of an ethnic nationalist movement but rather as a statement of individual liberty in the face of tyranny. The right to defend oneself, even against the mechanisms of one’s own government was part of that declaration. In other words, it is rooted in a part of the American psyche that gun ownership is a safeguard against despotism. As a pundit for the news network France 24 put it, federal gun legislation would make Roe v. Wade look like a parking violation, dividing the nation.

Israelis, however, live in state of constant conflict where gun idealism could only make the security situation worse. Your average Zionist has faith that his government will not become tyrannical. A Jew can always look to his community, no matter where he may be, as a source of sanity and reason. Besides, the country’s socialist roots sanction a greater amount of government oversight in general.  

All statistics and crime rates aside, a class trip to Yad v’Shem posed some profound questions about the right to bear arms. An old, particularly Israeli criticism of European Jewry states that Jews went “like sheep headed for slaughter” during the Holocaust. A student in my class suggested that if gun idealism had been stronger in prewar Europe, the fate of Germany might have been very different. Indeed, the Weimar Republic enacted strict gun registration laws to supplant the power of paramilitary groups. These same gun laws served the governing Nazis well by allowing them to locate and then confiscate the guns of the citizenry. Perhaps the individual opponents of fascism in Europe would have been less complacent during the rise of the Nazis had they clung to their guns in the face of an ascending, violent enemy. If nothing else, this hypothetical satisfies the claim that the right to bear arms is an insurance policy for democracy and republicanism.

The deranged actions of an unhinged 20-year-old should empower us to prevent this type of incident from repeating itself, but the implications of comprehensive federal gun legislation are great, far-reaching and legally binding. Hopefully, prudence, pragmatism and old-fashioned common sense will guide the on-going debate in the United States. For Israelis however, the answer has always been clear — regulate it.

(Asher Wiseman, 17, of Pittsburgh, is a Diller Fellow who now attends Gaon Hayarden High School and lives in Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel. He writes a monthly column for the Chronicle on Israel from a young person’s perspective.)