Local Israelis Reflect on Gun Laws, Gun Culture

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Ayala Laufer-Cahana in an IDF uniform with a gun
Ayala Laufer-Cahana served in the IDF. (Courtesy of Ayala Laufer-Cahana)

Like the vast majority of Israeli Jews, Ayala Laufer-Cahana served in the Israeli military — and with that service came firearm training.

“As we were training and holding the gun,” she said, “this message was repeated to us again and again: ‘This is the only time in which you have a gun. We suggest you never pursue a weapon unless you become so well-trained and so determined that you will point and shoot. Having a gun does not protect you.’ That’s what I was told as a soldier and, indeed, none of us had a gun after that.”

With the debate on gun control continuing in the aftermath of highly publicized mass shootings, as well as daily headlines about gun violence in Philadelphia, local Israelis can’t help but think about the differences between Israeli gun culture and gun culture in the U.S.

For instance, mass shootings are far more prevalent in the U.S. than in Israel, which some Israelis living here attribute to the difference in the accessibility of firearms by private citizens. In Israel, a person must be at least 21 to apply to the government for a permit to buy a gun, and about 40% of those applications are denied. The applicant cannot have a criminal record, and they have to undergo evaluations for physical and mental health as well as training for the specific firearm they wish to acquire. Approval is granted mainly to those who can substantiate a need, such as having a residence in a West Bank settlement, a border area or an area where attacks are frequent.

In the U.S., there is no similar permitting process. Rather, federally licensed gun dealers are required to run background checks on customers for all firearm sales. Between 1998 and 2018, out of nearly 304 million checks conducted via the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, 1.6 million, or 0.52% of applicants, were denied a sale, according to the 2018 NICS Operations Report. Background checks are not required for the sale of firearms between two private individuals within the same state.

The difference between the two countries’ gun laws is something Israeli Yoni Ari has definitely noticed since he’s lived in Philadelphia for the last few years as the regional director of the Israeli-American Council.

“Here, everyone can get a gun and every kind of gun,” Ari said. “It’s weird that everyone can go to a gun shop and buy a gun. In Israel, it’s the opposite. If somebody wants to harm someone, they will do it, with a gun or without a gun, but there has to be more caution about people getting it. Israel is a good example of how we’re protecting the people.”

In Israel, those with gun permits are limited to the types of firearms they can buy based on their stated need during the application process. For example, if a person gets a gun permit for hunting, they can only buy a gun approved by the government for hunting. If a permit is for home security, then the person is mostly restricted to buying a handgun.

The permits must be renewed every three years. In addition, a person is limited to owning one gun. They can’t sell their gun without prior government approval, even to another private citizen. The number of bullets they can possess at one time is limited to 50, and they can only be bought at government-regulated shooting ranges where each bullet’s sale is registered.

In the U.S., there is no limit on the number of guns or amount of ammunition a person can own at any one time and background checks are never done again at a later date.

The contrast perplexes Laufer-Cahana, a physician and entrepreneur in Philadelphia.

“The culture is that a gun is something that should be taken very seriously, that in the right hands is lifesaving, and in the wrong hands, it is destruction and misery,” she said. “But the law is just so completely different than the law here. A gun in Israel is not a right. … I can just not get used to this thing … For anybody coming from another country, it just boggles the mind.”

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