Business is booming at Krav, a Jerusalem store selling guns and other self-defense items, as Israelis worried by a surge in Palestinian attacks rush to arm themselves.
“I want a gun not so much because I’m worried for my own safety, but because I’ll be better prepared to protect other people from attacks,” said Jerusalem resident Netanel Oberman, 22, who just completed Israel’s compulsory military service.
The government responded to the rising demand for weapons with a decision Wednesday to ease gun ownership rules, including allowing some municipalities to issue temporary licenses for the first time. Seven Israelis have been killed this month in stabbing and shooting attacks, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, filmed recently carrying his own Glock pistol, has called for legal gun owners to arm themselves.
“In recent weeks many citizens helped the Israeli police neutralize terrorists,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in a statement. “Citizens trained in the use of firearms can be a force multiplier in the struggle against terrorism.”
Others disagree, including human rights groups concerned that more guns will fuel vigilante justice against Palestinians, including attackers who are shot dead even when they no longer pose an immediate threat. At least 31 Palestinians have also been killed, including assailants shot by Israeli civilians.
“We are already seeing a trend of excessive lethal force by security officers, and putting more guns in the hands of untrained civilians would be just adding another layer to this phenomenon,” says Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli group B’Tselem.
Israel isn’t a country awash in guns, contrary to a popular perception fueled by images of army-age Israeli teenagers toting assault rifles while off duty on Tel Aviv beaches.
In reality, fewer than 4 percent of Israelis are licensed to carry personal firearms, according to the Public Security Ministry, compared to one in three Americans.
At Krav, owner Ronen Rabani informed several would-be gun owners that they are unlikely to qualify for a firearm license, leaving them to purchase the pepper-spray devices flying off the shelves.
“The weapon registration laws are actually quite strict here,” Rabani said.
Gun ownership is generally restricted to security-related personnel, those whose occupations expose them to robbery, upper-rank military veterans, and residents of potentially dangerous areas, such as West Bank settlements. The licensing application and renewal processes include both regular medical exams and marksmanship testing.
But ownership may soon swell, owing to rising numbers of license applications and the easier access.
The new ministry regulations will now permit licenses for lower-ranking military veterans and other government employees who have had security training. They also tighten rules on shooting-range experience, requiring it annually instead of once every three years.
The broader ownership rules still leave plenty of Israelis who want guns shooting blanks, among them Jerusalem resident Segev Gorbitz, who exited Krav in frustration after owner Rabani told him he is unlikely to qualify for a license.
“It’s not right,” says Gorbitz, a 50-year-old ceramics teacher. “I want a gun to defend myself and my family, and if you’re an Israeli like me who served in the army and have no criminal record, you should be able to get one.”
Others are worried that some of the additional guns won’t be used in self-defense.
“I’m very concerned that easing licenses for guns might escalate violence, and they’ll end up being used for unintended purposes such as deadly domestic disputes,” said Galia Wallach, who heads the women’s group Na’amat, in an interview with Army Radio.
While more guns may add protection during a short spurt in violence, in the long term, relaxed regulations may backfire, said Asher Ben-Artzi, a former chief superintendent in the Israeli police.
“As a former policeman I know that many privately owned guns eventually end up in the hands of organized crime or terrorists, or being used in private disputes,” said Ben-Artzi, a research associate at Herzliya’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. “The bottom line is that putting more guns out there is not a good idea.”