Gun lobbyists who might think Israel hands out guns freely to keep its citizens safe might be less enamored of Israel's actual gun laws, which are much stricter than those in the U.S. For one thing, notes Yakov Amit, head of the firearms licensing department at the Ministry of Public Security, Israeli law does not guarantee the right to bear arms as the U.S. Constitution does.
"The policy in Israel is restrictive," he said.
Gun licensing to private citizens is limited largely to people who are deemed to need a firearm because they work or live in dangerous areas, Amit said. West Bank settlers, for instance, can apply for weapons licenses, as can residents of communities on the borders with Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Licensing requires multiple levels of screening, and permits must be renewed every three years. Renewal is not automatic.
The policy is designed "to strike a balance between needs and risks," Amit said. "We know that weapons are a dangerous thing, and in the hands of someone who isn't trained or isn't reliable, it causes problems."
The gap between Israeli gun ownership and U.S. gun ownership is consequently staggering. A total of 170,000 guns are licensed for private use in Israel, or about one gun for every 30 adults.
In addition to the privately held weapons, 130,000 guns are licensed to Israeli security companies, firing ranges, government ministries and companies that operate in areas deemed dangerous. Soldiers who carry assault rifles off base during their regular or reserves service turn them in when they complete their tours of duty.
By contrast, U.S. authorities estimate that at least one-third of all American households have firearms — and in many cases, not only one.
Americans are also much freer to choose what type of guns they buy. Automatic weapons of the type Lanza used to gun down his victims are banned for private ownership in Israel. It is also rare for a person to be authorized to own more than one firearm, Amit said.
Eighty percent of the 10,000 people who apply yearly for licenses are turned down, he said. In the U.S., people can purchase firearms from private dealers without a background check or a license of any kind.
In Israel, applicants must undergo police screening and medical exams, in part to determine their mental state, Amit said.
Many Israelis receive weapons training in the military. But to be licensed to receive a weapon outside the military, they must undergo at least two hours of additional training, then repeat the training and medical exams every three years before they can renew their licenses.
Anybody who possesses a legally acquired gun waives the right to confidentiality, and authorities cross-reference for new information about the gunholder every three months.
"The point is not to complicate, but to make sure the system makes things safer," Amit said.
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