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May. 19, 2002
Israelis are lining up for gun licenses.
But not many of those approved for a permit end up buying a pistol. Why?
Looking at the 500 or so men who came into Tze'irei Modi'in Synagogue for the "Shabbat Hagadol" service before Passover, Rabbi David Lau estimated that "dozens" of them were packing pistols. It illustrated why Lau's topic for that holy afternoon was guns, and whether carrying one was permitted on Shabbat.
"It had gotten to the point where in some of the synagogues of Modi'in, there would be 30 or 40 men coming to pray with guns on their belts - and sometimes more than one gun," says Lau, chief rabbi of Modi'in and son of Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Despite the traditional Jewish ban on carrying guns on Shabbat, Lau told the congregation that because of the unusual circumstances in the country, with terror an everyday threat, his interpretation of Jewish law held that Israelis could now carry guns on Shabbat as a matter of pikuah nefesh (saving Jewish lives.)
Lau ruled, however, that people could not walk around on Shabbat with a gun in their hand, nor could they put on a holster and gun during Shabbat, but what they could do was put the gun and holster on the belt of their pants before Shabbat began, and then, after the holy day got underway, simply get dressed. That way, he ruled, they wouldn't be breaking any religious laws or sullying the purpose of the day.
His ruling held for both men and women both, although Lau says he hasn't noticed women wearing guns around town - but then he hasn't been checking handbags, either.
These days Israelis both religious and secular are taking their guns out of their dresser drawer (95% of local gun owners keep them somewhere in the bedroom, according to a shooting instructor) and strapping them on. They're shaking the rust off their shooting arms at shooting ranges, trading their old Smith and Wesson for a new Glock or Baretta 9-mm semi-automatic (or cheaper, Israeli-made Jericho).
They're in the minority though - only 265,153 Israelis legally own guns. (An unknown but likely small number of people buy guns illegally from "fences," who get their merchandise mainly via thefts from the IDF and house burglaries.)
The current conflict, not surprisingly, has been a boon to the nationwide gun business. In 2000, there were just over 4,400 applications for gun licenses; in 2001 there were nearly 7,800.
March 2002 showed the most dramatic jump in applications seen in many years. There were some 1,100 applications that month, not counting those from the three most frequently targeted cities in the country - Jerusalem, Netanya and Tel Aviv, which had so many applications they were late in reporting.
Crowds of people from the gunless majority can be found on the 15th floor of Tel Aviv's Shalom Tower, the Interior Ministry office where residents of the Dan Region go in hopes of getting a license.
It was about 11 on a recent morning, and a man stopped at the information desk in the lobby of the Shalom Tower to ask directions to the office, which opens at 8 a.m. "It's all filled up. They only take 50 people a day," the clerk told him.
"So I have to get here at 8 a.m.?" the man asked.
"By 7:30 it's full," said the clerk.
Upstairs people had been waiting since 6 a.m. They filled out forms and waited for a 5-10 minute interview with one of the clerks, then went home. "In the past, I didn't think I needed a gun, but I was in Ariel a couple of days before they bombed the hotel there, and I said, 'That's it. I'm not going to be caught with my pants down,'" said applicant Eliahu Hasson, waiting on one of the benches. A Holon resident, Hasson's claim for gun ownership is that he's a truck driver who travels frequently into the West Bank.
A lot more than 50 applicants were wandering in and out of the office, hoping the clerks would have mercy and go over the limit, but Eyal Katz, No. 76, was giving up, saying he would return another day.
"I got caught in that shooting at Kfar Saba where they killed that teenage girl," he said. "I was about 50 yards from it when the guy started shooting up the restaurant, and I made a U-turn and in my rear-view mirror I saw the cops shoot him to death."
Katz, a restaurateur from Ramat Hasharon, says his business also takes him to the West Bank, which is why he wants a gun.
Hasson will probably get his license, Katz - hard to say. Israelis may want to buy guns, but not all of them are being approved for licenses. According to Interior Ministry figures, about 60% of applicants received licenses in the past two years.
And the effects of restrictions placed on licenses after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, are also still being felt. Despite the rush to apply for gun licenses, there are currently 265,000 gun owners in the country, compared to nearly 285,000 registered at the end of 1995.
It's getting a little easier to own a gun in Israel, but it's still much tougher than in the US. As a rule, an Israeli 21 or older with a clean criminal record, in good health, and with no history of mental illness can get a license for a handgun only if he or she lives or works full-time in Judea, Samaria, Gaza or certain "confrontation line" areas; drives passengers or explosives for a living; owns a jewelry store; is an active police volunteer; or holds the rank of lieutenant or higher in the IDF or police. Until recently one had to be a lieutenant colonel to obtain a gun, but the sharp rise in terror attacks caused the Interior Ministry to ease its criteria.
A regular guy who lives in Jerusalem or Netanya and wants to get a gun because it's dangerous on the streets is unlikely to get his wish.
Even if you qualify for the right to buy a gun, getting to the point where you can actually purchase and take one home is fairly grueling.
After a person puts in the application to the Interior Ministry, it takes up to about six weeks to check out his background and situation to determine if should get the license. If his request is accepted, he is notified by mail. He takes the notice of approval to a gun store and buys a gun - but he doesn't take the gun home yet. First, he has to take a shooting instruction lesson, that lasts about an hour, which concludes with the firing of 50 bullets at a target 10 meters away, and, in nearly all cases, the instructor's signature that the shooter has shown reasonable proficiency.
Then the prospective gun owner takes the instructor's signature, plus the gun registration, and a letter attesting to a clean bill of health from his family doctor, back to the Interior Ministry which, if everything checks out, hands him his license. He then takes the license back to the gun store, which gives him the purchased gun it's been holding for him.
Now he owns it, can carry it wherever he goes, and can renew it every three years by firing another 50 bullets at a licensed shooting range.
'Shabbat! Shabbat!" shooting instructor Shlomo Hassanovitch is yelling at five soon-to-be new gun owners who, wearing goggles and ear plugs, are blasting away at their targets.
Hassanovitch explains: "There's no time! There's no time! Shabbat! Shabbat!" He's shouting at his charges, doing his best to simulate the high-pressure, think-fast conditions in which they might have to use the gun against an attacker.
They are in the tiny, indoor shooting range below Lahav, a particularly popular gun store, near the old Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. The walls and ceiling are lined with foam rubber in the shape of the inside of egg cartons to absorb some of the overwhelming noise.
"There's no smell like this anywhere else in the world," Hassanovitch says, sniffing the cordite in the air.
"Aim! Fire! What are you waiting for? Fire! Fire!" he hollers over the increasingly rapid banging out of 250 bullets, as he paces back and forth behind the shooters. There's no doubt - target practice is big fun. Afterwards, one of the five shooters, Natalie, an off-duty Air Force officer, is flushed with excitement. "I feel great," she says.
Hassanovitch (a man of Yemenite background, his real name is Hassan, but Hassan sounds Arabic, so he goes by Hassanovitch) pours out a torrent of information about the proper use of handguns to his charges, reciting from a script he's recited thousands of times, weaving in improvised, flirtatious references to Natalie.
"Now if Natalie sees a terrorist in action and thinks she can shoot him without hitting an innocent bystander, fine, shoot him. But if Natalie, God forbid, accidentally shoots an innocent bystander, or shoots somebody who she thought was a terrorist but was actually not a terrorist, then Natalie will have to answer to the law."
He shows them the two-handed grip - "Thumb on thumb! I'm from Beit Shammai, not Beit Hillel!" he says, referring to the stricter school of Jewish law over the more lenient school - and, as part of the script, fires a bullet unexpectedly at the wall to show what can happen when the gun is cocked improperly. The educational value of Hassanovitch's trademark gimmick is questionable, although it does succeed in briefly debilitating the pupils with shock.
At the Ramat Gun (sic) shooting range next to Ramat Gan's main shopping mall, the sound of gunfire is all around - there are 80 indoor lanes on the range, and an average of about 200 shooters come by a day, says owner Efi Yavin. The great majority come to take the course and shoot their 50 bullets before getting a license, or just to shoot the required 50 for license renewal. Yavin has a world-weary view of Israeli gun owners.
"They think they don't have to practice," he says. "If you could read their minds when they walk through the gate here, you'd see them thinking, 'What do I need to do this for? My brother's in the Shin Bet, my sister's in the Mossad, my cousin is a pilot. It's all a scam, anyway.'
"The best shooter," Yavin continues, "is your religious woman who lives in, say, [the West Bank settlement of] Emanuel, who's wearing a head covering, sleeves down to here and a dress down to the floor. She doesn't have a brother in Sayeret Matcal, she's never seen a James Bond movie, she's scared to death of guns, she listens to every word the instructor says, and when she's finished shooting you're going to see that she's put 50 shots into a space the size of a saucer. And that's the first time she's ever touched a gun.
"Now your typical Israeli gun owner," Yavin goes on, "is standing next to her, and he knows every fancy firing position, and he fires 50 bullets just like he sees them do in the movies, and when he's finished you see that some of his bullets haven't even hit the target, and the ones that have hit the target are spread all over the place."
Upstairs in Lahav, the little shop is almost overflowing with about 20 people on this Friday afternoon, and more keep coming in. The atmosphere is macho in the extreme; a couple of women are here with their boyfriends or husbands, and it's as if they're tagging along to a stag party.
Shuki Shammai, one of the clerks, has on his Harley Davidson T-shirt and his belt with the buckle in the shape of a pistol that happens to shoot real .22 bullets. On a wall facing the stairway is a gun advertisement featuring a blonde in lingerie with a holster on her thigh and a gun in her hand.
"Shoot, what are you waiting for?" the caption has her saying. In the display cases are rows of rifle scopes, laser scopes, gun oil, gun locks, gun grips, holsters, binoculars, handcuffs and, of course, pistols.
A new Glock or Baretta goes for around NIS 4,000 [$814.20 in US dollars], while a new Jericho, made by Israel Military Industries, sells for about NIS 2,800. Since the latest conflict started, the Jerichos are selling better because there are fewer Glocks and Barettas in stock - Western European countries have begun embargoing handgun sales to Israel, says Lahav's manager for the last 43 years, Shaul Derby.
Ben, a 21-year-old Israel Air Force lieutenant who wouldn't give his last name, has come to Lahav to buy a gun because of two recent changes in civilian law and IDF regulations brought on by the surge in terror: the lowering of the minimum IDF or police rank necessary for gun ownership, and the IDF's new regulation that off-duty officers must carry weapons.
"It's easier to carry a handgun than an M-16 rifle," notes Ben. If it weren't for the rise in terror, he says he wouldn't have considered buying a handgun.
Udi Eshed, 41, a contractor from Ramat Hasharon and reserve IDF captain, gives the same reasoning. After closing the deal on a Jericho 9 mm, he says, "I've been thinking about buying a gun for the last year because of the situation, and I finally made the move."
Ben is trying out some different models, assisted by a clerk who shows him how to hold them, cock them, unload them, and finally the clerk hands Ben a used, Czech-manufactured C-Z 9-mm. Ben listens to the instructions, but as soon as he grips the gun, his mind is made up. "It feels comfortable in my hand. I like this one," he says. Buying a gun, it seems, is like buying a home or a car - beyond the price and practicality involved; a person has to feel that this is the right one.
A gun is a very personal possession.
Ben says he's never come up against an armed enemy - "Thank God," he adds - and is asked what he would do if he were walking along a crowded street and heard people screaming, shots being fired, and people yelling, "Terrorist!"
"I think, or I hope, I would keep my cool. I wouldn't shoot right away; I'd make sure who was doing the shooting," he says. "And if I was convinced that this was somebody shooting at innocent people, and I knew I had a good shot at him, and that I wouldn't hit any bystanders, then I would shoot to kill."
This is the big fear connected with the notion of having more armed civilians on the street to stop terrorists - meaning, for all practical purposes, a terrorist with a gun, grenade or knife, because it's extremely improbable that an armed civilian could stop a suicide bomber.
The fear is that when the terrorist starts shooting, armed civilians Yossi and Haim, standing two blocks away from each other, are each going to pull their pistols and go running after him, and Yossi, seeing Haim running with his gun drawn, is going to think he's the terrorist and shoot him by mistake. Friendly fire, as it's called.
"This worries me," admits Ben. He's worried about shooting the wrong man, and also he's worried about being the wrong man who gets shot.
This is one of the possibilities that worries Shinui MK Avraham Poraz, considered the leader of anti-gun forces in the Knesset, made up mainly of feminist MKs who protest that guns are used too often by enraged men to kill their wives or ex-wives.
"There was that case of the beating of an innocent person after a bomb went off on Neveh Sha'anan Street [near the old Tel Aviv Central Bus Station] because people thought he was the terrorist. If they'd had a gun, they would have shot him," Poraz points out.
But when asked if he knew of a case where an armed civilian mistook a bystander for a terrorist and shot him, Poraz can't think of one. (There was the case of an innocent bystander being shot by mistake during a terrorist attack on the Netanya beachfront, but the mistake was made by a policeman, not a civilian.) Neither can police spokesman Gil Kleiman think of such a case of friendly fire initiated by a civilian.
On the other hand, there are several cases in the current conflict of armed civilians shooting and killing actual terrorists at work, including terror shootings at Tel Aviv's Seafood Market restaurant, Beersheba, and Jerusalem's French Hill and Talpiot areas.
For this reason, the police are in favor of expanding the ranks of armed civilians. "The danger of friendly fire exists, but it's a trade-off," says Kleiman, maintaining that this danger was outweighed by the increased security that comes from having responsible armed civilians on the street to deter terrorists or stop them in the act. "A guy who served in an IDF combat unit, who has no criminal record, no health problems, who's well-trained in using a gun - we think it would be a good thing, on balance, if people like this could carry a gun on the street," he says.
Israel's gun laws used to be a lot more permissive than they are today.
The change began in 1992 when a truck driver with severe mental problems terrorized a health clinic in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, killing one employee. It turned out that the deranged killer had a license for the gun he used. Afterwards the police and health authorities began doing close background checks on all applicants.
But the turning point in the country's gun laws came about 9:50 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1995, when Rabin was shot and killed by two bullets in the back fired from a Baretta 380, purchased by licensed gun owner Yigal Amir.
Amir got the license when he lived in the West Bank - this was the criterion under which he was granted a license - and kept the weapon after he moved back to his parents' home in Herzliya, said Ya'acov Amit, head of licensing and supervision for the Interior Ministry.
One of the laws that changed as a result of the assassination was that licensees who no longer have a reason for owning a gun - for instance, former settlers who've moved across the Green Line, or jewelry store owners who've sold their shops - are legally required to report their change in status to the ministry, which is then empowered to revoke the license.
The tightening of the gun laws is illustrated by Lahav's economic fortunes: Before the assassination, it had 11 branches around the country, and now it has two, the other one being in Rishon Lezion, says Derby.
After Operation Defensive Shield was launched, the level of terror dipped sharply in April, and business went back to its normal conflict-time pace.
Still, the rush of customers coming through the door at Lahav isn't nearly as heavy as it was after the major terror strikes of the 1970s, such as the Coastal Road bus massacre and the shooting spree at then-Lod Airport by Kozo Okamoto and other terrorists, says Derby. The difference between then and now is the stricter gun laws.
Since last Shabbat Hagadol, says Rabbi David Lau, the synagogues of Modi'in no longer have 30 or 40 men coming to Shabbat prayers wearing guns. Instead what you see is a man with a gun on his belt praying and guarding at the same time outside the front door.
"After my sermon, any synagogue that didn't have volunteer guards started to have them," Lau says, "and any synagogue that was filled with people carrying guns started to make some order."