Is Israel the right model for US gun culture?

Liel Leibovitz, a senior writer for Tablet Magazine, weighed in on last week’s tragedy with a piece that suggests the US should emulate Israel’s gun culture, Why Israel Has No Newtowns. Before I say anything, and just to give you an idea of the author’s tone, here’s his caricature of America’s general response to what happened in Newtown:

Simpler minds insisted that anyone who has ever argued in favor of anything but the absolute abolition of firearms was complicit in the murder of innocent children, while more astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives.

That’s not at all a patronizing over-simplification, oh he of (presumably) astute thought.

The piece is so riddled with questionable premises, faulty conclusions, and delicious irony that it looks like it was used for target practice. I’m not going to try to write a comprehensive response, but I am going to pull up a few of the most objectionable things Leibovitz wrote and talk about those in the order he wrote them.

First, his premise that Israel provides a model the United States should seek to emulate. The idea seems to be that Israel has way fewer gun deaths than the United States each year. Leibotitz sites the following:

A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans.

Or, as you might have seen it:


Now, obviously, the advertisement is dated (See: “West Germany”). But these are the statistics Leibovitz cites, so I’ll accept them accurate for now since I have no way of verifying them/am too lazy to do so. The real problem is that the statistics are uninformative because they’re more or less completely out of context. And I don’t mean the United States is actually good when it comes to handgun violence. Just not so bad.

But even once you adjust the numbers to account for each country’s total population, Israel is clearly not the model the United States should look to to reduce gun violence:

Japan 127,817,277/48 => 2.6M
Great Britain 60,003,000/8 => 7.5M
Switzerland 7,907,000/34 => .23M
Canada 34,482,779/52 => .66M
Israel 7,879,500/58 => .135M
Sweden 9,453,000/21 => .45
United States 314,686,189/10728 => .03M

[Country] [population, 2011 — source: the Google]/[Last year, handguns killed] => [number of people per handgun death]

As you can see, the United States comes out pretty bad, with one  handgun death per ~30,000 people. But Israel — and Switzerland, which also has compulsory military service — come out looking only marginally better. Better, but not 34/58-to-10,278 better.

If Leibovitz was interested in objectivity — and not just citing Israel because he’s Jewish, and writing in a Jewish magazine, and has a clear agenda (for starters, he writes that he is a member of the NRA) — he clearly would have compared America’s gun culture to Great Britain’s. They even speak the same language! And have their own history of bloody killing:


Next premise:

there have been no Newtown-style mass shootings in Israel

If, by “no Newtown-style mass shootings”, Leibovitz means that no one shot up a kindergarten in Israel, I’ll accept that until I (hopefully never) learn otherwise.

But if he means mass-shootings in general… well, he seems to write with an ethnically-challenged blind spot. A few short paragraphs after the most recent expert, Leibovitz wrote this:

Nearly any Israeli citizen could have fired the same number of bullets without breaking any law, and some—from the homicidal Baruch Goldstein to Eden Natan-Zada, a soldier who shot up a bus full of Israeli Arabs—did.

For some reason, neither incident qualifies as a Newtown-style mass shooting. Goldstein killed 29 people in a Mosque. Natan-Zada killed 4 people on a bus. And that’s not even getting into how many attacks have been perpetrated against Israelis over the past few decades by their Palestinian neighbors.

Doubtless, these attacks were motivated by a sense of nationalistic something, rather than whatever drove Lanza or Holmes to do what they did. But at the end of the day, any mass killing reflects a deligitimization — a dehumanization — of the other, some disconnect from reality, a sociopathic disregard for human life. In the United States, where everyone hails from a different corner of the globe, where it is easy to feel a deep sense of alienation from as nextdoor neighbor or even a family members, where there is no clear “other” — everyone is “other” — and a worthwhile target can be as close as the nearest movie theater. In Israel and the West Bank, identifying “the other” is easy — just cross the wall. Mass killings don’t cease to count just because the “other” presents a more obvious target.

But even if we accept the premise that Israel is a good statistical model for the United States — that it sees far fewer shooting deaths, however that is calculated — Leibovitz must still prove that gun availability in the two countries is roughly comparable:

The Israeli government has tightened the reins over the past decade, passing a series of additional restrictions and placing further emphasis on enforcement. The result was clear: In 2000, there were approximately 400,000 legally owned firearms in Israel, the majority of them handguns, and the number of illegal weapons stood at about 150,000. Ten years later, thanks largely to the new strictures, the ratio was reversed: 180,000 firearms were legally licensed, and more than 400,000 were illegally obtained, most of them assault rifles like the M-16 and the Galil, stolen from the Israel Defense Forces. Naturally, this led to an increase in the number of casualties, as it placed far mightier tools in the hands of criminals who were previously content to handle their affairs using the perfectly legal and readily available guns at their disposal.

Ignoring for a moment which guns were legal and which illegal, it looks to me like the total number of guns in Israel increased by 30,000 over a decade. How does that stack up against the United States? Let’s take a look at the week after Obama was elected in 2008:

According to FBI figures for the week of November 3 to 9, the bureau received more than 374,000 requests for background checks on gun purchasers.

374,000! In a week! And those are just the 60% of gun sales that happen through avenues requiring a background check. Those checks represented a 50% increase over the same week in 2007. In other words, over the course of any given week in the United States, the FBI is asked to run nearly 200,000 background checks on potential gun owners. No wonder there are nearly as many guns in the United States (~270 million) as people (see above). The numbers in Israel  — 500,000 in a population of 8 million — don’t even begin to compare.

When the ground beneath the argument about the availability of guns became shaky, some pundits pivoted to the issue of ammunition, which Israelis, with some exceptions, are allowed to legally purchase in limited quantities, usually no more than 50 rounds per year. Even if we disregard the relative ease of obtaining more bullets—the army is always a handy source, as are shooting ranges, which sell as many bullets as one wants and rarely check at the door to see how many rounds each customer actually fired and how many were squirreled away—talk of limiting ammunition remains unconvincing. Dylan Klebold, for example, committed most of his Columbine massacre using a TEC-9 handgun, which he fired a total of 55 times.

Ammunition is not just about gross quantity; it’s also about how many times you can fire before being forced to reload. Unless you’re Mufasa fighting off a herd of wildebeest, or hunting buffalo, squirrels, and rabbits on the Oregon Trail (the game), I can’t imagine why it would ever be helpful to fire 100 times without reloading… but high-volume magazines are very helpful to a mass murderer.

If the United States, itself awash with weapons, wishes to benefit from Israel’s experience, it must make sure it learns the right lessons. The first and most universal one is that ever more stringent gun control is bad policy: As is the case with drugs, as was the case with liquor during Prohibition, the strict banning of anything does little but push the market underground into the hands of criminals and thugs. Rather than spend fortunes and ruin lives in a futile attempt to eradicate every last trigger in America, we would do well to follow Israel’s example and educate gun owners about their rights and responsibilities, so as to foster a culture of sensible and mindful gun ownership.

You heard it here first: gun control isn’t worth thinking because it costs a fortune and ruins lives in pursuit of every last trigger in America. Also, there’s no middle ground. It’s either all guns or no guns. And you’ll get the gun I’m holding when you rip it out of my cold, dead fingers.

In Israel, still a somewhat socialist country, mental health services are ready available, for free, to anyone. And because so many young Israelis undergo traumatic experiences in the course of their military service, a whole host of nonprofit organizations are on hand to provide counseling and treatment. We must do the same.

And now we come to the delicious irony. In trying to deflect debate from gun control to mental health, advocates are forced to concede that maybe there conceivably is some possible benefit to free healthcare. So maybe some good will come of all this after all.


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