JERUSALEM—Israel’s experience with gun ownership is likely to be used by both sides of the gun debate in the United States following Friday's mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.
Bearing arms in Israel is not a constitutional right as it is in the U.S. It is a right granted on a selective basis by a threatened society for its own protection.
Gun permits in Israel are carefully vetted. Those with a history of mental illness or a criminal record are not permitted to obtain a weapon, and permits are more likely to be issued to those who either live in a dangerous area like the West Bank or work in an occupation that may be considered dangerous.
About 170,000 Israeli citizens are currently licensed to carry a weapon, just 2.5 percent of the population. Forty-seven percent of households in the United States claim to own a gun, according to Gallup.
The Israeli government eased restrictions on gun ownership after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 in order to put 60,000 additional weapons in the hands of civilians, who were more likely to be first responders to sudden acts of terror than security forces. Restrictions have since been tightened.
All firemen and municipal inspectors are armed while they were on duty and a third of bus drivers carried weapons. Reserve army officers and men who had served in combat units were encouraged to apply for permits. Restrictions were reimposed after the intifada was suppressed.
Weapons held by civilians have been used to thwart a number of mass killings despite their relatively limited availability.
A Palestinian gunman opened fire in 2002 in a Tel Aviv restaurant, killing three people and wounding several. One of the wounded men pulled a gun as he lay on the floor and shot the gunman dead before he could continue his rampage. Asked afterwards by a reporter whether he was with the security forces, he said he was a shoe salesman.
An Arab tractor driver deliberately rammed cars and buses with the tractor’s shovel on the busy street 300 yards from the hotel several hours before then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was to arrive at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem as part of his campaign swing in 2008. A 53-year-old Israeli leaped from his car and shot the driver dead though the tractor window.
The attack was similar to one in the area the month before in which a tractor driver killed three persons and wounded dozens as he plowed into buses and cars. It was again a civilian who shot the driver before police arrived.
Armed civilians had proven highly effective against random acts of terror even before the intifada, in which more than 1,000 Israelis were killed and thousands wounded.
Three Palestinians carrying duffle bags entered a sporting goods store on King George Street in the heart of Jerusalem in 1984. They emerged from the dressing rooms wearing new sports clothing and carrying automatic rifles that they had taken out of their bags.
Sparing the salespersons, they stepped into the street and opened fire on passersby and buses. An insurance agent and officer in the army reserves opened fire with a pistol on one of the gunmen, bringing him down next to a crowded bus as he attempted to pull the pin from a grenade.
A merchant felled another gunman before police arrived moments later to capture the third terrorist. Only the swift civilian reaction had prevented a massacre. There were 48 wounded but no fatalities.