Is Israel Proof That an Armed Society Can Work?

At the Tablet on December 17, Lial Lebovitz attempts to explain (in a piece titled) Why Israel Has No Newtowns. First, he notes that, in the United States

… astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, they often ended up looking to Israel. … A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans. … Assault rifles are banned, registration is necessary, and a whole system of checks and requirements is in place to keep weapons out of the wrong hands.

But, Lebovitz points out that, while assault rifles are banned in Israel, it’s surprisingly easy to obtain a handgun. (In particular, note what I’ve italicized.)

Security guards, obviously, are permitted their guns, but so are men and women who work in the diamond industry, or who handle valuable goods or large sums of cash. Anyone who lives or works in an “entitled residency”—code for a high-risk area, meaning the settlements—is permitted a weapon, no questions asked. Retired army officers can easily obtain a license, as can anyone who has inherited a gun from a friend or a relative. [Bad pun alert. -- RW] The upshot: Anyone can come up with an excuse to legally own a gun.

“How, then,” Lebovitz asks, “to explain Israel’s relatively low rate of gun-related deaths?” His argument now becomes familiar. He quotes Lior Nedivi, who he describes as an “an independent firearms examiner in Jerusalem and the co-author of a comprehensive report comparing Israel’s gun laws and culture to that of the United States.”

“An armed society,” Nedivi wrote, quoting the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.

Lebovitz adds:

When everyone has a gun, guns are no longer seen as talismans by weak, frightened, and unstable men seeking a sense of self-validation, but as killing machines that are to be handled with the utmost caution and care.

He fails to explain, though, exactly why said “weak, frightened, and unstable men” no longer turn to guns for “a sense of self-validation.” What follows is equally familiar.

… 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.

It’s the old deterrence argument. When applied to nuclear weapons, those of us in the disarmament community know that deterrence is, at best, a short-term solution. In fact, it’s the epitome of a fragile peace. But, I’m forced to admit that the implications for an armed civil society are not nearly as dire, since one mistake won’t result in the destruction of large portions of the world, as with nuclear weapons. Neither is civil war in the United States, Israel, or Switzerland (another heavily armed society) likely. Thus, it’s left to those of us in favor of steeper gun regulation to present arguments and data refuting the belief that gun possession is an effective form of deterrence.

In the interim, though, it’s difficult to disagree with what Jill Lepore wrote in her outstanding April 2012 New Yorker article on the history of gun control in the United States.

When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.