Is Israel proof that an armed society can work?

The burden is on those of us who advocate gun control to prove that deterrence doesn’t work with firearms.

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.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

3 replies »

  1. Armed societies are not polite societies. I refer you to the delightfully funny read, “Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling,” by Barbara Holland ( Rather than reduce violence, the cultural acceptance of it, combined with availability of even single-shot pistols, made at least one duel in one’s life almost de rigeur, especially in the US, France, and (most of all), Germany. And this was only the upper classes, at least in Europe. The author points out that most of these gun (and very occasionally sword) deaths and injuries went unreported, as dueling was usually against the law, though convictions were rare as hen’s teeth because of cultural acceptance. At one time, it was very difficult to be elected to public office in the US unless you had at least one duel to your credit, the law be damned.

    Stats from the American West in its “wild” days are notoriously difficult to pin down, not only because the record keeping is questionable, but also because gun advocates tend to quote stats from the more settled days of the cow towns and mining towns, when gun control was usually far more stringent than it is, now. Or, they might average in the early days of the cow towns when there was little or no gun control into a multi-year period when gun control was ubiquitous.

    In the end, the issue really comes down to norms of behavior in both the meta-culture and in various sub-cultures, which usually reflect, in some way, the meta-culture. Switzerland is a nation of sometimes draconian laws that people tend to adhere to because that’s what people do in Switzerland. Speeding in Switzerland isn’t a traffic issue, but a legal offense that can land you in jail, for instance. Gun ownership in Switzerland is closely related to military service, and the idea that Swiss civilian-soldiers might have to fight their way to their regiments in the case of invasion. I know of at least one mass shooting in Switzerland in 2001 (28 killed or wounded), but for the most part, guns in Switzerland are part of a sense of civic duty to defend the country, not the first place people look to avenge a “dissing” from someone else.

    I suspect the issue is much the same in Israel. Gun ownership is closely related to defense from “others,” which would tend to make fellow citizens part of the monkey sphere ( and, so, less likely to be the subject of murderous thoughts.

    But gun ownership is also very high in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan, and those are probably not places I’d like to be in conflict with a local (being in conflict with a Swiss wouldn’t bother me at all).

    Summing up, the issue with guns is whether or not there is a culture in which their casual use for deadly reasons makes the people who own guns generally more dangerous than in other cultures.

  2. why are americans unwilling to accept that dueling was the acceptable alternative to armed retainers? Before the rules of dueling, one kept armed retainers, assassin, and basically persons willing to engage in ambush inside the civil area, so as to maintain the Hobseian Balance of terror. So clearly allowing only the principles to kill each other is a bold step in the right direction, and ended the unpleasant habit of everyone playing the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with blades at up close and personal kill zones.

    As Stephen Pinker has noted in his “The better angels of our Nature”, the myth of the Dual as a solution ends as the younger generation laughs at the folly of this madness.

    So you will forgive me if I fail to take serious americans who hold firearms as Totems, rather than that they are technical tools for a technical trade most of them have the impoliteness of establishing they lack the competency to engage in.

    It will be a great day in america, when they learn that they will need Heavy Weapons to play a their “because of TYRANNY!” arguments, and then notice that all of the ‘dissing’ kills that occur in a state tend to occur in the ‘stateless persons’ who live outside of the acceptable civil society. As one of my friends was so impolite to note, “if you expect the police to be there before Domino Delivers…..” and felt that was a sufficiency of proof of why citizens needed fire arms, rather than that there was a clear break down in the social order, and the inclusion of citizens.

    Using Israel as a space to consider, is additionally amusing, given that they have been able to create a whole culture of ‘the other’ whom they find it totally acceptable to kill. So perchance it is a biased survey since the ‘they’ is clearly well defined.

    As an aside here, we should wonder if the Isreali have opted to share with Syria how to deal with irrational armed members of their society that have been excluded from the civil process. Or would that complicate the polite social discourse on how we either play act at the “because of TYRANNY!” gaming, or the complications of what leads people to find the heavy weapons required to do the needful, and not hope that mere handguns will suffice.

  3. Well, a.f., I’m usually “unwilling to accept” any proposition put forward as fact without supporting comment. Dueling has its place in both Homer and the Bible, of course, in military contexts, and it shows up in Greek myth in non-military context (Oedipus killed his father in a duel, for instance). Dueling came under the purview of the church in later years in the form of trial by combat — the idea being that God would always allow the wronged party to win. Of course, it sure did seem to most people, even at the time, that the strongest, most skilled, and most experienced man almost always won those contests, regardless of the circumstances.

    The modern duel appears to be a descendant of the trial by combat. Earlier recorded duels appear to center around God’s decision, though this was dropped as we move into more modern times, and the duel simply became a way for men to demonstrate their courage. In some societies and in some classes, the duel became a right of passage.