“America.” The word is commonly used by Israelis as a slang expression that means something very positive. In his 2007 book, “Hebrew in Jeans: The Character of Hebrew Slang,” author Nissan Netzer explains that “when something, almost anything, is really great, it’s described as ‘America.’” Netzer writes that “the adoration of America has turned into a symbol of perfection.”
Following the horrific mass murder in Las Vegas last week, Israelis could more accurately consider using the “America” expression to mean something else entirely.
I have often heard comments by US visitors who are surprised to see IDF soldiers carrying M-16 automatic rifles on the streets of Israel.
Those weapons are in the hands of security forces charged with protecting the nation. Police carry guns, and so do security guards. For those not “on the job,” Israeli law limits firearm ownership and requires vigorous vetting and permit renewal several times annually. There have been occasions where civilians carrying pistols have been useful in the prevention of terrorist attacks, but the vast majority of those attacks are thwarted by security forces.
To be sure, there are illegal weapons in the hands of Jewish citizens who steal guns from the army, the underworld has illegal weapons, and so do too many Israeli Arab villagers. However, proportionately, firearms in the hands of Israeli civilians are an astounding one-thirteenth of the number in the United States. According to the US Congressional Research Service, there are more privately owned guns than there are people in the US. In 2013, there were 317 million people and 357 million guns. The United States leads the world with 112 guns per 100 residents. Serbia is a distant second with 58 guns per 100 residents. With all of our security problems, Israel is 79th on the world list with a mere 7 guns per 100 residents. There is no fundamental “right” to carry arms any more than there is a “right” to drive a car.
In point of fact, most Americans do not own a weapon. A recent survey conducted by Harvard University says that the top 14% of gun owners, about 7.7 million people, own between 8 and 140 guns apiece. Licensed gun owners possess an average of 17 weapons of various types. They own the weapons legally and are protected by the second amendment to the US Constitution.
One of those legal gun owners was Stephen Paddock, who smuggled about 20 of his rifles into his room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas and carried out the massacre, murdering and wounding more than 250 concertgoers in the plaza below. Paddock legally modified many of his weapons with a “bump stock” device that, for about $100, allows a semiautomatic weapon to perform like a full automatic.
Consider this: According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, “the US has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the world.” There have been 1,500 mass shootings (4 or more killed) in the US since Sandy Hook in 2012 when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut. During that period, 1,715 people were killed and 6,089 wounded by guns.
Things are not likely to improve in the US any time soon. The powerful National Rifle Association resists just about every effort to toughen laws relating to gun ownership, although even the NRA is now willing to reconsider the legality of bump stocks. The NRA bases its opposition to gun limitations on the Second Amendment. The wording of that amendment, written in 1789, is “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The courts have largely backed the “right” to bear arms.
The American gun owners of today are not militiamen, and their weapons have never been used, or even considered for use in the defense of the United States. That duty belongs to the US armed forces, the National Guard and the police. Nevertheless, despite the recent atrocity in Las Vegas, neither the courts nor Congress are expected to take any significant action any time soon that will change the reality of unlimited “legal” gun ownership.
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I grew up in the middle-class neighborhood of Laurelton, Queens, New York. I did not know anyone who owned a gun until my late teens, in 1970, when I joined the Betar Youth movement, based largely in New York. In Betar, we learned about the need for Jews to defend themselves against perceived threats, mostly from anti-Semites. We were also ideologically committed to aliyah and serving in the IDF, so knowing how to use a weapon was considered a positive thing. We had “shooting days” when we traveled to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York to fire shotguns at flying plaster discs. There was also regular shooting practice at Camp Betar, with targets of Arab terrorists placed at a distance.
The next time I came in contact with weapons was in IDF basic training. Over the years I served occasionally as a volunteer in the civil guard. I was given an old M-1 rifle for the time on patrol, and gave it back at the end of the tour. For the past 17 years, I have lived in the Judean Hills seam-line (West Bank) community of Har Adar, which recently suffered a deadly terror attack in which the soldiers and security guards were killed. Nevertheless, the notion of personally owning a weapon seems completely unnecessary to me and almost everyone else I know in this community.
Americans like to refer to the United States as the greatest nation in the world. In some ways that may be true. The US can build walls on the Mexican border and can crack down on illegal immigration and profile potential radical would-be immigrants, but they will not solve their massive internal security problem, which is their homegrown gun owners.
Many in the US like to use Israel as an example of a nation that is a model for protecting its citizens by building a security fence. The Jewish state is also good at protecting outdoor concert-goers and movie-goers and shoppers by creating layers of armed security, with police approval, to ensure a safe venue with adequate exits in case of emergency.
I would hope that in the future American friends of Israel could refer to us as an example of a nation under real security threat, but with a much more reasonable approach to guns in the hands of its citizens. In the meantime, I suggest that we in Israel drop the slang word “America,” or alter its meaning to “heavily armed and dangerous.”