Yoni Leviatan
How to be Jewish: Be good. The end.
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Gun control only goes so far

I trained in self-defense in Parkland, Florida, no less, and it changed my life
Students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after a shooter opened fire on the campus, February 14, 2018. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after a shooter opened fire on the campus, February 14, 2018. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Guns do kill people. This whole idea that “no, people kill people” is a hollow argument. It’s taking a statement literally, on purpose, to distract from its meaning. We could of course say something like “the presence of guns in society will have a direct impact on the chances of your getting killed by a gun,” but it’s just easier to say that guns kill people.

Guns also save people. If someone wants to commit murder, they will find a way to do it, with or without a gun. The cold hard truth is that if someone is driving a car into a crowd of people, or walking toward you wearing a suicide belt, your best line of defense is a gun in your hands.

This is the conundrum that America faces every day. There are people who want to kill, and they have easy access to the means. If someone wants to kill you it is your sacred right to defend yourself and your loved ones. If a gun is what it takes, then the good guys must have guns, too. There can be no debate about that.

However, statistics are a matter of fact, and no one needs to know them to know that America has a gun problem. To claim anything otherwise is to see less than a blind man. And if America doesn’t figure out a way to live with that infuriating conundrum, future generations of the world will look back at the disintegration of the most powerful civilization in history and wonder in bafflement how they didn’t see it coming. Like the Greeks, and the Romans, and the Persians, and all the other empires that crumbled from within.

They will ask themselves how Americans could not possibly have realized that they had removed all notion of law and order from their society by granting each citizen the power to play god? That their fear of the other had reached such epic proportions that they wouldn’t even trust their own government to protect them?

Because this is the heart of the problem: fear. Real, legitimate, understandable fear that the only way to be safe — to feel safe — is to be your own sheriff. Yet the dilemma that’s created is that there is no longer only one sheriff in town. If you demand the right to police yourself, you automatically grant everyone else a badge. The very idea of the social contract is torn into pieces, with society thrown back to its original state of nature. There is no more central authority, no sovereign to arbitrate. Only bullets and blood, the rest be damned.

The gun debate lies on the fault line of this reality, the fault line that divides Americans like no other since the Civil War. For there is no issue that gets people more heated, more impassioned, more angry and more despaired, than the issue of guns, and rightfully so.

America’s children are dying in the streets — in their schools — and there is no foreign enemy to blame. No reason to rally around the flag or the troops. No leader to vilify other than its own. This is the issue that forces Americans to look their children in the eyes, and themselves in the mirror, and ask, “Are we really willing to live like this?”

Because this is how America is living. This is America in 2018. The Wild West that was once tamed is now roaring louder than ever, and kids are signing up to be soldiers in their army of one. Hatred for the society that makes them feel rejected is now the fuel that drives them to madness, lit up along the way with a culture of violence that says killing is cool and murder is your ticket to fame. America has borne generations of souls fed a steady diet of glorified killing as entertainment of every kind, while giving people the means to carry out their massacres with nary a thought that maybe something’s wrong here. If we can agree on nothing else, we should at least be able to agree that there’s a problem, and that doing nothing about it is making it worse.

So let’s define the problem clearly without falling into our political corners like on every other issue, because the other issues don’t matter anymore once you lose your security. There are undeniable truths, beginning with the fact that you need to guns to survive in the cruelness of nature. The Jews learned that lesson better than anyone and now have one of the most powerful militaries in the world, armed to the teeth with the ability to wipe out its enemies with the push of a button. But the question any thinking American should be asking themselves is why are there no school shootings in countries like Israel where teenage soldiers walk around with machine guns all over the country?

Not everything is about Israel, and this is America’s tragic heartache to figure a way out of. But as someone who grew up next to Parkland, Florida, with many friends and family who either graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas or have sent their own kids there, to wake up in Tel Aviv to the news of 17 students shot dead was as shocking as it was expected, and demands introspection that always leads to the frustrating knowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way.

I know it because after 28 years of living in a gun-filled America, I now live in a society that is no less fearful of its mortality, has a citizenry whose vast majority is not only comfortable, but experienced with guns, yet has found a way to deal with this paradox that allows everyone the freedom to let their kids run free without needing to worry that they will come home in a body bag. And certainly not from school, where there is an armed guard at every entrance.

In Israel guns are not worshiped. They are not sold at trade shows or Walmart or anywhere else you buy groceries. Guns are respected for the lethality they hold and the only people who are allowed to hold them, barring a proven need, are professional soldiers, police and security officers.

You want to own a gun in Israel just for hunting? No. Go live somewhere else.

You live in the West Bank where it’s dangerous and you need a gun to protect yourself from terrorists? Okay, you can have a gun. Provided that you have prior training in how to use it properly, pass rigorous testing, and are over the age of 27 or served in the military. Then you will still be limited to 50 rounds of ammunition per year, none of which will apply to assault rifles, which are banned. And if you have anything less than a perfect picture of sanity, you should look at other options, because you will not be able to get within 10 feet of anything that shoots bullets.

It’s not only guns. You’re not allowed to walk around with a knife either. If a cop catches you with one, you’re not going to enjoy it. And that’s assuming they don’t shoot you first thinking you’re a terrorist trying to stab them, because it happens all the time and that’s where their mind goes.

So how exactly does one protect themselves in Israel if you’re not allowed to have any kind of serious weapon on you? You call the professionals. You shout out to a soldier or policeman. It’s a citizen army in a small country, there’s most likely an armed soldier close to wherever you are, whether in uniform or not. Every mall or shopping plaza has an armed guard in front of it, as do hotels, restaurants and other businesses. There are armed people everywhere in Israel, out in the open walking around with a gun in their holster, and they all have one thing in common — they’re professionals.

The result is one of the greatest feelings in the world: personal safety. People feel incredibly safe here among all that weaponry, surrounded by the most hardened terrorists in the world. Israel has Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, ISIS and Al-Qaeda on the border with Egypt, Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and we also share a border with Syria and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Jordan is the closest thing we have to Canada, and Canada it is not.

Yet people still feel incredibly safe because we trust our army to protect those borders with giant walls and giant guns, plus non-stop intelligence about what our enemies are up to. Israel knows when the Syrians take a piss and the Iranians wipe their ass. We do everything in our power to protect the outside and know who’s coming in, and the result is a society that functions in safety and security, a society where strangers interact like old friends and there is no fear of the other when it comes to your neighbors.

It all comes down to one basic principle: the only people who have guns are the ones paid to use them. Someone has a beef with you? The chances of them resorting to violence are far slimmer than in the US, because at the end of the day, it’s an equal fight and no one wants to take the chance of getting their head kicked in. It’s the opposite of the “balance of power”. No one has the power. We are all equally armed with nothing but our bodies to protect us, and surprisingly enough, it works very well.

It’s not perfect. Guns still get out there, whether stolen or smuggled in. Terrorists still grab kitchen knives and slash families during dinner. Criminals fight with each other and car bombs are set off. There is no such thing as 100% security and there never has been. If someone wants to kill you badly enough, they’re going to find a way to try. The key difference is that the vast limitations on civilian weaponry in Israel ensure that maximum efforts are mitigated to minimal damage. People still die, but they don’t die in large numbers, and 99% of the time the attempt is thwarted before it starts, or is stopped in action before it can do any harm. Most importantly of all — Israeli children are not killed by other Israeli children.

Of course, Israel is not America. Not in size and not in its society. Israel is a nation born in the womb of war, and continues to fight for its survival every day. This requires a sobriety to its relationship with guns that America simply doesn’t have. America is three times as old as Israel, yet a far more innocent place. People believe and dream in a way unlike anywhere else in the world. There is none of the cynical resignation that Israelis wear like a badge of honor (it’s not). Americans prefer to wear a badge of optimism about the world that has allowed its citizens to overcome immense challenges near and far, whether purging the demons of slavery or the devil of Nazism.

And now America is facing what is possibly its greatest test, one that is growing harder with each shooting and more immediate with each loss of life. There is no one answer. Those who say it’s all about mental health are not admitting the full picture if they believe they can get inside people’s heads fast enough to prevent the next massacre with any kind of certainty.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You won’t stop everyone, but the sooner people get over their fear of offending others and start saying, “hey, something’s up with that guy,” the sooner you will start to see a consciousness take hold that will recognize warning signs and refuse to accept passivity when faced with them.

Those who think it’s all about gun control are no less in denial if they believe a few more laws will solve the taking of innocent lives. Because the other undeniable truth that has yet to be mentioned, is the people who go to gun shows and buy magazines to learn about magazines are not the people shooting up schools. Neither are the fathers (and some mothers) who go to the gun range to practice shooting because they want to protect their families. The stupidity of this next sentence is not lost on me, but it still needs to be said that the people who follow the laws are not the ones breaking them. If someone has decided to commit murder, there is no law on heaven or earth that is going to stop them from trying.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, and the reason it is so hard to pass any kind of meaningful gun control legislation is because both sides continue to talk past each other instead of working to find the areas where progress can be made. And the one area that no person of any moral character should have an argument with is controlling the access and free flow of machines that give anyone else the power to play god with your life in such an easy way.

There is no expectation that a person who is willing to commit murder is going to be deterred by a new law of any kind. But it can certainly be made harder for that person to obtain a gun in the first place by forcing the law-abiding gun dealers to follow tougher regulations when distributing their product. You can put a handgun in the hands of every law-abiding citizen in America, while still making it illegal to sell a gun that is used for military purposes to maximize the damage with minimal skill. And most certainly, greater effort can be made to know who is buying a gun and for what purpose they need it. If they are a law-abiding citizen then they should have no problem waiting as long as it takes to clear them as deserving of the power to take another life.

Americans do not like shades of grey and prefer black and white solutions, but there is no one solution that will come close to having an effect on the problem of mass shootings, let alone solve it. Solving it would take monumental shifts in consciousness and culture that wouldn’t see dividends for at least a generation or two. But why not do some of the less monumental things and start mitigating the damage now? What is it about the second amendment that terrifies the ego into thinking it will lose the right to self-defense if it gives up the right to wage war? They are not the same thing, otherwise where do you draw the line? Tanks? Artillery? Nuclear?

The second amendment isn’t going anywhere, any more than the first one is. The right to bear arms is here to stay, like it or not. But there is nowhere in the Constitution that says these rights are limitless. Just as you can’t yell fire in a movie theater, the principle of public safety must come before the individual right to bear arms, or the constitution isn’t worth the parchment it was written on. Amendments were changed and revised when it threatened the right to get drunk, yet when it comes to the right to live in safety and security there is a holiness imparted on the constitution that is simply not rational. It’s not a religious document from god. Well-intentioned men no holier than you or I wrote it. It can be changed as needed, and has been many times already.

It also bears mentioning that virtually all of these mass school shootings are done by kids buying guns legally. They aren’t gangland kids getting guns from the street. People are selling these kids guns legally. If there’s one area of gun crime that can actually be targeted effectively with gun control legislation, it’s school shootings, which happens to be the one we care most about.

I’m not naïve, however. I don’t expect anything of value to happen until what happened in Parkland, Florida starts happening every week, every day, everywhere. It will get to that point if the best response that can be summoned is thoughts and prayers without action. There’s no easy fix, and it’s not an “either/or” debate. It all needs to be covered: mental health awareness and support, the glorification of violence in American culture, tighter security in public places, tougher regulations to better control access to guns — everything and more.

America shares two unfortunate traits with Israel that are preventing either country from dealing with its existential issues: the countries are both deeply divided, and their lawmakers are as self-serving as they are useless and corrupt (some morally, some actually). Not all of them, but enough of them. Nothing will happen without the citizens demanding it, and as long as those demands are divided, these lawmakers can tread water in the middle without making a move.

There is one thing everyone can do, however. It’s the final and most critical thought I can offer: learn to defend yourself, from guns, with your hands.

Few things have had as much impact on my life as learning to defend myself from all kinds of threats, including knives, guns, hostage situations, and even active shooters. You are not powerless, there are things you can do to give yourself a fighting chance. I trained for many years in Parkland, Florida with a guy named Rick Seid at American Israeli Krav Maga, and it changed my life forever, as it has many others.

Knowing what to do in these situations — that you have a fighting chance — is a feeling every man, woman and child should have if they want to walk this earth feeling safer and more secure than they do right now. It’s the only thing you can do to give yourself a semblance of power, and I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to learn how to defend themselves in these situations.

Tragically, I read today that one of the kids who died was a member of the Krav family that Rick started two decades ago. It’s one of many tragic posts I saw from friends of those who lost a child, and I share in the sorrow of each one. Home is a fluid concept when you move halfway across the world, but home is where my heart is, bleeding with the rest of them.

May their memory be a blessing.

Click here to donate to the victims’ families

About the Author
Yoni Leviatan is a British-born, American-raised, Israeli-blooded musician, content producer, brand strategist, presenter and political analyst who loves to think out loud. Especially about Israel. Originally from Coral Springs, Florida, Yoni has been living in Tel Aviv since 2009, returning to the land of his parents and grandparents and ancestors before them. He has a BA in Criminology from the University of Florida and an MA in Political Science & Political Communication from Tel Aviv University. Click to watch his videos. Click to hear his music.
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