Up in Arms

Israelis Flock to Buy Guns, Pack Heat at Services

Israelis have always been accustomed to guns. Military service is compulsory, and it's common to see off-duty soldiers in plainclothes, lounging in public places with M-16 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Previously, the only vocal gun opponents were feminist organizations concerned about firearms being in the hands of enraged husbands. "Usually, we are against it, but we are in a special situation right now," says Gali Etzion, a spokesperson for Na'Amat, a women's organization that formerly worked on, among other things, tightening restrictions on gun ownership. "If somebody wants to guard my kid's kindergarten, I can't say I'm against the idea."

Israelis need permits to legally acquire guns, and there are an estimated 340,000 legal gun owners in Israel, out of a total population of 6.3 million, a ratio that pales in comparison with the roughly 80 million gun owners in the U.S. out of a population of 280 million. After the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish religious fanatic wielding a legally issued handgun, Israel's permit process was significantly tightened. But laws were drastically liberalized earlier this year, opening eligibility for 60,000 new civilians to apply for weapons.

Bulk permits now allow for the circulation of unchecked numbers of weapons as municipalities, schools, and hospitals are among the many institutions that can apply for block licenses to arm their employees. But by far the biggest and least monitored guns are those licensed en masse to companies in Israel's fast-growing security industry.

illustration: Insu Lee

"We had to double our staff in a matter of months," says Robi Said of Otsma Security Services, which outfits restaurants and cafés with guards. Beni Tal, who runs the country's largest security firm, caters to high-end clients, providing bodyguards for ritzy parties and government officials by employing a small army of more than 1000 full-time staff and more than 600 part-timers. "These days," says Tal, "when people send out invitations to weddings and bat mitzvahs, it says exactly how many guards will be present and from what company. If you don't specify, no guests show up."

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