Posted by Cheryl Bettigole, MD, MPH, NPA Immediate Past-President January 19, 2015 at 10:33 AM
A few days ago, I went skiing in one of the world’s most beautiful and oddly located ski resorts: Mount Hermon which sits (depending on who you ask) in the very northeast corner of Israel, right next to the Syrian and Lebanese borders. It’s an interesting part of the world right now, to say the least.
Standing in line for the chairlift, I noticed an automatic rifle slung over the shoulder of the young man in front of me, a few clumps of snow clinging to the barrel. No one seemed concerned or surprised.
I was skiing alone at that point, so ended up riding up in the chairlift with an Israeli man in his early 30s. We started chatting and as he pointed out landmarks to me (“there’s Syria over there”), I asked him about the security on the mountain and about the skier with the automatic weapon. Like many Americans, I had been under the impression that there are lots of guns in Israel, like the US, because I see so many on the street. My chairlift companion’s response was fascinating. It turned out that he works in security himself, but never carries a gun because, as he explained to me, “the data shows it doesn’t make you any safer, in fact it puts you at risk to carry a gun.” The mountain is actually quite secure, he explained, because it’s so high and snowy that it is difficult to climb, and anyone who tried would be in plain view of the army long before they reached the border. And soldiers, like the one I saw, are patrolling just in case.
He went on to ask me about the gun violence in the US and why we allow so many people to carry guns.
It turns out that although guns are very visible in Israel because of the type of weapons carried by army officers and police, there are very few of them in civilian hands. Requirements for a gun permit here are very strict – they require achievement of a high military rank and then regular with an explanation of why a gun is needed. Anyone with a permit has had to complete the army’s extensive gun safety training. And after an epidemic of suicides of Israeli soldiers on weekends, the army rescinded its requirement that soldiers keep their weapons with them at all times and started requiring them to leave their guns on base. With this simple approach to the public health problem, suicides among soldiers fell by 40%.
Israel still has accidental shootings, suicides by firearms, and tragic incidents in which army officers and police are too quick to fire their weapons, like their US counterparts. But in a place where terrorism is always on people’s minds, the people have decided that they are, in fact, safer with fewer guns and stricter gun laws. And the fact that the US has a far higher per capita death rate from gun violence shows that they are right.