Shooting in the Dark: Israel Refusing to Divulge the Number of Citizens Carrying Guns

The Public Security Ministry has been boasting about a 20 percent drop in the number of Israelis with a firearms license over the past decade – but is only counting one of the two categories of permitholders. The ministry is even keeping the full figures from the Knesset’s Public Security Committee and its Research and Information Center. Various experts believe that the motivation behind this policy is a desire to hide the increase in the number of permits issued in Israel and the resultant spike in suicides and domestic violence. Shomrim has filed a freedom of information request. An exposé

The Public Security Ministry has been boasting about a 20 percent drop in the number of Israelis with a firearms license over the past decade – but is only counting one of the two categories of permitholders. The ministry is even keeping the full figures from the Knesset’s Public Security Committee and its Research and Information Center. Various experts believe that the motivation behind this policy is a desire to hide the increase in the number of permits issued in Israel and the resultant spike in suicides and domestic violence. Shomrim has filed a freedom of information request. An exposé

The Public Security Ministry has been boasting about a 20 percent drop in the number of Israelis with a firearms license over the past decade – but is only counting one of the two categories of permitholders. The ministry is even keeping the full figures from the Knesset’s Public Security Committee and its Research and Information Center. Various experts believe that the motivation behind this policy is a desire to hide the increase in the number of permits issued in Israel and the resultant spike in suicides and domestic violence. Shomrim has filed a freedom of information request. An exposé

Chen Shalita

Photo: Shutterstock

July 8, 2022

Summary

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ast May, at the height of a wave of terror attacks across Israeli, MK Nir Barkat uploaded a video of himself at a shooting range, firing his personal weapon and calling for the authorities to grant a gun license to anyone who served in a front-line unit in the Israel Defense Force. Indeed, Barkat subsequently submitted a private member’s bill seeking to amend the firearms law, explaining in a television interview that he wants “a million former fighters to get a weapon. Just like the young folks have a designated driver when they go out in the evening, they should have a designated fighter.”

Would one million armed civilians in Israel’s shopping malls, entertainment complexes, nightclubs, pubs and roads improve the personal security of Israelis or would we simply be importing exactly the same problems of mass shootings that the United States is struggling to contend with? Barkat did not go into details, much like the other politicians who have, in recent years, called for more people in Israel to be granted a license to carry a firearm.

The calls for more people to be armed is based on the prevalent assumption in Israel – among civilians, law enforcement officials and politicians – that the number of people carrying a gun has declined in recent years. There is a reason so many people believe this: over the past two decades, the Public Security Ministry, under pressure from a coalition of women’s welfare organizations, has claimed on several opportunities that it has tightened the criteria for receiving a gun license and that the number of permits issued has plummeted. As recently as January, the ministry’s Firearm Licensing Department issued a statement to the media, proudly announcing that “the number of gun licenses for privately owned firearms has dropped by 20 percent over the past decade.”

Ostensibly, of course, this has been a great success whereby policy has decreased pressure on policymakers, but it is far from clear that this success is reflected in reality. A Shomrim investigation reveals that, unlike in the past, there are two distinct categories of gun license-holders in Israel: those with a license to hold a private firearm and those with an organizational license. In all of its public communications, the ministry only refers to the number of permits for private firearms and refuses point blank to disclose the number of organizational licenses. Even when it comes to the number of private licenses, the ministry fudges the numbers and refuses to reveal how the figure has changed on a year-by-year basis. When Shomrim submitted a request for this information, there was a deafening silence from the ministry, followed by a dismissive invitation to “file a freedom of information request.” Subsequently, Shomrim did, indeed, turn to the courts and submitted an FOI request.

Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev. Photo: Yitzhak Harari - The Knesset
A Shomrim investigation reveals that, unlike in the past, there are two distinct categories of gun license-holders in Israel: those with a license to hold a private firearm and those with an organizational license. In all of its public communications, the ministry only refers to the number of permits for private firearms and refuses point blank to disclose the number of organizational licenses

The Public Security Ministry’s disdain is not reserved solely for the media. At a meeting of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee, representatives of the ministry chose to present a partial picture of reality. The ministry’s presentations to Knesset members showed the number of licenses issued in recent years compared to the number of requests but failed to provide any information on the total number of firearms licenses – private and organizational – during those same years. The ministry also concealed data from the Knesset Research and Information Center. In a report published in August 2021, the RIC complained that the data provided to it by the Public Security Ministry was incomplete and that the ministry had refused to answer some of its questions, such as the number of Israelis who currently own a firearm even though their license has expired.

What motivates the ministry to conceal these figures? According to officials from the ministry, the reason is the complexity of calculating the number of organizational firearms licenses that have been issued. Since the same computerized system calculates the number of private permits issued, that excuse is rather hard to swallow. The prevalent belief among experts interviewed for this article is that the refusal stems from the fact that, if the two categories were to be added up, it would become evident that there has been no decline in the number of firearms permits issued in Israel – and perhaps even a rise. If this were the case, they say, there would be a renewed bout of public pressure on the ministry, which could also lead – given the ministry’s claims during legal hearings – to a flurry of High Court petitions.

Either way, the overall number of Israelis holding a firearms license is unknown, so the change in numbers of the past decade is also a mystery. Following a request from MK Merav Ben Ari (Yesh Atid), the ministry handed over a meager amount of information relating to the number of private license-holders between 2018 and 2021. This data showed that, during that period, there was no significant change in the number of Israelis holding a firearms license – around 150,000. In 2022, ironically, there was an upturn in the trend, when it is believed that an additional 15,000 permits were granted. According to estimates, by the end of this year there will be 165,000 licenses for a private firearms in Israel and an unknown number of organizational license-holders.

MK Merav Ben Ari. Photo: Noam Moshkovitz - The Knesset
The Public Security Ministry’s disdain is not reserved solely for the media. At a meeting of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee, representatives of the ministry chose to present a partial picture of reality. The ministry’s presentations to Knesset members failed to provide any information on the total number of firearms licenses – private and organizational – during those same years

Who’s manipulating the figures?

In Israel, as in most European countries, there is no constitutional right to bear arms and holding a firearms license is considered a privilege granted to citizens only under justifiable circumstances. In the United States, in contrast, the Second Amendment to the Constitution provides every citizen with the right to bear arms. Every few weeks, there is a painful reminder of the cost of the proliferation of firearms in the United States, in the shape of another mass shooting. In May, for example, 19 students and two teachers were gunned down at a Texas school.

Back to Israel: The second intifada, at the beginning of this century, led to an increase in the number of firearms licenses issued in Israel – primarily to the security guards who make up a large proportion of the organizational permits that are issued. “Security companies were flourishing during those years because security guards were being stationed at cafés, schools and so on. This is the exact moment in time that we see as the turning point in terms of the privatization of security,” says Meisa Irshaid, an attorney who serves as legal advisor to the Gun-Free Kitchen Tables Coalition, which is demanding tighter supervision of firearms in the public space.

“These security guards,” Irshaid adds, “also took their weapons home after working hours. When there are more firearms in the home, there was an increase in the number of deaths by suicide using firearms. When we discovered in 2013 that there’s a clause in the law that forbids security guards from taking their weapon home, we managed to get it implemented – and we actually saw that there were zero suicides using a security guard’s firearm during that year. Thereafter, a new public security minister was appointed [Gilad Erdan replaced Yitzhak Aharonovich], the procedures were changed and there was a move toward ‘opening the floodgates again.

Meisa Irshaid. Photo: Yosef Fridman

“The report published by the Ronen Committee showed than, in 2018, there were 18 suicides using a firearm that was held by a member of the public; three of them were by someone who had a license for a privately owned firearm and 15 were cases in which a security guard or a member of their family committed suicide using the organizational firearm that was in the house.”

Does the renewed discussion about organizational firearms raise this problem again – the problem of easily accessible firearms?

“Over the past four years, 30 people have committed suicide using an organizational firearm. Between 2002 and 2013, 33 women and men were killed by security guards who used their firearms outside of work hours. There is a problem here and the ministry does not like to discuss it because we are forcing it to continue trying to claim that everything is alright – even though everything is quite clearly not alright.”

Do you believe that the numbers are being manipulated here?

“Yes, otherwise we would not have needed to submit freedom of information requests, some of which even went to the courts because the state wants to conceal information. We found a lot of contradictions and a lot of similar and misleading phrases that lead to a lack of transparency. For example, there are communities that are considered [in terms of meeting the criteria for receiving a firearms license – C.S.] ‘worthy’ and those that are considered ‘eligible.’ We may never know the real figures because we have no other way of finding out – apart from looking to cross-reference the information and collect all the loose ends. That information is in the hands of the ministry and we believe that there have been additions and subtractions as needed.”

What do you mean?

“Organizational firearms includes those weapons owned by security companies and those in the hands of many other organizations – but when we asked the police for figures relating to the number of crimes carried out by security guards using their work-issued weapons, the Investigation and Crimefighting Division told us that these incidents are not included in the number of criminal acts committed by civilians, since the police classifies the firearms in possession of security guards to be ‘defense establishment weapons.’ It all depends on who is counting what and how.”

In addition to Irshaid’s comments, a comprehensive report by the Gun-Free Kitchen Tables Coalition argued that the state has no supervision or oversight into the number of organizational firearms licenses that are issued by the chief security officer in any security firm, factory or community that has a special organizational firearms license. The report quoted an affidavit submitted in 2016 by the deputy director of the Firearms Licensing Department in the Public Security Ministry, given in the framework of a petition filed against the state. The official was asked whether there was any limit on the number of licenses and/or permits that a special license-holder can issue – and, if so, how many. The response: “There is no limit. The number of licenses is determined in accordance with the security operations, the number of guards and the number of firearms.”

Asked how many such licenses to carry a personal firearm have been granted to security guards by special license-holders who were party to the legal case, the official responded: “The number of licenses issued by special license-holders … is not known to our department.” He reiterated that the process is entirely in the hands of the special license-holder and in accordance with the security needs of the company.

Photo: Shutterstock
Irshaid: "Between 2002 and 2013, 33 women and men were killed by security guards who used their firearms outside of work hours. There is a problem here and the ministry does not like to discuss it because we are forcing it to continue trying to claim that everything is alright – even though everything is quite clearly not alright.”

The vanishing 36,000 license-holders

So, what exactly is the state refusing to divulge? First of all, the basic number of Israelis with a license to carry a firearm over the years. Secondly, it steadfastly refuses to divulge the number of organizational firearm permit holders. Putting those figures together could show that the number of Israelis with gun permits has actually increased. As mentioned, an organizational firearms license includes those permits issued to security guards employed by private security companies and government ministries, residents of communities where there has been violence between Israelis and Palestinians and who participate in local defense organizations, as well as people employed in places that are considered especially dangerous. Why does the Public Security Ministry insist on concealing the overall number of license-holders? Have they stretched the blanket so thin on both sides, so that organizational permit holders were once counted as private license holders, but now do the exact opposite? Or perhaps it simply does not have any control over the number of organizational firearms licenses issued, as the abovementioned affidavit implies.

The Public Security Ministry’s claims that the number of private firearms licenses is in decline is especially odd given that the ministry has also claimed that, over the past decade, the number of requests for a firearms license has risen sharply. In 2015 and 2016, when there was a spate of lone-wolf terror attacks by Palestinians, there was a spike in requests. So much so, in fact, that Gilad Erdan, who was Public Security Minister at the time, broadened the criteria for receiving a license.

Thanks to the reform that Erdan spearheaded, as of August 2018 anyone who has served in the IDF or the police, and who has undergone combat training as a rifleman, is entitled to receive a firearms license, dependent on police and Health Ministry approval, even if it has been half a century since they finished their military service. According to this reform, officers and non-commissioned officers will continue to have a gun license even after their active reserve duty ends. Similarly, volunteers in the police, Magen David Adom and the ZAKA emergency response organization are all eligible for a license, simply because of their volunteer work.

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, in May 2021, and the wave of terror attacks between March and May of the following year, there were also spikes in the number of requests of a firearms license. Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Public Security Committee in May of this year, a representative of the ministry said that “We have gone from 600 requests a month to 600 requests a day.” It is true, of course, that not every request is approved. On average, only 65 percent of the requests end with a license being granted. So, how – if there have been spikes in all the numbers – did the ministry come up with a bottom line that shows fewer Israelis holding a firearms license?

When Shomrim asked for the figures regarding the number of private firearms license-holders for certain years since the second intifada, a representative of the ministry instead issued a media statement summing up the figures for 2021. The statement claims that “In 2009, there were 185,000 licenses in the hands of the public, compared with 148,617 licenses in 2021.” What happened during those 12 years? Apart from the transfer of authority for issuing firearms licenses from the Interior Ministry to the Public Security Ministry, which happened in 2011, the spokesmen refused to respond.

It would appear that public campaigns are largely responsible for this policy of concealment. The Gun-Free Kitchen Tables Coalition was established back in 2010 by an alliance of social organizations, led by Rela Mazali and attorney Smadar Ben Natan. That same year, then-public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovich announced that the state would implement a new policy to scale back the number of privately owned firearms. The Gun-Free Kitchen Tables Coalition report states that “the fact that the original announcement was posted on the website of Yisrael Beiteinu (Aharonovich’s party) and was subsequently removed could suggest that there was a pressure campaign against the policy to reduce the number of firearms in the public sphere and hint at the kind of upheaval that Israel’s firearms policy is undergoing.”

Is it possible that these pressures, which intensified in 2018 following a High Court petition filed by organizations from the coalition demanding a discussion of the criteria for issuing a firearms license, are also the reason that the Public Security Ministry refuses to this day to reveal how many firearms license Israeli citizens hold?

Gun Safety Rally And Display At U.S. Capitol. Photo: Reuters
Shomrim asked the Public Security Ministry to explain the regulations regarding a security guard taking his or her personal firearm home at the end of the day’s work, but a spokesperson refused to respond. Instead, we were told to file a freedom of information request. Shomrim also sought a ministry response to this article, but none was forthcoming.

How many security guards take their guns home?

The argument that there has been a decrease in the number of firearms licenses issued serves the narrative that everything is under control and perhaps even allows for the criteria to be expanded again. Indeed, MK Nir Barkat, who attended the hearing of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee at the end of May, has already proposed including anyone who has served in the IDF’s Armored Corps. At the same meeting, Yisrael Avishar – the director of the Firearm Licensing Department at the Public Security Ministry – said that the ministry was collapsing under the weight of so many permit requests and that it was awaiting approval to employ additional staff to deal with the requests. Is bureaucracy responsible for the drop in the number of licenses issued? Assuming, of course, that there has been a decrease.

Even before this year’s spike in requests, the process of receiving a permit involved annual training and shooting range practice, a health declaration and supervision by the police and the Health Ministry following any untoward incident involving the license-holder. Some people give up or are not willing to subject themselves to this kind of supervision. To what extent do these conditions demotivate people thinking about acquiring firearms permits and what are the actual figures? Even if the dissolution of the current Knesset means that the relevant committee will not be able to introduce new reforms, the public discussion over the actual figures must go on.

Anne Suciu. Photo: Roni Zviling

In April this year, the High Court dismissed the petition filed by Gun Free Kitchen Tables Coalition, which sought to restrict the criteria for granting a firearms license to those with a genuine need to carry one. The petition was dismissed following a commitment by the state to get approval for the new criteria from the Knesset’s Public Security Committee by the end of the current Knesset and that before this stage the criteria would be made available to the public and open to public comment. Until today, the decision was in the hands of the public security minister and was dependent on his or her personal agenda. These NGOs argued that the official expansion of the criteria led to a rise in the number of suicides and the potential threat that these weapons would be used within the family.

“The achievement, as far as we are concerned, is that the state has agreed to change the arrangement in law,” says Anne Suciu, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who was involved in the petition. “When the discussion is moved over to the Knesset and when it requires additional legislation, then everything happens in a more transparent and democratic manner – and it’s more open to public scrutiny. The temporary order allowing security guards to take their weapons home should also be subjected to public scrutiny by the committee.”

Shomrim asked the Public Security Ministry to explain the regulations regarding a security guard taking his or her personal firearm home at the end of the day’s work, but a spokesperson refused to respond. Instead, we were told to file a freedom of information request. Shomrim also sought a ministry response to this article, but none was forthcoming.

As mentioned, Shomrim has submitted such a request via the Movement for Freedom of Information and will post updates during the legal process.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
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