What Could American-Style Gun Culture Do to Israel?

An Armed, Internally Divided Nation Is Not One That Makes Peace Easily

As new policies promote civilian firearm ownership in Israel, physician and sociologist Jonathan M. Metzl, who studies gun violence, wonders how it will affect the country. Courtesy of AP Photo/Dan Balilty.

Among the core Israeli national narratives fractured by the October 7 Hamas terror attacks and the months of war and violence that have followed was the notion that Israel’s ethos on firearms differed from that of the United States.

Both countries were gun-centric democracies, that narrative allowed, but the U.S. was a land of too many guns and too few laws—while Israelis “trust their state, and don’t fear each other.”  A common refrain emphasized that “in Israel it is not a right to bear arms, but a privilege.”

I knew this mentality well: Before October 7, I had spent over a decade collaborating with Israeli public health scholars and safety activists to better understand how a country with many guns saw only a fraction of the types of civilian gun deaths we do in the U.S. Partner shootings, homicides, gun suicides, accidental shootings, and mass shootings remained remarkably low, thanks to a web of public-health based laws and policies that seemed enviable, if politically impossible, in America.

Many Israelis received firearm training as part of mandatory military service, but the government banned assault rifles for private citizens and issued handgun permits only after an extensive vetting process.

Effective gun policy reinforced social cohesion. While Americans carry guns based on individualized notions of self-protection, Israelis considered gun ownership a shared responsibility.

Such cohesion was often articulated as being not-the-U.S. When the National Rifle Association sent high-level donors on tours of Israel to promote U.S. gun laws, Israelis widely dismissed the efforts as “American mishegas.”

Like many national narratives, Israel’s gun scripts were always based partially in myth. Armed settlers in the West Bank recklessly intimidated and harassed Palestinians. A robust criminal contraband arms market flourished in smaller cities; the victims of shootings from these guns were overwhelmingly Arab citizens of Israel.

Still, American researchers like me could view Israel’s gun safety efforts as models of successful public policy. I worked with groups like the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights and Gun Free Kitchen Tables that championed coalition-based community safety and advocated for disarmament in “civil space in Israel and the territories under its control.”

That calculus shifted on October 7. A catastrophic failure of state protection tapped into epigeneticlevel fears about being Jewish, vulnerable, and exposed—and changed the nation’s relationship to firearms in ways that have profound and lasting implications.

Prior to the Hamas attacks, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir—a nationalistic arsonist once expelled from army service because of radicalism—repeatedly tried to weaken gun permit regulations and ease carry rights, arguing that Israel should “take the good things from the U.S.” when it came to guns, but his extremist arguments failed to gain traction.

After October 7, however, Ben-Gvir and his allies managed to fast track legislation that generated an unprecedented spike in armed Jewish civilians. “Carry a Gun, It’s a Life-saver: Ben-Gvir and His Wife Boast of Dramatic Expansion in Israelis Carrying Weapons” read a headline in Haaretz on October 22. Within weeks, the Netanyahu government distributed thousands of firearms and issued more than 30,000 new carry licenses. Contentious Knesset oversight committee meetings detailed how dozens of unqualified people—including Ben Gvir’s personal staff appointees—had been granted temporary authority to approve gun license applications.

“They’re handing out guns like candy,” a senior security official told Haaretz. “There’s almost no oversight.”

Rightist politicians invoked the U.S. to support the gun splurge. Simcha Rothman, a member of the far-right Religious Zionist Party, cited Ronald Reagan and the NRA—“Guns don’t kill. People kill”—to promote expanded gun licensing.

U.S.-based gun rights outlets reflexively lauded these developments, which would lead to the distribution of more than 100,000 guns in the West Bank alone.


It’s understandable why gun sales to civilians spike in times of peril. Guns provide real protection in some instances and the promise of protection in others.

As a longtime scholar of American gun politics, however, I’ve learned that gun safety and security are never as straightforward as the NRA’s “good guys” versus “bad guys” binary makes it seem. Armed civilians rarely prevent crimes such as mass shootings. Potential security benefits to arming civilians are often counterbalanced by rising everyday gun-related injuries and death.

Gun ownership can make people wary of governments and regulations. I once interviewed a man from Missouri who told me that he was “anti-gun” for the first 40 years of his life before he grew concerned about the “gang crime” he heard about on FOX News. He started carrying one concealed handgun for “protection,” then two, and then he bought several rifles. The man ultimately switched his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican because he worried that liberals would take his guns.

Gun politics can also be tribalizing, divisive, even antidemocratic. After the death of George Floyd, gun sellers played on fears and conspiracies to foment white anxiety about Black violence while at the same time citing concerns about police brutality to market semiautomatic weapons to Black and Latino populations. Pro-gun courts in the U.S. overturn firearm safety laws put in place by voters.

The right-wing Netanyahu government was doing more than adopting U.S. gun laws: It was also adopting a version of the NRA’s divisive playbook.

The Middle East represents a profoundly different context. But as I tracked Israel’s changing gun policies, it appeared that the right-wing Netanyahu government was doing more than adopting U.S. gun laws: It was also adopting a version of the NRA’s divisive playbook. Ben Gvir’s gun policies papered over security lapses, weakened trust in democratic institutions, and exacerbated existing political and social divides.

For instance, Israeli data had shown that shockingly few terror attacks are stopped by civilians with guns. Still, the Netanyahu government relaxed regulations around shooting other people based on American-style stand-your-ground justice, and doubled down even after civilians were shot and killed in “crossfire” shootouts.

Disproportionate numbers of the newly distributed guns ended up in the hands of supporters of Netanyahu’s conservative/religious coalition. Armed Jewish security squads formed in so-called “mixed cities” where both Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens live. Armed violence against Palestinians also escalated in the occupied West Bank—where members of Jewish settler groups had long been allowed to carry weapons, while Palestinians had not.


What does it mean for a nation whose guiding health principles were built on social-democratic solidarity to so rapidly adopt American-style armed individualism?

After October 7, I started asking my former collaborators—leftist Israeli Jewish and Palestinian clinicians, advocates, journalists, organizers, and academics.

“We’ve been attacked,” many told me in the fall, shattered by the violence and the plight of hostages; they understood the desire for firearms. At the same time, no one could believe how many guns flooded in. “People we never imagined are lining up for permits and carrying guns,” one activist said during a group Zoom conversation. Others on the call chimed in. “My husband.” “My grocer.” “My father-in-law.” “Me.”

Being “like the U.S.” when it came to guns emerged as a source of inquietude. One activist lived in a Tel Aviv suburb a block away from a building that was hit by a rocket. Sirens rang in the background when we spoke; still he wondered, “I keep fearing that once peace does come, with all these guns around, how long will it take until we see our first American-style mass shooting?”

An ER doctor told a story about bickering neighbors holding up guns mid-argument. She asked a question that months before would have been unimaginable: “Do you think U.S. gun safety groups might be willing to take up our cause?”

“What violence is being done in our name?” an activist asked as the human catastrophe in Gaza spiraled over subsequent months.

Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir was arming his own controversial security apparatus on the West Bank and promoting racist notions of Jewish “supremacy.”

Lax gun laws increasingly portended existential threats to the socialist underpinnings of Israeli public health, and broader erosions of civil liberties. A leading peace activist detailed ways that the “gun drive is running roughshod over democratic procedures,” and going hand-in-hand with “rising authoritarianism” and “a trajectory of increasingly violent police responses against anti-war protesters.”

Gun safety groups mobilized in opposition.  “I don’t really think Ben-Gvir wants Israelis to feel safe,” a Palestinian Israeli lawyer explained in late December. “He wants settlers and crazies to intimidate others.”

Gun proliferation that began as a response to an external threat had become an enforcer of expansive internal agendas.


Tensions surrounding Israel’s guns became more divisive over time.

Liberal and secular Israelis had long found common cause with U.S. progressives around matters including racism and reparation, gay and trans rights, climate change, health equity, and regional peace. But by January, as seeming allies abroad protested against not just the war in Gaza but the existence of Israel itself, an Israeli Jewish journalist wondered whether disarmament would become more difficult as the country became increasingly isolated. She worried that feeling “under siege, not just by our enemies and Netanyahu but also by the supposedly liberal, modern people in the West who we thought we were part of” would make it harder for Israelis to imagine or “do peace.”

A safety activist told me in mid-March that “anchoring disarmament of the public sphere to peace would mean placing it in the very distant future…so in our messaging to Israeli gun owners, we now tend to speak about an ultimate transition to relative calm.”

However such efforts evolve, it becomes increasingly clear that the decisions Israel makes about gun proliferation today will go a long way toward shaping the future of the nation.

The country can overturn Ben-Gvir’s disastrous gun policies and begin the hard work of countering their polarizing health, social, and political effects.  Such an approach depends on larger upstream commitments to regional stability, and a renewed commitment to what Haaretz calls “the contract between state and citizen” that lies at the core of democracy and public health.

Or Israel can remain a fortress that—similar to the U.S. castle doctrine—arms itself ever more defensively in anticipation of real and speculative threats.

If I’ve learned anything from studying the U.S., an armed and internally divided nation is a nation less able to negotiate, effectively legislate, or meaningfully compromise.


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