Firearm Licensing in Israel: How Strict Are the Jewish State’s Gun Laws?
by Akiva Van Koningsveld
During times of elevated terrorism in Israel, applications for civilian gun licenses have often skyrocketed. Case in point: in the wake of 2022’s combined ramming-stabbing attack in Beersheba and subsequent mass shootings in Hadera and Bnei Brak, the number of requests for new carry permits reportedly multiplied by 40 over a 10-day period.
Although perhaps controversial in other countries, the “good guy with a gun” theory has seemingly proven itself in Israel over the past two decades. For instance, armed civilians ended large-scale terror killings in Beersheba (March 22, 2022) and Ariel (November 15, 2022), while preventing deadly attacks in Gush Etzion (March 31, 2022), Jerusalem (July 19, 2022), and the Judean Desert (October 30, 2022).
Other major attacks that were stopped with the help of armed civilians include the 2008 bulldozer attack in Jerusalem, a 2016 stabbing spree at a supermarket in the West Bank, and the January 28, 2023, shooting near the City of David.
Indeed, a high percentage, if not a majority of Palestinian terrorists who are caught in the act of or attempting to murder Israelis, are swiftly neutralized by private citizens carrying weapons, according to an estimate by Israel Hayom.
Yet, contrary to popular conception, only a tiny minority of Israelis own firearms. In this piece, we will explain the Jewish state’s strict gun control laws.
Israel’s Gun Laws: No Constitutional “Right to Bear Arms”
Recent figures published by the National Security Ministry indicate that barely 150,000 Israelis have a personal gun license, or some 2.6% percent of the entire adult population (15-64). This figure excludes weapons held by IDF soldiers, police officers, border guards, and other security personnel — as well as approximately 400,000 illegal firearms, the vast majority circulating in Arab communities.
In 2023, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, advanced legislation meant to tackle illegal firearm possession, and the Israel Police has carried out near-daily raids with an eye towards seizing illegal weapons.
Israel’s Firearm Law of 1949 and its related ordinances do not recognize any “right to bear arms,” and private gun ownership is subject to many restrictions. For one, civilians can only apply for a pistol, and rifles are wholly off-limits. Furthermore, as a general rule, civilians can have no more than 50 bullets in their possession at any given time.
And while the vast majority of Israelis receive weapons training during their mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), there are numerous additional prerequisites for obtaining a carry license.
“Specific Need to Own a Weapon”
First, Israel’s gun laws include an age requirement. Israelis who completed their two or three-year IDF service can apply after their 20th birthday. Meanwhile, those who did not serve have to wait until they are 27, and non-citizen residents become eligible at the age of 45.
Crucially, prospective licensees are asked to demonstrate a specific need to own a weapon. For example, living or working in the West Bank beyond the Green Line, or in other designated dangerous locations, increases one’s eligibility. Those employed in professions that encounter unsafe situations on a regular basis — including paramedics, firefighters, other emergency responders, and tour guides — are also eligible.
Finally, applicants should have “at least a basic knowledge” of the Hebrew language, present a health declaration signed by a physician, and complete a theoretical exam and compulsory training.
Only after an interview and thorough security check does the applicant receive his or her license, which must be renewed every two years and requires periodic refresher courses.
In 2018, the Firearms Licensing Department rejected roughly 40 percent of all requests.
Strict Rules of Engagement
Finally, it is imperative to note that the rules of engagement are exceptionally stringent, and Israeli authorities routinely investigate the use of live fire by licensed civilians. As part of the standard protocol following a gun discharge, the police confiscate the weapon pending forensic and ballistic investigation.
Notably, if a terrorist has been disarmed and is no longer holding a knife or gun, one is not allowed to shoot. Moreover, private citizens may not fire at burglars or trespassers unless they pose an immediate threat to life (however, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a law that would permit IDF soldiers to shoot at thieves caught stealing weapons from military bases).
Despite reports in some mainstream media outlets claiming otherwise, Israelis are not “armed to the teeth,” and Jerusalem is not arming its citizens en masse. The truth is quite the opposite: Israel’s gun laws serve to save lives by providing a rather small percentage of trained civilians with the means to stop terrorist attacks.
But will the media take note?