JERUSALEM - Guns are seen everywhere in Israel - semi-automatics slung from the shoulders of soldiers waiting for the bus, cradled by security guards stationed at checkpoints and building entrances. The sight can be jarring to the uninitiated, but it quickly becomes routine with more time spent in this contentious neighborhood.
Despite how prevalent guns may seem, their numbers among civilians are very low. Israel has highly rigorous background checks, which experts credit as the main reason gun deaths in Israel are relatively uncommon, certainly in comparison to the United States. (A spokesman for the Israeli police declined to provide exact statistics.)
"Israelis do not have the right to bear arms; it's a privilege granted by the government," says Dr. Shlomo Shapira, a professor at Bar Ilan University who has studied guns in Israeli society. "They wouldn't even accept an application unless you have a valid reason. An ordinary citizen from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem wouldn't even apply because they don't have a reason."
The most common reason accepted - aside from working for a security company - is living or working in areas characterized as dangerous, like in settlements in the occupied West Bank amid a mostly Palestinian population. Israelis in the north, which borders Syria and Lebanon, or the south, which borders Gaza and Egypt, are also more likely to be granted firearms because of the perceived security threat. Permits can also be granted for hunting.
Applicants have to provide police and mental health records, in addition to proving that where they live or work is dangerous. They also have to have had training, and undergo training every three years or risk losing their license.
Around 10,000 Israelis apply for a permit every year, of which only 20 percent are granted, according to the Ministry of Internal Security. There are around 170,000 guns registered to civilians, approximately 2 percent of the almost 8 million people living in Israel. Of the permits granted, almost all - 90 percent - are for handguns. The possessions of a semi-automatic for an ordinary citizen "is really an exception," says Moshe Dyan, the head of the section that issues permits in the ministry.
"Does gun ownership make people safer? I believe that it is if the gun or firearm is given in the hands of people who meet the demands," he says. "In other cases it might be more dangerous than positive. Multiplying the numbers of firearms among civilians could be much more harmful."
There are, of course, numerous examples over the years of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians using guns to murder each other.
Shapira has researched terrorist attacks in Israel going back to the 1930s and says that in more than 70 cases, armed civilians played a major role in stopping the attack. But he argues that fewer weapons in society is better because most civilians "lack a level of training and the willingness to undertake risk in society. These two elements you don't buy in a gun store."
Off-duty soldiers in Israel are allowed to take their weapons home if they serve in a dangerous area, with bullets but unloaded. Shapira says Israelis are more mature with guns because of the country's mandatory military service.
"You learn to respect firearms and the potential danger emanating from them. In the military there's a very strict policy of gun safety," he says. "On one hand you're used to having firearms around, on the other you're aware of the danger."