The first, and only, time I fired a gun, I was a 17 years old. The gun was an M-16, and firing it was the culmination of a week spent with the Israeli army during a teen tour in Israel.
The program, called Gadna, was one of several electives we had to choose from. Other options included hikes of various difficulty, archeological exploration, and study programs. I chose Gadna, in no particular order, for the boys (OK, mostly for the boys), the chance to learn about one of the best armies on the planet, and, yes, to fire a gun.
Being from an upper-middle-class family of suburban Queens, my exposure to firearms was limited to television, movies, and video games. I had some distant relatives who hunted for food, and I always thought that was odd. You bought meat at the supermarket, end of story. Columbine was still an anomaly, and, pre-9/11, “terrorism” was not in my vocabulary. Guns were not a part of my life.
So, when I got my hands on one, it was exhilarating. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe they are going to let a bunch of high schoolers shoot these things. This would never happen in the United States.” But, this wasn’t the United States, this was Israel, where kids not much older than me were preparing to go off and defend their country. Many of them were probably children and even grandchildren of Israeli veterans. The army wasn’t just something fun they got to try for a week in between swimming in the Galilee and hiking Masada. They weren’t just going to be firing blanks at targets. There’s an added level of maturity when you have no choice but to go fight for your country.
You would think that if Israel would so readily put guns in the hands of civilian teens who had never held a weapon before, they must have some pretty lax gun laws. And, you’d be wrong. Israeli ownership requirements for firearms are much stricter than the United States. Over there, guns aren’t fun toys to collect; they aren’t used to prove some false sense of machismo. They are respected pieces of machinery that are distributed with the highest levels of discretion.
That respect was passed on to myself and fellow Gadna participants. Though we often joked with our commander, and probably could have used a lesson or two on decorum, we knew enough to take the guns seriously. Before I fired that M-16, I learned how to assemble and disassemble my weapon. I learned the proper way to clean it. I even learned a few drills.
After all that, I was a horrible shot. I couldn’t quite get the hang of aiming and when the target came zipping back, it was empty. My future as a sniper was over. I was embarrassed, but the shells I got to keep as a souvenir made it a little better.
I returned home to my gun-free life. I would soon be heading to college and a world away from the reality of Israeli life. Then 9/11 came, shootings became a normal part of reality, and America was no longer immune to the daily reality of terrorism Israel knew all too well.
These days, guns are at the forefront of political debates, with both sides arguing they know best when it comes to keeping America safe. There is a lot of name-calling and finger-pointing, but very little actual dialogue.
I used to be on the “no guns!” side of the debate, until I had my own children. I actually found myself sympathizing with those who wanted to own a gun for protection. As a new mom, you can bet I’d do anything to keep my family safe, and suddenly guns didn’t seem so bad. In addition, a recent move from Brooklyn to upstate New York opened my eyes to the necessity of guns for rural families. As one mom in my Facebook group noted, if her family couldn’t hunt, they couldn’t eat.
On the other side, I think gun enthusiasts should advocate for keeping them out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Instead of crying foul at even a hint of gun legislation, why not work with gun control proponents to develop solutions that respect their concerns without infringing on American rights? They should also ask themselves if it is really necessary to own automatic weapons, and if one person really needs a shed full of guns “for protection.”
I truly believe there is room for a centrist view on gun control. I don’t think we should remove all guns from civilian ownership. I realize many anti-gun folks are from urban areas, where hunting isn’t a way of life, and law enforcement is just a quick call away. It is easy to criticize those who live a different lifestyle. For many, guns are necessary tools for survival, and respecting that is a big step toward opening a discussion on reasonable gun control.
Most Israelis will handle a gun at some point in their lives. They won’t be shooting blanks at a shooting range on a teen tour. They won’t be bragging to their friends about how they got to play soldier, and then return to shooting up the enemy in “Call of Duty.” They will strapping on a heavy, loaded weapon and preparing to defend their nation.
Israelis respect guns; perhaps it’s time we did the same.