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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Smoking Gun

[In case it wasn't clear... treppenwitz is in reruns this week, and last. This was originally posted on Apr. 18th, 2004.]

Despite the fact that I am 42 years old and have a family of my own, I still find myself seeking my parent’s validation – or at least tacit approval – of the choices I make in my life. To a large extent, the social conscience and values I possess, I received as part of the liberal, Jewish, suburban American upbringing they provided. Though I have developed my own views and am a thinking adult/parent, I still find myself occasionally wondering WWMADD (what would Mom and Dad do) in any given situation.

I bring this up because, as happy as I am to have my parents staying with us for a few weeks, there was a secret that I kept from them, and was completely unsure of how they would react to it’s revelation.

I own a gun.

More than that, I carry a gun during every waking hour of every day. My daily commute takes me past several Arab villages (where passing motorists have been attacked), and recent events have proven that even at home one is not entirely safe from terrorism. Also, Israel’s highest law enforcement official has publicly asked that those who are licensed to carry weapons do so at all times.

If you are a Republican or an NRA member (I know…redundant) you are probably scratching your head and asking, “What’s the problem?”

The problem is that I grew up in a household where perhaps the only civil liberty one was not encouraged to exercise was the right to keep and bear arms. If any of us had been arrested at a demonstration, or for some sort of civil disobedience, or for doing one of a hundred other things allowed by the constitution, my parents would have been proud of us. But Guns were always considered out-of-bounds…something that was exclusively the province of law enforcement officers and right wing nuts.

During the week before my parent’s arrival my wife asked me how I intended to broach the subject of my gun. This is where the child-parent struggle takes place. Part of me silently agreed with her that I should probably prepare them in some way so we wouldn’t have a ‘scene’. But another part of me was saying that, damn it, I was a grown-up and they would have to accept the choices I had made in my life. If I had decided to start smoking, or had gotten a tattoo, or voted Republican, they would have had to just accept it (no, I've never done any of those things). So how was this any different?

In the end, I opted to just say nothing and see if they mentioned it (I know…pretty mature, huh?).

They didn’t mention it at the airport, even though we had to make a detour through the El Al security office (where I had checked my pistol). In the days following their arrival, and throughout all the touring and time spent at home, they never mentioned it.

I imagine that the first time an adult smokes a cigarette or takes a drink in front of his/her parents (or does anything else that a parent might disapprove of), there is a tension in the air caused by the generations being slowly pulled apart. Although I have never smoked a cigarette, and my parents have long known my fondness for bourbon and red wine (not together, of course), I imagined I could feel their combined attention focused on the butt of my pistol each time my back was turned to them. However, for almost a week – not a word was mentioned about the gun. It was like this big pink elephant sitting in the room that nobody could mention.

In the end, it was a simple comment that Zahava made that ended up broaching the subject.

We were all squeezed into the kitchen for dinner one evening and I was standing at the sink washing some leftover lunch dishes. As Zahava passed behind me she accidentally banged her hand on the gun and let out a delicate exclamation (not printable here). Almost at once my mom asked if I always wore a gun. I explained that yes, as a result of the security situation here, I felt it was the responsible thing to do. My dad asked if it worried me to have a gun in the house with the kids. I explained that, not only had I had a LONG talk with both the kids about guns and their inherent dangers, but that when I was sleeping or showering (the only time it was not physically on my person) it was locked in our safe.

And that was that.

Perhaps they still remembered the terrorist attack that had taken place in front of the Jerusalem pizza parlor at which I had worked during my student days at Hebrew University. Two Palestinians had walked into the center of one of Jerusalem’s busiest streets and had begun calmly lobbing hand grenades at the crowds of shoppers on either sidewalk. Within seconds both of them were killed, not by policemen or soldiers, but by armed civilians. The double miracle is that not only did the terrorists fail to kill anybody (although several people were wounded by grenade shrapnel), but also nobody was wounded or killed (besides the bad guys) in the civilian crossfire from opposite sides of the street! My parents watching the news back in 1985 had recognized the front of ‘my’ pizza parlor, and had been very relieved to hear I was unhurt.

Or, it could simply be that they have a better ability to grasp the ‘big picture’ than I ever gave them credit for.

In any event, they haven’t mentioned it since.

Almost as if they were given some sort of cosmic follow-up exam, one of the guests we invited for tea & cake today arrived carrying an M-16 assault rifle. Both of my parents did a quick double-take, but acted as though it were the most natural thing in the world. After we had seen our guests out, my mom asked quietly, “Can I ask, why your friend was carrying a machine gun?”. I explained that he was part of our town’s anti-terror response unit (every community has one) and he is required to carry it while on call. Once again, information that I figured would trip my parent’s circuit breakers was absorbed and accepted in a very matter-of-fact manner.

Mark Twain once said:

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."

Perhaps my parents had learned a thing or two since I had grown up (or more correctly, perhaps I should finally have realized that they have been pretty sharp all along).

Five follow-up facts for the curious:

1. While I had plenty of firearms training when I was in the Navy, I don’t enjoy either the idea or the current reality of carrying a gun. I never imagined it would be glamorous or empowering…and it is neither.

2. Guns are not art. While there is an entire genre of magazines devoted to the detailed, shiny, intricate results of the gunsmith’s ‘art’, the real issue that seems to escape all of them is that guns have one purpose – to kill. I think there would be a few less deaths in the world if more people stopped ignoring that little fact. I chose the ugliest, simplest, ‘safest’ gun currently available (a Glock) in a caliber large enough to be lethal (9mm), but less likely to pass through walls and kill bystanders (e.g. my kids).

3. I don’t trust my kids (or their friends). I love them dearly and would stand in traffic for them, but I know that kids explore. The ‘talk’ that I told my parents about mainly reinforced the fact that the kids were never to touch a gun, period. That said, I know that kids don’t listen. By the time I was 8 I knew the contents of every drawer and closet in my house…especially those belonging to my parents. I wasn’t a bad kid, and my kids aren’t bad…which is why I will never put them in a position to make the potentially fatal decision to play with a gun or not. My gun is on my person…or it is in the safe, period.

4. In the states, getting a gun license means taking a safety course (once) and based upon that fleeting exposure to common sense, one can renew a gun license indefinately for the rest of one’s natural life. You can maintain a gun license longer than a Florida driver's license! In Israel, one has to undergo an extensive background check, and then every year, in order to renew the license you have to again attend a safety class and then prove to an examiner that you can still hit a target 50 TIMES IN A ROW!

5. Between private gun ownership and active & reserve army duty, nearly every Israeli household contains at least one gun. Despite this, Israel has one of the world’s lowest rates of gun-related violence (including accidents). No road rage incidents ending in gunplay…no marital disputes ending with a bang…it just doesn’t exist here! I would like to think that constantly being faced with the specter of death has had the result of reinforcing the sanctity of life.

Posted by David Bogner on August 11, 2004 | Permalink

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David, this is one of my favorite posts of yours.
When I read viewpoints that are different from my own, I try to put myself in the writer's shoes. What would I do in that situation? What would I think? Would I take the same action?
As someone who really does not like the idea or practice of personally arming onself, I had to read this post about eight times when you originally wrote it. You discuss the necessity of your situation. You expose the inner struggle of making the decision to arm yourself. This line of thought fascinated me, and spurred an amazing discussion at my dinner table with my husband.
So, as always, thank you for being open and honest, and sharing even the "tough stuff" with your readers.

Posted by: Lisa | Aug 11, 2004 3:16:46 PM

I sort of miss some words on Israelis shooting Israelis.

Like...the Israeli highway driver who shot another Israeli highway driver, because that one had showed him a fist for rude driving. He followed that man to his office and killed him there.

Or the Israeli teenagers [of rich families] who shot a taxi driver for nothing. Because they wanted to see how "it looks like".

Or hey...the Israeli insane who took a gun and went to join the crowds in Tel Aviv on the night of November 4 some years ago?

I know how dangerous the roads are, but sometimes it sounds as if the problem was only with "the Arabs". I am not sure I agree with point 5. I'd be careful to say "it doesn't exist here". It does exist, only it's a question about what makes its way into the statistics.

Also, I know that you are writing from "a settler's" [shhh, I know, I know.] point of view, virtually. Most of the Israelis though, we generously exclude the soldiers here, don't run with a weapon.

Oh yes, and let's not exclude those who'd go and wear their gun visible to everyone while on week-end hikes. I use to call them the week-end cowboys -- my thesis is that a good and responsible gunman will never show off his weapon but will carry it below the shirt or jacket. The purpose is to protect, not to threaten or to function as a potence multiplier.

Now the fun question of the day -- would I carry one? Would I use it? I don't know. I think I would make it dependent on the situation, but mostly, I would leave it at home.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Aug 11, 2004 3:22:30 PM

Lisa... Thanks for the kind words. When I was a kid I was often a topic of conversation at dinner tables, albeit as a cautionary tale to other poeple's children! :-) Nice to see things have changed a bit.

Mademoiselle A... I stand by my points - All of them. You even make my case for me by pointing out that the examples you used were a statisitcal glitch... a rounding error. The kind of gun violence that exists in the US doesn't even show up on a statisitcal analysis here.

By the way, I am not writing from a 'Settler's point of view'. I am writing from an Israeli/human point of view. It's true that most of the non-soldiers you will see carrying a gun these days live in the more dangerous parts of the country. But there is a huge portion of the population (inside and outside the green line) that has at least one gun in their home. The fact that they don't feel it is necessary to walk around with them may be a reflection of the relative safety of the places they work and play... and not their feelings on guns in general.

When one takes the total number of guns and registered gun owners, and use that in a statistical analysis of per capita gun-related violence, you find that Israel has almost none. The examples you brought, while tragic, are not indicative of a cowboy culture that glorifies gun use.

Posted by: David | Aug 11, 2004 3:52:29 PM

I've never seen that Mark Twain quote before. I was going to say almost the exact same thing...

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 11, 2004 6:25:22 PM

Tanya... Great minds think alike (but fools never differ)

Posted by: David | Aug 11, 2004 6:29:31 PM

David--
This is one of my favorite posts of yours. Thanks for reposting it!

Mademoiselle A--
I disagree about the people who carry guns on weekend hikes. I believe that part of the purpose of having an armed escort on such trips is to make it obvious that the group is armed, thereby making it more likely that a terrorist would choose to move on and target someone else . . . An analogy would be a woman in New York who is a black belt in karate AND is wearing a bullet-proof vest-- it's still smarter for her, at 3 am, to walk around with a big tall muscular guy, as a deterrent. Better that she not have to use her karate skills or rely on the vest.

It's sad that the world is such, but such it is.

Posted by: Sarah | Aug 11, 2004 8:37:40 PM

David - IY"H we will meet you upon our move and when we do I will get to discuss this (and many other things) with you - I find your posts very enlightening and just ...true.
Having many friends and family in the Holy Land I have seen the reality of "a gun in every home" - sometimes more than one. Also, having lived in the states and known people to collecet guns, use them for sport, and yes even had "accidents" in their homes, I find your "on your person or in the safe" to be the most acurate way of practicing and preaching how one should be "stored" - I also agree that, though it is sad, it is also safe for so many homes to have weaponry there.

And a thank you goes to Sarah for sending me to this re-run.

Posted by: Mrs. Efrex | Aug 12, 2004 8:31:41 AM

Although I found this piece really interesting, I'm inclined to disagree with your statement that "nearly every Israeli household contains at least one gun".

The rules which govern who is eligible to get a gun license means that if you live in a city inside Israel's pre-67 borders and don't have any children of army age then there is unlikely to be a gun in the household. I would guess that this counts for the vast majority of homes.

Gilly

Posted by: Gil Ben Mori | Aug 12, 2004 10:05:57 AM

Sarah - a terrorist whose mind is set up to just kill by shooting will not scout out if someone is carrying a gun or not. Because they shoot from the distance. I have talked to many hikers carrying a gun at their belts and unfortunately, it became clear to me that they were bragging more than being reponsible and modest. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

There are those and those -- I hope the amount of the non-cowboys overweighs, because I'd count on them for being able to rightly and safely use their guns in case of emergency. I just don't trust in the use of attrapes and sword rattling.

David, I was referring to those who wear guns in the streets. I am okay with having a gun at home, and it's easier to legally keep a gun in Israel after quitting the army, no?

Again, I wasn't saying that an entire nation plays cowboy and glorifies gun use. I didn't even put it this way, did I?

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Aug 12, 2004 11:24:53 AM

This reminds me of a change of heart and mind I had a few weeks after immigrating to Israel. Being Swiss I felt during my student days that soldiers and policemen (the only armed people I ever saw) were "the enemy". During my first months in Israel I was in an Absorption Center in Jerusalem not far from the Haas promenade. One of these evenings a girl was stabbed there by an Arab terrorist. From this moment I felt that each and every soldier and policeman was my personal friend.

One year later I had a sort of a rerun when my sister came to see me. She also reacted with dismay at seeing all those armed youngsters. In our discussion on the issue I obviously brought the message across. She never drove anywhere anymore without giving at least one soldier a lift.

Posted by: Ruth | Aug 12, 2004 9:42:40 PM

Well, it's gratifying to see that this post has been able to get people talking about their feelings on this subject.

In other countries the 'debate' surrounding gun ownership (or lack thereof) is actually a profound lack of debate. One is either on one side of the issue or the other.

Here in Israel there are a wide range of opinions... and even those who are more into the gun culture than perhaps is healthy (IMHO), have a profound respect for what the aweful things can do.

Posted by: David | Aug 13, 2004 12:42:39 AM

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