JERUSALEM — The middle-aged man taking his family to an Italian restaurant for Sabbath lunch wears a Beretta pistol tucked into the waistband of his Bermuda shorts. No one looks twice.
At a multiplex cinema, the usher collecting tickets by the door routinely asks if anyone in line has a handgun. Many of the movie-goers nod affirmatively and reach into their bags to show their permits.
In supermarkets, chic cafes and crowded bus stops, Israelis bear almost as many guns as they do message beepers and mobile telephones. Still, Interior Minister Eli Suissa thinks it is too difficult for average citizens to purchase a pistol legally, so he has decided to make it easier.
While Britain, Australia and the United States are tightening gun control laws, Suissa announced late last month that he was loosening licensing restrictions. He lowered the minimum age for license holders from 21 to 20 and broadened the categories of citizens eligible to apply.
"Great, just what we need," author and social commentator Zeev Chafets said bitingly. "This is very bad from the point of view of keeping guns out of the hands of people who talk to God."
The action--suspended earlier this month until the Supreme Court can consider the issue--came a year after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish law student who said he had acted "maybe with God." The murderer, Yigal Amir, used a legally registered handgun.
There are 285,000 weapons--the vast majority of them handguns--registered to civilians in Israel, whose 5.6 million people have often been at war with neighboring countries or under siege. Additionally, there are "hundreds of thousands" of weapons on the street issued to private security guards, security forces and army personnel, and Israelis on reserve duty, according to Moshe Shahal, minister of internal security in the previous government.
Suissa's act has drawn a barrage of criticism from Israelis who fear that an easing of regulations could lead to an increase in violence in a country which, until now, has seen a low rate of domestic crimes involving guns.
Israeli newspapers quote unnamed security sources warning that the number of legally held handguns could triple--an estimate that may be too high, given the plethora of weapons already in circulation.
Israeli men and women must serve in the army at age 18, and men are required to return for a month of reserve duty annually until age 45. They are required to carry their weapons while on reserve duty, even when they return home for the weekend.
Anyone living or working in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank has long been allowed to carry a gun for protection; many do so as a symbol of Jewish power as well.
Guns are so commonplace that, until the Rabin assassination, political rallies were full of them. Most Israelis scarcely notice the weapons bulging from hip pockets or balanced across someone's lap. In fact, the carrying of guns is so widespread that even some of the most vocal opponents of the looser licensing requirements admit to carrying one.
"I am not suggesting that no one should carry a gun," said Yael Dayan, a leftist member of the Knesset, or parliament, from the opposition Labor Party. "There is often risk and need for self-protection. But this is a guns-for-everybody situation."
Dayan resumed packing her pistol recently after a Jewish extremist threw boiling tea in her face while she was on a tour of the disputed West Bank city of Hebron. The assailant, Yisrael Lederman, who once served time in prison for killing a Palestinian with his reserve-duty rifle, has been jailed and charged with assault.
Political analysts say they are puzzled about why Suissa wants to change the gun licensing regulations now. The previous government tightened them after Rabin's murder, and there has been no great political event or public outcry to prompt a reversal. There is no organized gun lobby in Israel.
Critics say the move is ill-timed, as Israel is trying to cobble together its peace accords with the Palestinians, and sends a message that Suissa, at least, expects more war.
Suissa, a leader of the religious Shas Party, said his ministry had received calls from citizens who could not get gun permits and asked for a policy review. He said a ministry committee had determined there was no reason to prevent law-abiding civilians, particularly army veterans, from carrying guns.
"It's not like I am going to give a gun to any piece of garbage," Suissa told the daily newspaper Maariv. "I will be giving guns to combat soldiers, people who have experience in handling weapons, responsible people."
In addition to lowering the age requirement, Suissa lowered the rank requirements of army, police or prison personnel who may be automatically granted a license from lieutenant colonel to second lieutenant. He determined that veterans of combat units also should receive almost automatic approval.