A revolver on display in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008. (Reuters)
The tragic theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado is an American national calamity that has been catapulted into the international limelight.
Gun advocates and gun restriction activists, both domestic and global, will no doubt find the occasion another chance to butt heads on what is best for protecting the public and the individual.
The former will claim that the root cause of the incident lies in the sick behavior of a maladjusted social outlier, not the lax nature of gun ownership. The latter will say the prevalence of powerful firearms helps increase the deadliness and scale of assaults on innocents.
The event has also taken place a week before the United Nations is expected to vote on a historic Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) meant to restrict and regulate the sale of small arms internationally. The ATT has caused a major backlash in the U.S. from elected officials arguing the treaty is a step towards relinquishing sovereign decision making on gun laws -- Americans giving up their rights, to a paternalistic global community. Those in favor say it would be a major means of restricting violent conflict in some of the world's most troubled hotspots, with rollover effects for U.S. national security.
The State Department has promised that the ATT will create no dilution or diminishing of sovereign control over issues involving the private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms, which must remain matters of domestic law.
Now is as good a time as any to take a comparative look at gun ownership and gun laws elsewhere around the world.
United Kingdom and Europe
The United Kingdom has one of Europe's lowest rates of gun homicide; in 2009, only 0.07 people were killed by a firearm for every 100,000 residents, as opposed to 3.0 in the U.S. and 0.2 in Germany. Other than Northern Ireland, the British Isles have an incredibly low gun ownership rate. Information from the Guardian puts it as low as 3 for every 100 in 2012; the Small Arms Survey in 2007 has it at 6 for every 100. Different firearms require different licenses in the UK, licenses last for 5 years, and it is illegal to carry a firearm of any type -- loaded or unloaded -- in public unless under exceptional circumstances defined by the authorities (i.e. as private security personnel).
In Norway, the location of last year's heinous shootings and bombings by Anders Breivik on July 22 which killed 77 and injured 242, gun ownership is actually consistent with or slightly lower than its Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden and Finland. There are roughly 31 firearms for every hundred people in Norway. Owners of private guns in Norway must prove sufficient cause for possession, mostly in hunting or sports shooting. Automatic weapons are completely banned for the public and only those with a clean police record can own a firearm.
Gun ownership rates for France and Germany are in the low 30s for every hundred residents. For Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy, they are lower still, 11 and 12 guns respectively for every 100.
Switzerland has one of the highest gun ownership rates in Europe (second only to Serbia). Out of every hundred citizens 46 own a firearm, a rate 50 percent higher than its neighbors. The unique nature of Swiss society provides an explanation for this discrepancy. The Swiss are essentially one of the most armed nations on the planet -- in order to protect their neutrality and independence, the government expects every able-bodied male to serve in the armed forces, going back every year for training, and keeping weapons at home. It's been estimated that the country has 420,000 assault rifles out of a total of 1 to 3 million firearms in private residences. But firearm crime is rare. Switzerland's martial nature is well hidden beneath its serene Alpine towns.
As a whole, Asian nations have a far lower per capita ownership rate for firearms than Europeans or North Americans. Social stigmas against ownership, cultural predisposition to see gun ownership as linked to crime, and stricter legal mechanisms restricting ownership prevent the larger dispersion of firearms to the public.
In Japan, a country which prides itself on its low rates of violent crime and armed felonies, private ownership of a gun is generally unheard of. Concerns that criminal elements in society may have increasing access to firearms imported from abroad have led the government to propose stricter firearm controls in 2007 and 2008. In Japan, guns are only allowed for sports shooting and hunting, and even then only after a lengthy license application procedure. Less than 0.3 percent of people in Japan own a firearm.
China had an estimated 4.9 firearms for every hundred citizens in 2007 (according to Cambridge's Small Arms Survey). Although highly accurate figures for a country as large and populous as China have always been difficult to capture, gun ownership is generally considered to be rare. The vast majority of residents of major cities, towns, and even rural areas are extremely unlikely to own a firearm. Guns remain the purview of the police, soldiers, and criminals. For an average citizen to own a gun would be considered baffling. Still, earlier this year the government began a massive countrywide campaign for people to turn in private firearms and weapons, and began destroyig confiscated arms. Concerns that illicit trade and production is easing access to firearms for criminal groups is raising state attention. Since guns are rare to begin with, and private possession is generally illegal, their private sales are generally considered to be part of larger criminal activities. Illegal sales of guns or explosives can result in a large spectrum of punishments, from multi-year jail time to the death penalty.
Brazil and Venezuela
The United Nations says that nearly 80 percent of all the homicides which occurred in South America in 2010 resulted from shootings. South America's gun problem is not simply an issue of individual crimes, but one linked to powerful criminal organizations, illicit trade networks, and troubled urban development.
In Brazil, the legal age for gun ownership is 25, much higher than in Europe or North America. Firearms need to be registered with the government, licenses must be renewed every 3 years, and wepaons cannot be carried in public under penalty of imprisonment.
A referendum in 2005 on the prohibition of firearms and ammunition sales was defeated. That policy proposal came after two years of high death rates from gun injuries: 39,000 and 36,000 in 2003 and 2004 respectively. More recent efforts to combat urban crime have resulted in gradual improvements: the UN says gun related deaths only amounted to over 34,000 in 2008.
In neighboring Venezuela, the government did successfully pass a new gun prohibition law in June preventing the commercial sale of firearms or ammunition. Concerns about rising crime rates and one of the highest murder rates in the world have led the regime of Hugo Chavez to enforce greater restrictions.
The U.S. wins gold for the international competition on gun ownership. For every 100 people in the country, there are 90 firearms. Depending on the state one resides in, laws about whether those guns can be carried out in public, how long licenses for ownership last, and what type can be owned differ.
In states like Arizona, Texas, California, and New Jersey, the legal age to purchase is 18; to get a conceal and carry permit, age 21. A permit for conceal and carry lasts 5 years in Arizona, only 2 in California, 7 in Florida.
The popular culture of the gun, which won the country independence and the West (and therefore arguably created America), coupled with a national psychology of resistance to government paternalism, linked to the ideology of protecting oneself and family with lethal force, has created a nation bound to the firearm. Few countries in the world have a political lobby as powerful and influential as the National Rifle Association, one of the most recognized names in the country.
A Gallup poll in 2011 found that a total ban on handguns would receive only 26 percent support from the public, a historic low point. Only 43 percent of respondents that year wanted more restrictive gun laws, again a low point from 78 percent who responded the same way more than 20 years ago.
Not only does the U.S. possess more small arms than any other country in the world, around 270 million. It exports more than any other country as well. According to the Small Arms Survey it sent $715 million worth of small arms abroad in 2008.
The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics in the Center for Disease Control says that 31,513 Americans perished in 2010 from firearm injuries.