In The U.S. Gun Control Debate, What Can We Learn From Switzerland?

ANALYSIS

 @JaceyFortin
on July 26 2012 8:44 AM
gun
A Walther handgun is displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nevada, January 29, 2011. REUTERS

Just after midnight on the morning of July 29 in Aurora, Colo., a graduate student named James Holmes dressed in ballistic gear entered a crowded movie theater with four loaded weapons. He had bought the firearms and ammunition -- up to 6,000 rounds -- legally, both in-store and online.

Shooting into the crowd, Holmes killed 12 people and wounded dozens more before he was apprehended. The tragedy shone a new light on one of the touchiest subjects in U.S. politics: gun control.

What if the moviegoers had been armed? More broadly, what if more Americans carried loaded guns on a regular basis?

And what does Switzerland have to do with all of this?

Defenders of loose gun laws in the United States often argue that more gun ownership would either deter or stop violence. In the case of Aurora, the argument is that Holmes could have been stopped quickly if one or more of the moviegoers had been carrying weapons.

And in the pro-gun debate, Switzerland is often used as a case in point: the country has high gun ownership rates, along with remarkably low rates of crime.

But, in reality, this association if drastically oversimplified. A closer look at the relationship between gun ownership and criminal activity in Switzerland and the United States shows that gun control is just one of a great many factors that have an effect on the frequency of violent crime in any given location.

In the Crosshairs

Gun ownership figures are notoriously hard to pin down, but most studies put the United States and Switzerland near the top of a global list in terms of guns per capita. Other gun-happy states include Yemen, Serbia and Saudi Arabia.

Martin Killias, a criminologist at the University of Zurich, has conducted extensive studies on gun ownership in his home country. He estimates that about 28 percent of all Swiss households today have at least one gun, a very high number compared to surrounding countries.

That's because of Switzerland's unique defense system. The country does not have a standing army; instead, all males are conscripted into a national militia of sorts. Females can join voluntarily. Training for these recruits continues intermittently through the years, and each conscript is given a firearm that he or she may take home to keep. As a result, Switzerland could very well have the highest gun ownership rate in Europe.

Switzerland also has a very low crime rate. That's why the perennial American debate about the best way to go about gun control often looks to this western European country, with gun owners and their advocates using it as an example of a place where the easy availability to firearms has helped to curb violence.

But the counterpoint to this argument is right there on American soil. The number of guns per capita is high here, too -- one Small Arms Survey found that there are 88 civilian-owned guns for every 100 people who live in the United States.

But unlike Switzerland, the United States has relatively high levels of violence. The difference shows that the connection between gun ownership and crime deterrence is tenuous at best.

Homicides -- the crime most commonly associated with gun control issues -- occur very rarely in Switzerland, where the murder rate per 100,000 people averages at less than one, according to a 2011 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. But in the United States, the average is five per 100,000. This means that despite the country's great wealth and prominence in the global sphere, its homicide rates are worse than several less-developed countries including Cuba and Suriname. (At least the U.S. is doing better than the global average of about seven homicides per 100,000 people.)

In short, the United States and Switzerland have similarly high levels of gun ownership but very different crime rates, and this variance does not support a positive correlation between gun prevalence and the prevention of violence.

In fact, easy access to guns can have a detrimental effect. In a recent study, Killias found that gun ownership in Switzerland may have actually increased instances of violence -- and not in terms of street crime. Instead, the presence of guns has a significant impact on domestic crime.

Women, in particular, can be endangered by firearms in the home. In Switzerland, about 43 percent of all murders committed in recent years were domestic homicides, with many acts of violence being committed against wives and girlfriends. Alcohol is often a factor.

With guns at easy access, Killias explains, emotional familial disputes can more easily turn ugly.

"Thus, guns kept at home are dangerous -- at home," he said.

Taking Aim

So if gun ownership rates do not lower crime rates in Switzerland, what does?

There are many factors that can contribute to more frequent instances of violent crime. A major one is the presence of a drug trade, which tends to induce the intense but small-scale rivalries that are prone to homicidal violence. Then there's urban deprivation, which involves significant inequities between people living in close quarters. Other dangerous factors include internal conflicts -- ethnic or religious rivalries, for instance -- and government instability, which can lead to a deregulation of the weapons trade.

But none of those problems is common to Switzerland, which has an excellent record for social equality and a well-functioning government.

And although Switzerland and the United States have similarly high levels of gun ownership, their attitudes toward personal defense are very different. This is true on the personal as well as the national level; the people of Switzerland have little to fear in terms of internal and external threats.

In terms of diplomacy, they are staunchly neutral. Their defense budget hovers around 1 percent of GDP, and the public supports plans to cut down on those expenses even further. According to a 2012 security assessment from Jane's, this process began in 2001 with a public referendum-approved plan.

"Under the plan, defense spending was lowered substantially, manpower was reduced and bases were closed. At the end of the process, the goal is to have switched the Armed Forces from an instrument of territorial defense to a more streamlined crisis response force."

The military downsizing has gone hand-in-hand with changing positions on personal gun ownership.

"Switzerland has gotten its gun control legislation more in line with European standards," explained Killias, in order to meet regulatory pre-requisites for joining the Schengen Zone, which allows for easier trade and travel between member countries.

"As a result, the number of Swiss households with guns has gone down substantially in recent years." Today, many soldiers elect not to keep the guns they are issued during their military service.

More background checks have been put into place, and it has been made illegal to carry guns in public. Furthermore, it was decided in 2007 that government-issued guns would not come with ammunition; that is now stored in centralized arsenals, outside the home, for emergency use.

So, as military spending goes down and personal firearm regulations intensify, guns in Switzerland are more frequently seen as tools for national -- not personal -- defense.

Hitting the Target

Given the different roles of firearms in Swiss and U.S. society, it is apparent that any comparison regarding the correlation between firearm ownership and crime rates is muddled by countless other factors. The Swiss have guns and are trained to operate them, but they don't always have ammo and -- most importantly of all -- have little to fight about.

In the end, then, addressing gun violence is a question of ameliorating the ills that lead to social unrest in the first place -- and that is where the Swiss have succeeded. Should tighter controls should be implemented over who can purchase a firearm in the United States? That is a worthwhile debate, but not one that finds a useful parallel in Switzerland.

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