American gun enthusiasts love using Switzerland as a shimmering example of a country where high gun ownership rates are paired with low levels of gun-related violence. Reading some of the articles shared by the National Rifle Association (NRA), one may get the impression that Switzerland is even more gun-crazed than the most conservative of red states – even NPR ran a story about how Switzerland’s “entrenched gun culture” is embraced by citizens “as young as 10 years old”. Not only could most NRA members not find Switzerland on a map or name any of its four national languages, but the very argument that Switzerland is a safe yet gun-loving haven comparable to the United States uses some of the most faulty logic in the entire gun debate.
First and foremost, Switzerland has a form of mandatory conscription whereby every male over 18 must attend three months of military training, with refresher courses every few years. Thus, the majority of guns in Switzerland are army-issued. This means that most gun owners are not only given their guns by the army, but were trained by the government in their safe use. Being part of the Swiss militia means that men who own guns have been screened for past legal infractions or mental health issues, and they have even had to go through physical training before being issued their firearms. Few, if any, in the U.S. have suggested mandating training for gun owners, and as much as 40% of gun sales in America are conducted without any form of background check. Furthermore, since 2008, the Swiss government has required that owners of military-issued weapons leave their ammunition in central arsenals.
Additionally, the sale of firearms, while still relatively free compared to its European neighbors, is not at the unchecked levels of the American gun market. Swiss law allows citizens over the age of 18 with no criminal or mental health record to apply for a permit to purchase up to three firearms. In the U.S. there is no equivalent procedure to obtain a permit from the government, and the gun lobby has fiercely opposed any proposal to create such a system. In fact, the NRA is so opposed to background checks that they lobbied against a bill that would have made a national gun registry illegal because it provided for background checks at gun shows.
Another key distinction between Switzerland and the U.S. is the respective gun culture of these two nations. In Switzerland, those who own weapons outside of the military are taught to be quieter with their guns and learn from a young age how to use and store the weapon safely. The Swiss Sports Shooting Association runs over 3,000 clubs, including many for young people to teach them responsible gun ownership. Furthermore, a large number of sport shooters choose to leave their guns and/or ammunition at the gun range.
On top of these differences, the Swiss also lack the United States’ fanatical gun culture. No far-right groups like “Open Carry” exist in Switzerland, nor are there highways banners advertising upcoming gun shows, car dealers who give away guns with the purchase of a car, and gun rights are far less important as a test of conservatism in Swiss politics. In my ten years living in Switzerland, I never once saw a gun which was not in military-trained hands. In contrast, after spending only a month in Texas, I had already seen dozens of books on gun rights, heard all about the local gun show, and heard state politicians at many levels of government spew rhetoric about their adoration for the 2nd Amendment.
One can sympathize with those wishing to make this comparison, as Switzerland has the world’s fourth highest number of guns per capita, yet their gun death ratio is a fraction of that of the United States (about 0.5 deaths per 100,000 compared to America’s 5). There are also plenty of other statistical factors at play in this fruitless comparison, such as Switzerland’s 45.7 guns per 100 people compared to America’s 88.8. Additionally, violent crime rates in Switzerland are significantly lower even if firearm-related deaths are substracted. This could be due to Switzerland’s small population size or its high GDP per capita. Even at the political level, Switzerland is quintessentially different than the U.S. With a population that could fit into New York City, the country allows for much more local direct democracy and lacks the enormous lobbying and campaign donation machines America has. All of these factors influence the politicization of gun control in these respective countries, and accentuate the differences between them.
America has a gun problem; of this there can be little doubt. The gun crime rate, as well as the gun ownership rate, are significantly higher than in any other developed nation. In an attempt to justify its position, the gun lobby frequently takes Switzerland as its inspiration, a country they see as both strongly pro-gun and unusually safe. While it may seem intuitive to most people, it is worth emphasizing that America is not Switzerland. The Swiss experience cannot be replicated in the United States due to the vast differences between these countries, differences that must be pointed out in order to break down the comparisons made between them. Not only do the Swiss own fewer guns, but most of the guns they do own are military-issued to men trained to use them, and many of these men don’t even store their ammunition at home. Switzerland also lacks the morose obsession with guns that has emerged over the past several decades in America. Even if the U.S. is willing to realistically discuss its gun problem and consider increased regulation, it will still not be fair to compare it with the Swiss example.
Image License: Some rights reserved by sz2h