Columns / Discourse / April 21, 2014

American approach to civilian gun ownership in stagnation

Despite President Obama’s efforts to pass tougher and stricter national gun laws, there has not been much significant change legislatively or culturally regarding America’s approach to civilian gun ownership.

In 2013, Congress failed to pass Obama’s proposals. Among other measures, these proposals would have banned military-style assault weapons, limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds, mandated background checks for firearm purchases, strengthened the current background checking system and provided an improved mental awareness campaign, which would have provided mental health professionals more resources and additional training.

The United States ranks number one in private gun ownership, such that there are 88.8 civilian firearms per 100 people. According to the latest in-depth data set collected in 2007, the four countries following the U.S. include Yemen (54.8 guns per 100 people), Switzerland (45.7 guns per 100 people), Finland (45.3 guns per 100 people) and Serbia (37.8 guns per 100 people). Such data, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering the data’s age.

The gun debate took center stage in national politics shortly after the particularly horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and the Century Movie Theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. Moreover, one need not forget how Florida’s Stand Your Ground law played a role, albeit indirectly, in the infamous George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. Naturally, many citizens called for reform. But just as many Americans challenged the call for gun reform.

The image of the stereotypical gun-toting, redneck American zealously espousing his/her Second Amendment rights does little to move the gun debate forward and highlights the schism between pro-gun and anti-gun communities. Even Hollywood had taken a clear stand, heavily favoring stronger gun reform despite regularly churning out violent movies involving firearm carnage to the umpteenth degree. Both sides of the gun debate use Switzerland as a crucial example of how gun laws should or should not be.

Europe’s citizenry, as a whole, own significantly fewer guns than the people of the United States. With tougher gun regulation policies across the board and a relatively meager 15.82 registered firearms for every 100 people within the European Union, the discrepancy is startling.

Surprisingly enough, however, Switzerland shares a deep cultural affinity for guns and holds a place in the top five countries boasting the greatest rates of gun ownership. Who knew that the famously neutral state Ñ which, more or less, is generally characterized as progressive, modern and model example of state efficiency Ñ is an outlier to its western European counterparts?

Approximately 25 percent of Swiss households have a gun in a country of about eight million people. By contrast, 37 percent of American households have a gun in a country of about 314 million people, according to a recent survey by Pew Research Center. Additionally, only 0.5 per 100,000 people were murdered by firearm in Switzerland, while 3.6 per 100,000 people were murdered by firearm in the U.S.

The sight of sharpshooting minors as young as 11 and 12 refining their rifle skills would cause substantial alarm in the U.S., particularly in non-rural areas that are predominantly liberal. But for some Swiss youth, many of whom are members of local gun groups, shooting is no different from any other recreational activity, and target shooting is enjoyed by a broad age group as a popular national sport.

Many American gun advocates and gun reformers cite Switzerland as the ideal model to follow regarding gun policy. Nonetheless, there are many differences between Swiss and American gun culture. Unlike the United States, for instance, all Swiss males between the age of 18 and 34 are legally required to enlist in the military or take part in a form of national service. Therefore, much of the male population has received (or will receive) formal firearm training. Men are also expected to retain their firearms after their military service. Another major difference is the thorough and ongoing gun education that Swiss youth begin at a young age. Arguably, such education more readily prepares the owner for responsible ownership.

Many Swiss citizens contend that owning a gun is less about personal self-defense (something that is commonly cited in support of gun ownership in the United States) and more about national security. Historians say that Switzerland’s well-armed and trained citizenry was an important factor in the country’s ability to maintain its independence in spite of German encroachment. One could argue, therefore, that America’s original relationship to gun ownership also centered upon national defense against the British army during America’s Revolutionary days.

Switzerland’s most violent incident involving a gun occurred in September of 2001 when gunman Friedrich Heinz Leibache opened fire in Parliament in the city of Zug, resulting in the deaths of 14 politicians and the gunman’s suicide. Then in 2011, a mentally disturbed man in the village of Daillon launched an open fire, killing three people and injuring two individuals.

In 2007, Switzerland’s Federal Council passed a motion that required ammunition to be stored in a central arsenal. In 2011, Swiss Parliament voted on a referendum that would require militia firearms to be stored in public arsenals and would establish a national gun registry. The referendum failed to pass by an opposition of 56.3 percent voting against it.

In accordance to the Swiss Weapon Act, handgun owners must have an acquisition license while owners of rifles and semiautomatic arms used in recreational hunting and shooting are exempt from licensing requirements. Automatic guns are banned. The age minimum for ownership is 18 and requires a clean criminal record, but acquisition license is only required when weapons are acquired from gun dealers. Private exchanges do not require acquisition licenses.

Mydel Santos

Tags:  firearms gun gun laws homeland security international law regulation shooting Swiss terrorism terrorist U.S. government

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Apr 22, 2014

What is it that you had hoped to achieve by writing this article? A clear conclusion would have been helpful.

Apr 23, 2014

Has everyone forgotten that we tried the AWB and Mag Size limits for a period of 10 years. It did not work and was not renewed. So, why would any sane person support such a proven failed idea?

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