After the shooting in Las Vegas, social media platforms predictably lit up with calls for new gun control laws. And just as predictably, American gun rights advocates repeated the truism that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But to better understand why America has a singular malady of homicide-by-firearm, it may be worth looking at Switzerland.
Lausanne-based daily Le Temps reports Thursday that among that nation’s 8.4 million inhabitants, there are about 3.4 million legally owned guns — making it the third-highest level of gun ownership in the world, just behind the United States and Yemen. But even though it has a lot of guns, Switzerland also has incredibly stringent gun laws. Anyone who purchases a firearm has to undergo a thorough background check, even when buying from a private individual. Fully automatic weapons are banned. Also, when transporting a gun, the owner must go directly to the shooting range or hunting ground and then back home. Detours, such as to the grocery store, while carrying your weapon are prohibited.
Maybe America’s mass shooting epidemic is not just about access to guns.
And yes, famously neutral Switzerland is also keeping the peace at home. It has one of the world’s lowest murder rates, and has had just one mass shooting in recent decades: in 2001, when a man opened fire in the parliament house, killing 14 people, including himself.
Switzerland clearly has a gun culture of its own, but a very different one than the U.S. It is based primarily in the country’s mandatory military service, where Swiss citizens learn about guns in a highly controlled group setting. Owning a gun for self-defense, or for the sake of owning a gun, is uncommon, Le Temps explains. Even mid-level criminals, such as drug dealers, are generally unarmed.
So maybe America’s mass shooting epidemic is not just about access to guns, but about the country’s relationship with its weapons. Canada, its northern neighbor, also happens to rank high (13th) on the list of gun ownership, with a rate of 30.8 firearms per 100 residents.
As Mathieu Bock-Côté writes in the Journal de Montréal, the U.S. expresses itself “through an unhealthy passion for firearms.” Gun shows, pro-gun rights rallies, gun fashion shows: Americans are obsessed with their guns.
The most impassioned argument against gun regulations is that people don’t want the government “taking away” their firearms. Americans need their guns to feel safe — but sometimes also to feel powerful. When someone commits a massacre like Sunday night’s in Las Vegas, Bock-Côté writes, he wants “for a moment to feel like the master of the world.” Is there anything more American than that?
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