Magazine | February 11, 2013, Issue

Armed, Not Dangerous

Every Swiss man is trained to shoot, so why don’t they?

Looked at through the dim eyes of the Brady Campaign or any other gang of gun-grabbers, Switzerland should be a post-apocalyptic nightmare of wanton murder, basically Mad Max meets Heidi in the Alps. While leading criminologists such as Gwyneth Paltrow and top policy analysts such as Will Ferrell are wetting the great American bed about so-called military-style weapons in the United States, the Swiss are packed to their punctual and well-scrubbed gills with actual military hardware in private hands — some 420,000 fully automatic SG 550 rifles are stored in homes across Switzerland. And in case you didn’t get the message, SG is an abbreviation for Sturmgewehr, or “assault rifle.” (Everything sounds meaner in German.) Not only are those full-auto rifles in private, regular-Johan hands, they are in the sort of hands most likely to commit violent crimes: those attached to the arms of men in their 20s and 30s.

So where’s the crime?

Dianne Feinstein is working to ban firearms and ammunition, but the gun-loving Swiss subsidize the purchase of both. Every five years the Swiss host the world’s biggest shooting competition, the Eidgenössische Schützenfest, a national firearms festival at which the government provides the party favors. This is a country in which shooting is so popular they shoot while they ski.

But Zurich is no San Pedro Sula (currently the most dangerous city in the world by murder rate), or even New Orleans (No. 21 in the global murder index). Switzerland, population 8 million, has 50-odd murders a year in the entire country. Chicago, population 2.7 million, had more than 500 murders in 2012, and good luck trying to legally own a BB  gun in Mayor Emanuel’s town if it so much as looks like a scary gun — “replica” air guns are banned under the city’s draconian gun-control regime. Somewhere, the ghost of Ulrich Ochsenbein is laughing at the ghost of Al Capone.

The Second Amendment was put into the Constitution in order to ensure that ordinary Americans were always ready to form an armed militia to protect their liberties against enemies foreign and domestic. Well-informed Americans appreciate that fact, but even among most hard-core gun aficionados, that business is all sort of theoretical. Not so in Switzerland: Swiss men are universally conscripted into the national militia, which also welcomes female volunteers, while the country maintains only 4,200 full-time soldiers. Because it remains deeply committed to its longstanding policy of international neutrality, Switzerland’s military doctrine is dedicated largely to the issue of foreign invasion — perhaps not a pressing concern, but not an unreasonable one, given European history.

The Swiss do not think that they need to be able to defeat any of their neighbors in a pitched battle; instead, they have armed and organized their people to ensure that invading Switzerland is a high-price, low-return proposition for any adventurous adversary. Neutrality and preparedness in fact go hand-in-hand in Swiss thinking: Don’t give anybody a good reason to start a fight, and give them a really good reason not to. Disorganized desert yahoos armed mostly with aging rifles beat the mighty Red Army in Afghanistan and later fought the U.S. military to something like a draw. Imagine tidy mujahideen organized with Swiss precision and you have a pretty good idea of what they’re thinking in Berne.

Conservatives sometimes complain that the Europeans are free-riders on the worldwide American military presence — why spend anything on national defense if Uncle Stupid will do it for you? — but in fairness to the Swiss it should be noted that, with the Nazis breathing down their backs, they shot at U.S. warplanes violating their airspace and thus threatening their neutrality. The Swiss may benefit from American martial ubiquity, but they never asked for it. Sure, there’s been some inevitable moral compromise in their neutrality — and I’m sure Henry Kissinger and Hamid Karzai could have a fascinating discussion on that subject.

The Swiss are sometimes accused of having a bunker mentality, but as the Swiss military historian Jürg Stüssi-Lauterburg puts it, “If survival demands paranoia, so be it. We have survived the greatest threats during the greatest wars that ever happened on the European continent in freedom and independence, not least because of our readiness to defend our country, our liberty, our democratic institutions.”

If the above sounds more than a little NRA/Tea Party/Rick By-God Perry to you, it is, but with a difference. The Swiss version of the NRA, ProTell, is every bit as hard-line as its American counterpart, but there is nothing especially blue-collar or rural or reactionary about the Swiss enthusiasm for guns and liberty. It’s as if the Swiss took the worst stereotypes about red-state and blue-state Americans and made a pretty respectable national identity out of them: Yeah, the Swiss tend to be slightly metrosexual, secular-minded libertines who love public transit and work in finance, but they all belong to a militia, too. Assault rifles and universal health care: Surely there is something to be learned from that arrangement.

#page#For instance, we might ask ourselves why it is that while practically every able-bodied Swiss man has been trained to shoot people and given a rifle to do so, the Swiss do not actually shoot very many people. Of the 53 murders recorded in 2010, 40 involved firearms: John Wayne Gacy killed nearly as many people as the entire gun-toting Swiss population does most years.

Switzerland is hardly a free-for-all when it comes to guns. In fact, Swiss gun-control policies in large part resemble those of the United States, including background checks for purchases made from dealers (but not private sales between individuals), age restrictions, and the like. The Swiss also register some weapons and ammunition, and they have some unusual provisions related to the use and storage of government-issued ammunition for those ubiquitous full-auto rifles.

Because immigrants commit an enormously disproportionate amount of crime in Switzerland, the Swiss also take some measures that would be absolute anathema to American liberals: For example, foreigners with legal-residency status can buy guns on the same terms as Swiss nationals — unless they come from Algeria, Turkey, Sri Lanka, or other countries associated in the Swiss mind with Verbrechen, in which case they cannot buy a gun, period, legal resident or no. The Swiss sensibly see the criminal as the more important variable in gun crimes, and so they have created procedures to expedite the deportation of criminal foreigners, an anti-crime policy that many American conservatives surely would endorse.

So the policy story is mixed. But what Switzerland really is is an example of the fact that when it comes to crime, culture matters more than policy.

If you take the 20 countries with the highest rates of private gun ownership, you’ll see some very dangerous and high-crime places (Yemen and Iraq), some places with relatively high crime (the United States), and a lot of low-crime countries (Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Canada). If you take the countries with the fewest guns per capita, you’ll see some very safe, low-crime places (Singapore, Japan) and some truly outstanding places to get murdered (Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone). The United States has nearly one gun per person (88.8 guns per hundred), while the Swiss have about one gun for every other person and the Canadians and Swedes have about one gun for every third person. But the United States has 4.8 murders per 100,000, while the rates for the Canadians, Swedes, and Swiss are 1.6, 1.0, and 0.7, respectively. Put another way, we may have twice the guns per capita as the Swiss, but we have seven times the murders per capita — and more like ten times the murders if you limit it to Swiss nationals.

As late as 2001, the BBC could report: “Guns are deeply rooted within Swiss culture — but the gun crime rate is so low that statistics are not even kept.” That is no longer true — they keep records now — but gun-related crime remains quite low. Switzerland has its gun-grabbers, too, but a 2011 referendum calling for tighter gun control failed spectacularly: Swiss law requires referenda to win approval from both a popular majority and a majority of cantons before becoming law, and the gun-control initiative did neither. The largely unspoken belief in Switzerland is that when it comes to crime, the country does not have a gun problem, but an immigration problem.

Crime and violence are an outgrowth of culture, and Switzerland has the great good luck to be surpassingly full of Swiss — boring, punctual, suit-wearing, slightly aloof, convertible-driving, bank-working Swiss. The United States is full of . . . well, consider this: The Swiss rate of death by automobile accident is 4.7 per 100,000. The U.S. rate is 12.3 — and that in a country in which the rate of alcohol consumption is lower than it is in Switzerland or Canada, to say nothing of the thirsty Swedes. We have ten times France’s arson rate. Life expectancy in the United States is in the bottom half of the OECD; exclude murder and accidents, and we lead the list.

Maybe we’re clumsy. Maybe we’re just unlucky. Maybe we’re nuts. But we are much more likely to come to violent ends than citizens of many other affluent countries, whether we are under the gun or behind the wheel. Cowboys, rock-’n’-roll, gangsters, Thomas Edison, General Patton, Thomas Paine, Evel Knievel, John Brown: That fundamental unruliness is a great and admirable and animating part of the American character, but it’s also a nuisance — and damned dangerous, too.

Think of it this way: You probably don’t know who Ueli Maurer is, and it is true that the major Swiss cultural achievements are the works of Rousseau and yodeling. Fair enough. But you probably can’t think of a famous Swiss gangsta rapper, either. When most Americans hear the word “Swiss,” they think: a) cheese or b) bank account. It is true that “Chicago” and “Detroit” have much more exciting connotations, but that’s the kind of excitement that can kill you.

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