The Wall Street Journal Europe
June 4, 1999 Stephen P. Halbrook
In 1994, when the U.S. Congress debated whether to ban "assault weapons," a talk show host asked then-Senator Bill Bradley (New Jersey), a sponsor of the ban, whether guns cause crime. The host noted that, in Switzerland, all males are issued assault rifles for militia service and keep them at home, yet little crime exists there. Sen. Bradley responded that the Swiss "are pretty dull."
For those who think that target shooting is more fun than golf, however, Switzerland is anything but "dull." By car or train, you see shooting ranges everywhere, but few golf courses. If there is a Schuetzenfest (shooting festival) in town, you will find rifles slung on hat racks in restaurants, and you will encounter men and women, old and young, walking, biking and taking the tram with rifles over their shoulders, to and from the range. They stroll right past the police station and no one bats an eye. (Try this in the U.S., and a SWAT Team might do you in.)
Tourists--especially those from Japan, where guns are banned to all but the police--think it's a revolution. But shooting is the national sport, and the backbone of the national defense as well. More per capita firepower exists in Switzerland than in any other place in the world, yet it is one of the safest places to be.
According to the U.N. International Study on Firearm Regulation, England's 1994 homicide rate was 1.4 (9% involving firearms), and the robbery rate 116, per 100,000 population. In the United States, the homicide rate was 9.0 (70% involving firearms), and the robbery rate 234, per 100,000. England has strict gun control laws, ergo, the homicide rate is lower than in the U.S. However, such comparisons can be dangerous: In 1900, when England had no gun controls, the homicide rate was only 1.0 per 100,000.
Moreover, using data through 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice study "Crime and Justice" concluded that in England the robbery rate was 1.4 times higher, the assault rate was 2.3 times higher, and the burglary rate was 1.7 times higher than in the U.S. This suggests that lawfully armed citizens in the U.S. deter such crimes. Only the murder and rape rates in the U.S. were higher than in England. The small number of violent predators who commit most of these crimes in the U.S. have little trouble arming themselves unlawfully.
The U.N. study omits mention of Switzerland, which is awash in guns and has substantially lower murder and robbery rates than England, where most guns are banned.
Here are the figures: The Swiss Federal Police Office reports that in 1997 there were 87 intentional homicides and 102 attempted homicides in the entire country. Some 91 of these 189 murders and attempts involved firearms. With its population of seven million (including 1.2 million foreigners), Switzerland had a homicide rate of 1.2 per 100,000. There were 2,498 robberies (and attempted robberies), of which 546 involved firearms, resulting in a robbery rate of 36 per 100,000. Almost half of these crimes were committed by non-resident foreigners, whom locals call "criminal tourists."
Sometimes, the data sound too good to be true. In 1993, not a single armed robbery was reported in Geneva. No one seems to be looking at the Swiss example in the U.S., however.
Congress is stampeding to pass additional firearm restrictions in response to the events of April 20, when two students used guns and bombs to murder a dozen classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colorado.
Yet in 1996, a man who legally owned guns under England's strict regulations went on a rampage, murdering 16 children and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland. Parliament then banned all handguns and most rifles.
But there have been no school massacres in Switzerland, where guns and kids mix freely. At shooting matches, bicycles aplenty are parked outside. Inside the firing shelter, the competitors pay 12-year-olds tips to keep score. The 16-year-olds shoot rifles with men and women of all ages. In fact, the tourist brochure, "Zurich News" recommends September's Knabenschiessen (boy's shooting contest) as a must-see: "The oldest Zurich tradition consists of a shooting contest at the Albisguetli (range) for 12 to 16 year-old boys and girls and a colorful three-day fun-fair." The event has been held since 1657, and attracts thousands of teenage participants and spectators.
While many shoot for sport, all males aged 20 to 42 are required by militia system regulation to keep rifles and/or pistols at home. In addition, gun shops abound. Yet firearms are rarely used in crime.
Homicide is tied to a willingness to resort to violence, not the mere presence of guns. The prevalence of firearms in the home and the participation of youth in shooting matches bind youth to adults and discourages a generation gap.
By contrast, homicide rates are highest in the underdeveloped countries, many of which ban private firearm possession. In some, private murder does not compare to the genocidal murder committed by governments against their unarmed subjects.
In America, firearms take on a sinister reputation from the nightly news and violent movies. But in Switzerland, firearms symbolize a wholesome, community activity. The typical weekend shooting festival brings out the entire family. Beside the range is a huge tent where scores or hundreds of people are eating, drinking, and socializing. With cantonal and rifle club banners fluttering in the wind, the melody of rifle fire blends with Alpine music and cow bells.
Since its founding in 1291, Switzerland has depended on an armed populace for its defense. William Tell used a crossbow not only to shoot the apple from his son's head, but also to kill the tyrant Gessler. For centuries, the cantonal republic defeated the powerful armies of the European monarchs. Machiavelli wrote in 1532: "The Swiss are well armed and enjoy great freedom."
This coincidence has not escaped the notice of those who oppose liberty.
Monarchist philosopher Jean Bodin, writing in 1606, denounced free speech and arms possession by commoners. Subjects must be disarmed to prevent democratic sedition, he said. The Swiss proved, Bodin wrongly averred, that arms bearing was "the cause of an infinite number of murders."
The Swiss militia model, however, preserved democracy and held Europe's despots at bay. In fact, it inspired the rebellious American colonists.
John Adams praised the democratic Swiss Cantons, where every man was entitled to vote on laws and to bear arms. Patrick Henry, another American Founding Father, lauded the Swiss for maintaining their independence without "a mighty and splendid President" or a standing army.
The Swiss influence is clear in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Today, it has become fashionable to hate this orphan of the Bill of Rights.
However, a quick glance at history shows that tyrannical governments kill far more than do private criminals. But first, governments must disarm their victims. In 1933, the
Nazis seized power via massive search-and-seizure operations for firearms against "Communists," i.e., all political opponents. In 1938, during the Night of the Broken Glass, they disarmed the Jews. When the Nazis occupied Europe in 1939-41, they proclaimed the death penalty for any person who failed to surrender all firearms within 24 hours.
There may be various reasons why the Nazis did not invade Switzerland, but one of those reasons is that every Swiss man had a rifle at home.
For this we have no better record than the Nazi invasion plans, which stated that, because of the Swiss shooting skills, Switzerland would be difficult to conquer and pacify.
European countries occupied by the Nazis had strict gun controls before the war, and the registration lists facilitated confiscation of firearms and the execution of their owners.
By being able to keep out of both world wars in part through the dissuasive factor of an armed populace, Switzerland demonstrates that civilian firearm possession may prevent large numbers of deaths and even genocide. The Holocaust never came to Switzerland, the Jewish population of which was armed just like their fellow citizens. In the rest of Europe, what if there had been not just one, but two, three, or many Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings?
Traditionally, the Swiss Cantons had few firearm regulations. The first federal firearms law was recently enacted. Certain firearm purchases require a permit, and others do not. On retirement, every soldier may keep his rifle or pistol. Surplus assault rifles may be purchased by any Swiss citizen from the Military Department.
The bottom line is one of attitude. Populations with training in civic virtue, though armed, do not experience sensational massacres or high crime rates. Indeed, armed citizens deter crime. Switzerland fits this mold. Similarly, America's lawful "gun culture" is peaceful. Sadly, some of its subcultures are not.