A League of Our Own: gun culture in Israel and Switzerland isn’t anything like it is in the United States.

by Janet Rosenbaum, Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center School in Brooklyn. The article was first published on Foreign Policy. Re-published on offiziere.ch with the kind permission of Foreign Policy and Janet Rosenbaum – thanks!

An Israeli teacher with an M1 carbine slung across her back.

An Israeli teacher with an M1 carbine slung across her back.

Following the tragic shooting last week in Newtown, Conn., two stories leapt out at me. The first was the astonishing tale of a teacher, Victoria Soto, who hid her first-graders in closets and took a bullet rather than risking the children’s lives by hiding with them. The second featured a photograph of an Israeli woman with a military-style long gun slung across her back, herding children protectively. The contrast between the powerful Israeli woman and the unarmed American woman was striking. Looking at the two stories, I wished Soto had been armed and able to shoot first.

Israel, along with Switzerland, is one of the countries gun-control opponents trot out in their claim that guns aren’t the reason for mass killings like the Newtown slaughter. With universal military service and seemingly ubiquitous firearms, Israel and Switzerland seem heroic. In these countries, many think, the teacher really could have shot the murderer. The argument runs like this: Both Israel and Switzerland have high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun violence. Ergo, gun control is not the answer.

Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell used this trusty comparison again today when decrying the “shrill ignorance of ‘gun control’ advocates.” “Gun ownership has been three times as high in Switzerland as in Germany, but the Swiss have had lower murder rates,” he wrote, going on to name Israel as another country with “high rates of gun ownership and low murder rates.”

Predictably, he’s not telling the whole story. Switzerland has tight gun control laws – and so does Israel. Here are five facts that Americans should know about the role guns play in self-defense in the United States, Switzerland, and Israel.

The self-defense fallacy
In all three countries, self-defensive gun use is rare. Guns are six times more likely to be used against members of a household than against intruders, according to nationwide telephonic surveys. (Nonlethal weapons such as baseball bats are 12 times more likely to be used against intruders than guns.) And guns are 10 times more likely to be used by criminals than against them. Moreover, the use of firearms for self defense is almost certainly over-reported. More than 1 million Americans each year claim to have shot criminals. If this were true, the nation’s emergency rooms would be filled with nothing but foiled criminals, because over 90 percent of criminals who are shot end up in the hospital.

Those who see firearms as vital for self-defense also often conflate military and civilian use. Jeanne Assam managed to halt a mass-casualty shooting at a mega-church in Colorado in 2007, but it turned out she was a former police officer who had been hired for security. Likewise, terrorist attacks in Israel have been stopped by off-duty soldiers using service weapons. Indeed, of the cases I have reviewed where Israeli or Swiss civilians supposedly used guns to prevent casualties, all involved off-duty or former soldiers or police, or went wrong when a civilian shot at someone who was not a terrorist.

Fewer guns than you think
Despite universal military service, Israel and Switzerland have substantially fewer guns than the United States. When you include illegal guns, the United States has about one gun per person, Switzerland has half a gun per person, and Israel has 0.07 guns per person, according to the Small Arms Survey. Half of American households have a firearm, whereas only 30 percent of all Swiss households do, and most of those are army guns, according to my analysis of the International Crime Victimization Survey (ICVS). The percentage of Swiss households that report owning guns for self-protection is in the single digits. (Israeli firearm data is not available through ICVS, but the percentage of households with a gun must be in the low single digits, given the Small Arms Survey estimate of 0.07 guns per person.)

A privilege, not a right
Both Israel and Switzerland put the onus on would-be gun owners to explain why they need these weapons. Israel limits gun ownership to security workers, people who transport valuables or explosives, residents of the West Bank, and hunters. People who don’t fall into one of those categories cannot obtain a firearm permit. Moreover, Israel rejects 40 percent of firearm permit applicants, the highest rejection rate in the Western world. Both Switzerland and Israel require yearly (or more frequent) permit renewals to insure that the reasons are still applicable. New Jersey is one of few U.S. states that requires a reason for buying a handgun.

Far from being a gun paradise, Switzerland is one of only six countries in the world that requires comprehensive details of the firearm, owner, and all firearm transfers to be reported to the federal government. It also requires two levels of firearm permits: one for acquisition and one for possession. U.S. states vary in their gun-control stricture, but many don’t even require a permit to purchase a gun, and 34 U.S. states have only minimal requirements for concealed carry permits. Statistical analyses show that these “shall-issue” states have higher rates of homicide.

Strict and getting stricter
As stringent as Israel and Switzerland are, these countries are getting stricter. It took just one mass shooting 11 years ago in Switzerland to boost public support for gun control. Despite universal male service in the army reserves, only a quarter of Swiss households keep an army gun at home. Reserve members in many francophone cantons store their weapons in unit arsenals and town weapons depots rather than in their homes. German-speaking cantons still resist storing weapons in centralized depots, but they may pay the price in greater suicides with army weapons: Epidemiologic studies find that the cantons with lower household gun ownership have lower rates of firearm suicide and homicide-suicide.

Destroying Small ArmsIsrael, too, required soldiers to leave their weapons on base during weekend leave as part of an effort to curb military suicides that began in 2006. Since the regulations were introduced, there has been a 40 percent reduction in the weekend suicide rate, while the weekday rate remained flat. Soldiers planning to commit suicide on weekend leave were apparently thwarted by their lack of firearm access, but by the time they returned to the base, the impulse had passed, reinforcing the public health literature that suggests that reducing firearm access reduces suicide rates.

Leave it to the pros
More than 15 percent of U.S. households report owning a gun for self-defense purposes, compared with only about 3 percent of Swiss households, according to my analysis of ICVS data. Unlike Switzerland, Israel has well-known security concerns, but it limits security to the professionals. Universal army service entrusts every 18-21 year old soldier with a gun, but only lieutenant colonels and above can own guns after their service ends. Schools employ armed commercial security guards, but teachers haven’t carried guns since the 1970s. Since its founding, Israel has had a Civil Guard that employs civilian volunteers, in part, to fight terrorism. Such an effort would seem to be an opening for civilian gun ownership, but volunteers in Israel’s Civil Guard are only entitled to a gun permit after 5 years of service. The country’s security policies are designed to keep amateurs from carrying guns in the street – even amateurs who have served 3 years in the army.

The bottom line
Gun advocates often laud the wise and mature gun culture that prevails in Israel and Switzerland, calling for the United States to follow these countries in promoting civilian firearm access for self-protection. But they’re praising a fictional version of these countries. The real Israel and Switzerland have few guns and a great many restrictions on them – and the United States would be wise to follow their example.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, Security Policy.

14 Responses to A League of Our Own: gun culture in Israel and Switzerland isn’t anything like it is in the United States.

  1. Aaron Hirschi says:

    Isn’t the social environment also different? It is much easier to control and manage populations as small and culturally homogeneous as Switzerland or Israel. Each is the size of one American city, and neither have the balkanized political culture of the United States. It is easier to manage 8 million people than 310 million. Besides, most Americans hate being told what to do, especially by academics who think they can run the world because their ideas look great on paper. America has thousands of academic “experts” that its government has listened to on other subjects for decades and it certainly hasn’t helped. Why should it be any different with the gun issue?

    • For sure the social environment in different countries is different – Janet Rosenbaum doesn’t deny that. By the way: I don’t know how things are in the USA, but in Switzerland the citizens control and manage the government and not the other way around ;-).

      Besides, most Americans hate being told what to do, especially by academics who think they can run the world because their ideas look great on paper.

      Is that the reason sometimes they vote for really stupid politicians?

      • Aaron Hirschi says:

        America used to be like Switzerland before Franklin Roosevelt, then our population became entranced on the notion that the state can make our lives better with handouts. I should clarify by what I mean by Americans hate being told what to do. Americans hate and resent the state when it tries to regulate personal property or interfere with individual life choices because it impacts them directly. That is why gun rights are strongly supported but also why gays are gaining ground politically. However, Americans will lick the government’s boots when it comes to policies that orient towards an interest group, cause, or section of society. As long as there are hand outs or money to be given to a cause or group, like the poor, minorities, or whoever, then Americans like the state to interfere all it wants. We are becoming less and less like Switzerland and more and more like France.

        Americans vote for stupid politicians because back in the ’60s political machines in both parties became strong enough to choose the candidates. Party machines don’t want people who think for themselves so they pick idiots and hide the fact by making sure the idiots come from famous elite schools. So America has greedy voters and crooked parties that select imbeciles.

        Although in my country’s defense, selecting idiots is not an exclusive American trait. Francois Hollande, David Cameron, Antonis Samaras, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero don’t dazzle anyone with their intellects.

  2. Aaron Hirschi

    Like many Americans and Australians – especially, I suspect, those of Swiss descent – I think you idolise Switzerland. But the real Switzerland is not that of your imagination. It is not the 19th-century Schilleresque Romantic-liberal-nationalist paradise where every man is both an enthusiastic democrat and a Homeric hero – a meme which still dominates our collective fantasies. It is a claustrophobic place – a police state with massive government welfare spending. Much better to be in the spacious, blue-skied Anglosphere.

    Markus Pfister, Australia

    • In Switzerland, there is approx. 200 policemen on 100’000 residents. As a comparison, there is approx. 264 policemen on 100’000 residents in England, in Austria 326, in France 387, in Italy 467. This is hardly a sign of a “police state” in the case of Switzerland.

  3. Roland Posnett says:

    To put it in two sentences: Isn’t it easier to govern successfully in a A) small and B) prosperous country which boasts C) far less cultural diversity than the United States? And let’s not forget the bedrock: D) the Swiss Federal Constitution, which can be amended democratically to meet social changes – it’s not an outdated sacrosanct relict with a religious aura…

  4. Alex says:

    The writer is somewhat mistaken when referring to Switzerland’s Constitution conferring only a privilege to the citizenry as to its right to bear arms.

    Although not as explicit as the 2nd Amendment of The United States Constitution that states that the US federal government shall not infringe the right to bear arms, the ownership of fireams in Switzerland is a presumed right held by the citizenry. It is not a privilege conveyed by the State as in the case of other European countries. Title III, Ch. 2, Section 7, Article 107, of the Swiss Constitution only states that the Swiss federal goverment has the authority to legislate against the abusive use of weapons, accessories to weapons, and ammunition. Chapter 1, section 1, Article 3, of the Swiss Federal Code explicitly states that ‘The right to purchase, possess, and carry arms is guaranteed under the present laws.’ The permit process does not apply to all firearms but primarily to semi-automatic rifles and pistols. Furthermore, this permit process is a ministerial function (as opposed to discretionary) in which its purpose is merely to allow local authorities to perform criminal and mental competence background checks on the buyer. The laws pertaining to the possession, maintenance, and ultimate possession of federally assigned fully automatic rifles and their ammunition are dealt with under a distinct chapter of the Swiss federal constitution that deals with mandatory military service in general.

    Other countries in Europe such as France have strict laws on firearms defining the terms of their ownership, possession, and use, by minute category which establish a revokable privilege that is discretionary in nature. For example, in France you cannot go and just file a ministerial permit to buy an AK-47 and pick it up within a defined period from a gun store after the ‘permit’ has been obtained and the background checks performed. In Switzerland you can. In France you have to be a member of an approved gun-club in your area where you have to first train on limited categories of weapons and pass a series of tests (typically on a .22 caliber) for a certain period of time before you can then move on and apply for the purchase a different weapon.)

  5. Alex says:

    I am a Swiss citizen living in Switzerland who has lived in various parts of the US for over 25 years. I don’t see law enforcement personnel walking around armed with assault rifles and military gear arbitrarily imposing identification stops in Switzerland but I’ve had plenty such events in the US. The Swiss Foreign office also doesn’t have forbidden countries where I have to first ask for permission/report to travel in such as the US State Department does with its permanent residents traveling anywhere outside of the US or its own citizens going to Cuba for example. Under any accepted definition of the term ‘police state’ which typically defines a totalitarian state, I can assure you that Switzerland doesn’t even come close to it.

  6. Alex says:

    An AK-47 is one of many models of rifles that operate with different types of actions that are either fixed or changeable in function (semi-automatic, automatic, or even single action.) Military weapons have a selective fire action that can be be switched from fully automatic, burst, and semi-automatic. Military rifles sold for civilian uses are fixed to semi-automatic only. The process to obtaining any semi-automatic weapon (with exceptions to certain models and those using only certain ammunition types such as the FN P-90) is purely ministerial in Switzerland. One would need a special permit (i.e. a firearms sales license)or be serving in the Swiss military or a police officer to otherwise possess a fully automatic firearm.

  7. Alex says:

    Thank you for your interesting contribution. A little addition: you are referring to the Swiss Federal Code on weapons, weapon equipment and ammunition. But to obtain legally an unmodified AK-47 without a really good justification is almost impossible in Switzerland, because of Article 5, Paragraph 2a: the possession of automatic weapons is forbidden. Of course rare exceptions could be possible, but really not so easy to get.

    Yes. As I explained above, civilian purchasers can usually only purchase a semi-automatic action firearm unless they have a very special reason (an authorized commercial seller)or are authorized by law to carry one such as police or military.

    US Federal law is similar in that respect as it also restricts the possession of fully automatic weapons under permit to those who have a specific justification (a licensed merchant) or who have a military or law enforcement function.

    • Nat says:

      I know I’m nearly two years late, but 1) Al Jazeera is a Qatari propaganda network, and 2) their pieces on gun control are laughable – their purpose is to mislead.

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