Analysis of Swiss Gun Control Laws and Why The US Should Adopt Them
If one were to look up the number of mass shootings that happened in the United States in 2021, chances are they would come across the Gun Violence Archive. The GVA catalogues all of the shootings that have occurred in the United States in a given year; as of June 17, 2021, there have been 20,206 gun-related deaths. 9118 of such deaths have been attributed to homicides, 11,088 were by suicide. The GVA also includes statistics on mass shootings, which has the loose definition of seeing 4 or more people killed by a firearm per the FBI; in 2021, there have been 279 mass shootings in the US, 16 considered to be mass murders.
Now arguments can be made on various factors that have a part in these shootings; be it racist intent, political agitation, mental illness (on the part of suicides for the most part), petty fights, or misfirings. No matter the case, it can be definitively stated that the United States has a significant issue with guns, and there have been overtures in attempting to implement gun control regulations to curb our liberal gun ownership. While about 40% of Americans own 46% of the world’s firearms, according to Pew Research indating to May 11, 2021, 53% of Americans seek more stringent gun control, which, although lower than the 60% held prior to the poll’s conduction, is on par with previous trends dating back to 2017. This means that at least a slim majority of Americans consistently agree that DC needs to mobilize on gun control. Granted, the issue of gun control is such a cesspool of toxic arguments and politically motivated, rather than scientifically driven, rhetoric that it is nigh impossible to make a dent in such an argument one way or the other. However, it mostly boils down to the question of whether such regulations can deliver the results gun control idealists strive for; that is, harder to acquire guns result in lower death rates from said guns. If gun control skeptics, or anyone vaguely interested in the prospect of an America with proper regulations, sought data on this particular hypothesis, one should look to perhaps the very last country anyone would think of when it comes to guns: Switzerland.
The Paradox That Is Swiss Gun Ownership
It may seem downright asinine to bring Switzerland, a country in the heart of Europe known for its 200 year old tradition of neutrality, into the debate surrounding American gun control; however, for those who know their international policy or have watched Jordan Klepper’s “stories” on Switzerland for Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, they would know that Switzerland is a near perfect microcosm for American lawmakers to look to when it comes to balancing ownership with regulation.
Moving away from satirical shows though, per reports from the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), Switzerland has 27.6 guns per 100 people, which, on a macro level, indicates that nearly 2.332 million Swiss citizens, out of a population of 8.4 million, have guns. For a rather needless comparison, there are 88 guns per 100 Americans here stateside. It is true that comparing the US with Switzerland is rather unfair, generally speaking; but again, their national behavior towards weaponry are both similar and markedly different. Why? Looking at more statistics offered by GunPolicy, in 2018, of the 50 homicides that were committed in Switzerland, 13 were caused by firearms, rounding out to 26% of their murders. By contrast, about 75% of homicides in the US were committed by firearms. In 2015, of the 1071 suicides in Switzerland, 211 were from a gun; nearly 50% of suicides in the US were from a gun. While the numbers themselves are relatively meaningless, the percentages strike a chord when considering how difficult, and indeed rare, it is for someone to kill with a gun in Switzerland. This is due to how Switzerland both regulates and treats guns, and those who wield them.
Treat Others How You Wish to Be Treated Ft. Guns
If there’s ever an image that pops into the minds of Americans when considering owning a gun, it may seem almost Hollywood-esque, with the owner attempting to cosplay as Rambo or another famous action movie hero from the 80’s; or those YouTube videos of Americans inappropriately handling weapons that result in them being injured (look up 8 Surprising Gun Handling Fails for reference). This may come off as rather cliche and stereotypical, but the point being made is that Americans cherish their guns as much as hamburgers and American football, and by extension the freedom that is attached to them; there are plenty of responsible gun owners in this country, many of whom take classes and constantly remain cautious with weapons at all times. However, this respect is not matched by all Americans, hence why there are gun handling videos all over the internet, and this lack of respect is juxtaposed by the Swiss’s utter devotion to the concept.
Per Business Insider, the Swiss have been shooting rifles since the first rudimentary muskets were invented, with marksmanship contests being held by the Swiss Confederation for boys and girls being held every year since the 17th century. This tradition, while incredibly fascinating in their own right, also serves a purpose that extends into everything else the Swiss seek to implant in the rest of their population: guns are not toys and utilizing one requires pristine skill, professionalism and maturity when handling such assets of harm and death. Is it no wonder then that Switzerland abides by the policy of universal conscription, wherein all able bodied men between the ages of 18 and 34 are obligated to enlist in either the Swiss army or its militia, and are required to undergo extensive military training with standard issue SIG SSG-550 service rifles. This seems wholly foreign to us Americans, as we do not require our young men to be enlisted into the National Guard or the Armed Forces in times of peace, but this is but the first divergence between Swiss outlooks of guns and our own. What’s more, Swiss militiamen are able to keep their rifles, but owing to the other core tenet of Swiss gun ownership that is responsibility, these soldiers must get a permit to own these rifles; alternatively, they can also store their service equipment into a communal armory after a 2011 referendum gave the go ahead to further ensure the safety of militiamen and their families...which is to say, all families in Switzerland.
This military-grade training already institutes the professionalism and responsibility that should be expected of owning a gun, and this transitions quite cohesively to the civilian world for those that want to own a personal weapon, as the Swiss Federal Government’s policy can dictate. Moreover, this policy was implemented by a conservative government that operates on a federal model; that is a central government shares powers with 13 regional governments in a bid to make laws and implement policies. This is quite convenient for a country like the United States, yet what this policy of gun regulation does might be even more appealing than the familiar implementation process.
Per Swiss Info, the initial step towards purchasing a gun requires acquiring a gun purchase license, which can be issued by one of the 13 cantons of Switzerland (think of cantons as that of American states). Getting a gun purchase license is supposedly difficult, as it requires a valid identification and a printed criminal record, as well as a reason for wanting to buy a gun. Generally speaking, however, to acquire a gun license, and in turn a gun, a Swiss citizen needs to be 18 years or older, not have been placed under any form of guardianship as a result of childhood delinquency, and have a clean record with the law. So much as one violent transgression or several nonviolent transgressions immediately precludes the individual from ever purchasing a gun, which adheres to the core belief of the Swiss with their weapons: that being, if a citizen is unable to keep the peace and follow the law, they should not be entrusted with a gun.
Moreover, in a detailed overview of Swiss gun policy from the Library of Congress, Swiss citizens are expected to show that they are competent in handling, maintaining, and above all, respecting their firearms; this means that they are required to take courses on firearm etiquette and pass examinations while also demonstrating an actual need for said firearms. Defense as a reason is heavily regulated, requiring its own license to complete such a transaction. However, this licensing is mostly something those who seek to buy handguns must undergo, as there are exceptions to such licensing, such as hunting rifles, as well as single shot rifles, which can be seen as impractical when seeking to do harm to other individuals. However, this is made up for by the ban on the purchase of non-military automatic weaponry as per the Weapons Act, which also includes a national registration system and mandates transparency in weapon shipment deals between companies and firms. This was reinforced when in 2019, the Swiss people backed an EU regulation that banned semi-automatic weapons across those nations within the EU’s legal purview; while Switzerland is not apart of the EU wholesale, they still have to abide by, and adapt to, EU laws in order to be included in the Schengen Free Movement Zone and remain on friendly terms regarding trade.
With regard to how the Swiss are able to carry their weapons, per the FedLex, the Swiss’s archive on federal legislation, private citizens abide by equally stringent regulations when carrying their weapons around in public. This is seen within the fact that to carry their gun out in public, they must apply for, and receive, a gun carrying permit, demonstrate a need for carrying one, and pass a handling examination, akin to the steps needed to acquire a gun in the first place. The permit itself requires multiple boxes to be checked, but when the permit is received, the owner can carry their weapon around unloaded and with a specific reason/location in mind (ie going to the range for target shooting). This mitigates any potential for public shootings to break out between belligerent individuals, misfires, or anything in between, while also demonstrating the amount of trust the Swiss have in themselves and with their government’s regulations.
The Fruits of Legislative Labour
So what then did these regulations accomplish? Is it true then that regulations on guns have made an impact on the crime rates in Switzerland? Well, yes. According to NationMaster’s comparison between Switzerland and America’s violent crime rate, the Swiss have much lower statistics in every category relative to that of the United States; for example, the intentional murder rate in Switzerland is 1.25, the American murder rate is 4.7. Or to put it another way, there were 52 murders per 100,000 in Switzerland; in the States that number is close to 13,000 per 100,000.
Yet what have the Americans done? It is unwise to omit the US’s dealings with gun control when it is this particular policy group that is being compared, after all. And, yes, it is indeed unwise; however, the difficult part in this is that there is very little in the way of data or analysis on gun policies and its effects on gun violence, as there exists a federal piece of legislation passed in the 1990s that prevented (and continues to prevent) the CDC from investigating such links. Known (aptly and appropriately) as the Dickey Amendment, it was pushed by the National Rifle Association (which doesn’t exist in Switzerland) to keep the CDC from investigating the links between gun control and the statistics of crime. Why would such an amendment be passed? It is difficult to say, and the speculations that have been prompted thereafter are merely that, speculation, so it is not within the prerogative of this paper to give credence to these, even if they may seem right at surface level. Instead, Time Magazine provides a relatively thorough history of American gun control legislation that extends back to the 1930s and former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies; but the first real overture towards gun control came in 1968 under former President Lyndon Johnson.
The History & Future of American Gun Legislation
In 1968, LBJ signed into law the Gun Control Act (CGA), which did a number of reforms while also replacing the much older Federal Firearms Act from the New Deal era. It had banned the importing of weapons that were deemed to not be of “sporting purpose” (ie military weapons), mandated age restrictions on handgun purchases, setting it to 21 from a public dealer, or 18 from a private one, prevented felons and those of mentally unfit psychology to attain guns, and required serial numbers be branded on all weapons made to be sold.
The GCA was, for twenty years, the preeminent law that provided regulations on attaining guns, and it was both reinforced and weakened in 1986, when former President Ronald Reagan was in the midst of his second term. In this year, his Congress passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which, as the bill’s name suggests, protects the rights of the citizen and their gun, and not the citizen from irresponsible/dangerous gun toters, by not establishing a national registry (which prevents the government from tracking down who owns a gun that was used in, or a product of, a crime). It limited the ATF (Alcohol , tobacco, and firearms, as well as drugs) to annual inspections, kneecapping the agency’s ability to keep tabs on the industry’s dealings and the millions of Americans who own guns. It allowed for people to buy guns from gun shows, which introduced a loophole so widely used it is still being legislated on to this day, and it loosened regulations on ammunition. The gun control advocates did get a significant, if slightly symbolic, offer that machine guns were no longer able to be purchased by Americans.
The final phase of gun control in the US was under the Clinton Administration, where in both ‘93 and ‘94 three significant measures were implemented. First and foremost, background checks were mandated for the first time via the James Brady Gun Control Act, and it was the FBI’s prerogative to issue them...alongside eight other federal agencies. A National Instant Criminal Background Check System was implemented and used by the FBI for just such a purpose. While the NCBCS is still in use today, it has been noted that there have been faults in the system due to repeatedly missing individuals who should have been flagged and denied a gun. In 1994, perhaps the most radical, and therefore most controversial, reform was implemented a la what is known as the “assault weapons ban.” The Assault Weapons Ban was a decade long prohibition on semi-automatic weapons (most of us would attribute this to the AR-15, the civilian model of the military’s M4/M16 rifle platform). The ban was temporary and open to renewal, but seeing as the ban was attributed to the Democrats losing the White House and both chambers of Congress, which allowed for Bush 43 to succeed Clinton, and due to repeated Republican pressure campaigns, the ban was allowed to expire after 2004, and it had failed to be renewed as recently as 2021.
From 2000 onward, gun control has been on the backfoot, with bills passing Congress that kept criminals’ records of where they bought their guns, prevented gun manufacturers from being named as defendants in criminal or civil suits as a result of mass shootings, and then the SCOTUS case DC v. Heller redefining the Second Amendment was protecting the right to bear arms as being solely that, independent of its attachment to the maintenance of a well regulated militia all solidifying the rights of gun owners...while also allowing for gun related incidents to explode across the country in the years that followed, leading us to today.
So where does that leave us? A new Democratic administration has pushed for gun control measures in the form of HR 8, which institutes background checks for unlicensed transfers and broadly seeks to prevent individuals who have been deemed to not have the ability to obtain guns from actually doing so. However, while the bill is a good start, and possibly the best shot at getting this across given the hairthin majorities Democrats hold in both chambers, should they be given a broader mandate in 2022, it is the prerogative of the US Congress, both left and right, to take Switzerland’s policies and run with them. Implement a licensing system that tracks everything from purchasing guns to carrying them in the open. Encourage,or even mandate, taking basic gun etiquette and handling classes so that new gun owners are able to garner respect for their firearms, and ensure that they are tested on this knowledge to confirm their aptitude. Institute psychiatric mandates to ensure that people with histories of violence or mental illness do not buy a gun and harm others or themselves. These are only suggestions of course, but the point remains: if we really want to at least treat our gun wounds, perhaps it's time we break out some of Switzerland’s bandages, seeing as they have very little need for them nowadays.
“Gun Violence Archive.” Gun Violence Archive, 2021, www.gunviolencearchive.org.
Schaeffer, Katherine. “Key Facts about Americans and Guns.” Pew Research Center, 11 May 2021, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/11/key-facts-about-americans-and-guns.
“Switzerland has a stunningly high rate of gun ownership — here’s why it doesn’t have mass shootings.” Business Insider Nederland, 5 Aug. 2019, www.businessinsider.nl/switzerland-gun-laws-rates-of-gun-deaths-2018-2?international=true&r=US#most-people-arent-allowed-to-carry-their-guns-around-in-switzerland-12.
“About This Collection | Publications of the Law Library of Congress | Digital Collections | Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, 2021, www.loc.gov/collections/publications-of-the-law-library-of-congress/about-this-collection/switzerland.php#Current.
“Why Gun-Loving Switzerland Voted to Tighten Restrictions on Firearms.” World Politics Review, 2019, www.worldpoliticsreview.com/insights/28094/despite-a-gun-friendly-history-voters-elected-to-tighten-swiss-gun-laws.
Alpers, Philip. “Guns in Switzerland — Firearms, Gun Law and Gun Control.” Gun Policy, 2021, www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/switzerland.
Gray, Sarah. “Here’s a Timeline of the Major Gun Control Laws in America.” Time, 29 Apr. 2021, time.com/5169210/us-gun-control-laws-history-timeline.
Kirby, By Emma Jane. “Switzerland Guns: Living with Firearms the Swiss Way.” BBC News, 11 Feb. 2013, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21379912.
“Frontline: Hot Guns: ‘How Criminals Get Guns’ | PBS.” PBS, 2021, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/guns/procon/guns.html.
“Mass Shootings in the United States.” RAND, 2021, www.rand.org/research/gun-policy/analysis/essays/mass-shootings.html.
Wheeler, Lydia. “What Are the Legal Ages for Buying Guns?” TheHill, 23 Feb. 2018, thehill.com/homenews/politics-101/375154-what-are-the-current-age-restrictions-on-guns?rl=1.
Zimmerman, Erin. “What Can the Swiss Teach the US about Guns?” SWI Swissinfo.Ch, 3 Sept. 2020, www.swissinfo.ch/eng/florida-school-shooting_what-can-the-swiss-teach-the-us-about-guns-/43923350.