Further fuel for the gun-control debate yesterday, when Switzerland, in a much-anticipated referendum, voted to reject a plan for stricter controls on gun ownership. The result was clear without being overwhelming: 56.3% voted “no”, as did majorities in 20 of the 26 cantons.

If passed, the referendum would have ended the most notorious aspect of Switzerland’s gun laws, the practice of reservists keeping their fully automatic weapons in their homes. It would also have imposed stricter checks on gun owners. But as Wikipedia explains, “The Swiss army has long been a militia trained and structured to rapidly respond against foreign aggression.”

Supporters of gun control suggest, not unreasonably, that this is an obsolete view of military preparedness — that, as one put it, “We’re not going to defend Switzerland against the Red Army from the kitchen window or the back yard.” Instead, they argue, the ready availability of firearms contributes to Switzerland’s relatively high suicide rate.

But the relationship between gun ownership and gun use is anything but simple. Contrary to what one might expect, gun crime in Switzerland is rare. According to The Guardian, there were only 24 gun homicides in 2009, or about 0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants — that’s only one-fourteenth of the rate in the United States.

The United States is the obvious point of comparison — even more since last month’s massacre in Arizona, and its surprising failure to set off any serious national debate about gun control. High rates of gun violence have failed to dent the political power of the gun lobby, and the advent of the Obama administration (with a supposed agenda of gun control, although there is precious little evidence for it) has made the defence of gun culture even more of an article of faith among Republicans.

But the fact that widespread availability of firearms produces such different results from those in Switzerland should clue us that something else is going on. The hysteria provoked by threats to gun ownership — even purely imaginary ones — indicates that Americans’ relationship to their guns is quite different from that of the dour and pragmatic Swiss.

Ultimately, gun violence is driven by much deeper causes than the regulatory regime. Rather than seeing gun carnage in America as a product of gun ownership, it makes more sense to see both as symptoms of something more basic, a culture of fear and insecurity. That was a key message of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, although critics who take Moore for a crude propagandist typically miss the point.

Symptoms, of course, may still be worth treating, and no doubt there are sensible regulatory measures that could be taken that might reduce the incidence of violence (perhaps including some of the firearms training that the Swiss get). But it’s not surprising that there has been little enthusiasm for a broad attack on gun ownership. The idea that taking people’s guns will pay dividends of itself, without addressing the cultural factors, is a mere pipedream.

America will have to confront some of its own demons before its citizens will lessen their devotion to their guns. And other countries, including Australia as well as Switzerland, probably should worry less about the American experience when they decide how to deal with gun ownership.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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