Sunday, March 25, 2012

US Gun Rights Proponents Shouldn't Cite Canada and Switzerland

I'll paraphrase something I've encountered in US gun rights debates from time to time:
Look at Switzerland and Canada!  They're awash with guns but have low crime rates, this proves guns in the hands of responsible law abiding gun owners are not a problem.
It is true that Canada and Switzerland have relatively high numbers of guns in civilian hands.  And while this point may be useful in arguing against some kind of total gun ban, that's really fighting a straw man.  If the US was to import the gun laws of Canada or Switzerland wholesale, US gun control groups would be ecstatic with joy and the NRA would lose their minds.  Canada has very strict rules on ownership of handguns and makes it nigh impossible to own a fully automatic weapon of any kind.  It's almost unheard of that anyone gets the exemption permit under the Criminal Code to carry a loaded handgun for self-defence.  Yes, Canada has lots of rifles and shotguns, but it's very evident that in the real world most violent crime committed with guns is done with handguns or guns small enough to conceal easily.  Long guns do present risks, like suicide, unintentional shootings and domestic violence issues, but rarely does anyone rob a liquor store with a rifle.  Still, Canada requires licenses to acquire even long guns and places legal restrictions on how they're stored when not in use.

Switzerland is a whole other case.  Famously, the Swiss give military style fully automatic assault weapons to all military members to keep at home.  Let's think about what that means in the context of US gun laws:
  • Every one of these guns is registered to its owner by virtue of being issued and owned by the Swiss military.
  • Every one of these soldiers undergoes military training on how to safely use, store, carry and shoot that specific weapon.
  • Every recruit to the military is actually put through physical and psychological screening to ensure they are mentally and physically able to perform the duties of defending Switzerland.  Additionally, not everyone drafted/recruited makes it through basic training.
  • The soldiers are not issued ammo for this weapon, and, outside of wartime, can only acquire ammo for it at a licensed range, and the ammo has to be used at that range.  
  • These people are in fact soldiers, and their use of these weapons subject to much stricter military laws and laxer prosecution standards than is typical for civilians.
  • There are legal rules about the transport of these weapons, generally only to and from licensed ranges or duty locations.
  • Once they leave the Swiss military they are permitted to keep the weapon if they want, but it is converted to semi-auto and again the ammunition remains restricted.
This arrangement is often portrayed as "every Swiss male has a fully automatic weapon at home" which clearly is not the case.  Signficant numbers of Swiss males are excluded for physical (like say having very poor vision which isn't something that even comes up in context of US gun laws but really should - if you can't see well enough to know what you're aiming at, how can you possibly use a gun responsibly?) and more importantly psychological reasons.  You also have to pass a variety of handling and aptitude tests to prove you are able to handle that weapon safely.  Would the NRA ever get behind forcing US would-be gun owners to undergo anything like this?  When they already oppose requiring criminal background checks for guns sold at gun shows, it's hard to imagine them supporting psychological screening and extensive training requirements.

Even outside the military context, Swiss civilian gun laws are far more restrictive than most US states (perhaps all now in the era of DC v Heller).  Obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon requires both identification of a specific danger or threat to the applicant, and again passing a handling/aptitude test.  The NRA and associated ideological allies on the gun lobby have been pushing "shall issue" laws that require State authorities to issue such permits to anyone who applies (typically excepting only those with felony convictions). 

Finally there is also the rather important topic of the much stronger social safety nets found in Canada and Switzerland as compared to the US.  Given the long established links between crime and poverty, deprivation and lack of opportunity, these factors cannot be ignored.  If you want to use Switzerland or Canada to prove that it is possible to have a relatively peaceful, stable and safe society that also has significant numbers of guns, fine, I can buy that.  But it doesn't do anything to show that the presence of guns is helpful to those ends, merely that they are not necessarily fatal to them.   Nor do I see many US gun proponents arguing for a better US social safety net, or other measures to ensure actual economic opportunity for the historically crime plagued impoverished communities.    If you're going to cite Switzerland's gun laws, are you also going to look to their universal health care system?  Or their highly state subsidized university tuition levels?   The point here is that Swiss and Canadian gun laws exist in the context of those societies and analysis that tries to completely divorce them is liable to go wrong.  Of course, I think many gun proponents are being disingenuous or at least willfully ignoring this kind of context, because they usually don't just argue that Switzerland or Canada prove it is possible to have low crime rates and high gun ownership rates, they often argue that Swiss and Canadian crime rates are low because of high gun ownership rates, which is just completely unfounded and a classic post hoc fallacy.

For gun control advocates, my advice would be that if a gun advocate brings up Switzerland or Canada, embrace it and ask them to support importing either country's gun laws to the US.  The reality is the only states comparable to the US when it comes to gun laws are really failed states like Somalia where it is effectively a free-for-all. 


  1. An excellent piece. But will they listen? Unlikely. Never mind. The truth is the truth, even if swathes of people don't want to hear it and deny it.

  2. Granted, these stats are a few years old but our laws haven't enough to significantly affect the handgun rates.