Guns, Crime, and the Swiss

By Stephen P. Halbrook
Wall Street Journal
June 3, 1999

Shorter versions of this article were published in 1999 in the Wall Street Journal on June 3 (European edition) as “Armed to the Teeth, and Free” and on June 10 (American edition) as “Where Kids and Guns Do Mix.”

Back in 1994, when the U.S. Congress was debating whether to ban “assault weapons,” a talk show host asked Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a sponsor of the ban, whether guns cause crime. The host noted that, in Switzerland, all males are issued assault rifles for their militia service and are required to keep them at home, yet little crime exists there. Bradley responded: “My guess is — Swiss are pretty dull — so my guess is that probably didn’t happen.”

Actually, for those who think that target shooting is more fun than golf, Switzerland is anything but “dull.” By car or by train, you see shooting ranges all over the country, but only a few golf courses. If there is a Schuetzenfest 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 the shoulder, to and from the range. They stroll right past the police station and no one bats an eye (in the U.S. 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 really just the national sport, although it has the deadly serious function of being the backbone of the national defense.

Although there is more per capita firepower in Switzerland than any place in the world, it is one of the safest places to be. To the delight of Americans who support the right to keep and bear arms, Switzerland is the proof in the pudding of the argument that guns don’t cause crime.

According to the UN International Study on Firearm Regulation, in 1994 the homicide rate in England (including Wales) was 1.4 (9% involving firearms), and the robbery rate 116, per 100,000 population. In the United States, the homicide rate was almost 9.0 (70% involving firearms), and the robbery rate 234, per 100,000. England has strict gun control laws, ergo, the argument goes, the homicide rate is far lower than in the United States. 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 higher, and the burglary rate was 1.7 times higher than in the United States. Only the murder and rape rates in the United States were higher than in England.

The UN Study omits Switzerland from its comparative analysis. The Swiss example contradicts the Study’s hypothesis that a high incidence of firearm ownership correlates with high violent crime.

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 (the statistics do not distinguish firearm use in consummated murders from attempts). With its population of seven million (which includes 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, giving a robbery rate of 36 per 100,000. Almost half of these criminal acts were committed by non-resident foreigners, which is why one hears reference in casual talk to “criminal tourists.”

Sometimes, the data sounds too good to be true. In 1993, not a single armed robbery was reported in Geneva.

In a word, Switzerland, which is awash in guns, has substantially lower murder and robbery rates than England, where most guns are banned.

The world was horrified on April 20 when two students used guns and bombs to murder a dozen classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colorado. The Congress is now stampeding to pass additional restrictions on the acquisition of firearms.. Yet in 1996, a pederast who legally owned guns under England’s strict regulations went on a rampage in which he murdered 16 children and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland. The Parliament responded with an outright ban on all handguns and most rifles.

There have been no school shootings in Switzerland, but guns and kids sure do mix there. At all major 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 along with men and women of all ages.

What, asks the tourist brochure Zürich News, are the annual events that one must see in Switzerland’s largest city? Under “Festivals and local customs” is the entry: “Knabenschiessen (boy’s shooting contest), the oldest Zürich tradition, takes place on the second weekend in September. It consists of a shooting contest at the Albisgüetli [range] for 12 to 16 year-old boys/girls and a colorful three-day fun-fair.” After that, the next big event is St. Nicholas Day in December.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung devoted an entire page to the 1996 Knabenschiessen, noting that 3,667 teens had participated and announcing the shooting “king” and “queen.” Large pictures of girls and boys with assault rifles and driving bumper cars (not at the same time!) laced the page. The event has been held since 1657.

I once attended a shooting match near Lucerne where the prizes — from rifles and silver cups to computers and bicycles — were on display at the local elementary school. You could see the children’s art show while you were there.

Prof. Marshall Clinard writes in Cities With Little Crime: “Even in the largest Swiss cities crime is not a major problem. The incidence of criminal homicide and robbery is low, despite the fact that firearms are readily available in most households.” The low crime rate is even more remarkable in that the criminal justice system is relatively lenient.

Besides the militia system requiring automatic rifles and/or semiautomatic pistols to be kept in the homes of all males aged 20 to 42, firearms are readily available for purchase in gun shops. Yet firearms are rarely used in violent crime. Notes Clinard, “These facts contrast strikingly with the belief that a low criminal homicide rate is due to strict firearms regulations.” Homicide is tied to a willingness to resort to violence, not the mere presence of firearms. The prevalence of firearms in the home and the participation of youth in shooting matches bind youth to adults and precludes the creation of a generation gap.

Criminal homicide rates are highest in the less developed countries. These same countries often ban private possession of firearms. In some of them, such as Uganda, private murder does not compare to the genocidal murder committed by governments against their unarmed subjects.

In American society, firearms take on a sinister reputation from the nightly news and excessively-violent movies. In Switzerland, firearms symbolize a wholesome, community activity. The typical weekend shooting festival brings out the entire family. By the range will be a huge tent where scores or even hundreds of people are eating, drinking, and socializing. With colorful banners of the Cantons and of the rifle clubs fluttering in the wind, the melody of rifle fire blends with Alpine music and cow bells. Event sponsors may include banks, supermarkets, watch makers, and Die Post — the telephone and postal system.

Some 72,000 competitors participated in the Federal Schuetzenfest in Thun in 1995, making it the largest rifle shooting match in the world. (The American National Matches that year attracted only 4,000 shooters out of 260 million citizens.) The President of Switzerland and other dignitaries gave speeches. There was no “Secret Service” to protect them, and none was needed, although thousands of guns cluttered the assembly.

Since the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, Switzerland has depended on an armed populace for its defense. William Tell used a crossbow, the armor-piercing ammo of the age, 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 and kept its independence. Machiavelli wrote in 1532: “The Swiss are well armed and enjoy great freedom.”

Monarchist philosopher Jean Bodin, writing in 1606, denounced free speech and arms possession by commoners. Averring that “the most usual way to prevent sedition, is to take away the subjects arms,” Bodin denounced the wearing of arms, “which by our laws, as also by the manners and customs of the Germans and Englishmen is not only lawful; but by the laws and decrees of the Swiss even necessarily commanded: the cause of an infinite number of murders, he which weareth a sword, a dagger, or a pistol.” That argument remains a staple of Sarah Brady and Handgun Control, Inc. today.

American interest in the Swiss did not begin with John McPhree’s prize-winning essay La Place de la Concorde Suisse. In 1768, as conflict with the Crown worsened, the colonists called for the strengthening of the militia, so that “this country will have a better security against the calamities of war than any other in the world, Switzerland alone excepted.” By the time the new Constitution was being debated in 1787, John Adams wrote a treatise which praised the democratic Swiss Cantons, where every man was entitled to vote on matters of state and to bear arms. The famous orator Patrick Henry praised the Swiss for maintaining their neutrality and independence from the great monarchies, all without “a mighty and splendid President” or a standing army: “Let us follow their example, and be equally happy.”

The Swiss influence was partly responsible for the adoption of 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.” This has become the orphan of the Bill of Rights which some love to hate.

When the first U.S. Congress met and turned to defense measures in 1791, Representative Jackson argued: “The inhabitants of Switzerland emancipated themselves by the establishment of a militia, which finally delivered them from the tyranny of their lords.” A law was passed requiring every able-bodied citizen to provide himself with a firearm and enroll in the militia, and it stayed on the books for over a century.

President Teddy Roosevelt’s strictures about training youngsters to shoot in order to promote the national defense were quoted in Why School Boys Should be Taught to Shoot by General George Wingate. Wingate, a founder of the National Rifle Association (NRA), pointed to the Swiss model as the ideal. American military observers were repeatedly sent to Switzerland, and recommended that the U.S. adopt the Swiss system.

In a 1905 report, U.S. Army Captain T.B. Mott lauded the universal participation of the Swiss population in shooting matches, his only reservation being “the evil attendant upon all such assemblages of the people, drinking and carousing and the spending of money during sometimes a whole week.” Actually, the party atmosphere probably ensured the survival of the Swiss militia. Perhaps the suppression of the “drinking and carousing” which characterized the early American militia musters was the reason for the eventual demise of the American militia system.

After the Great War, the Congress, after hearing laudations about Swiss shooting skills, enacted the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which continues to this day to sell surplus military rifles to civilians, much to the sargrin of Senator Ted Kennedy. Indeed, Switzerland has been debated in Congress whenever firearms prohibitions have been an issue. In testimony against a 1935 handgun-registration bill, Col. Calvin Goddard noted that crime was every bit as low in Switzerland as in England, adding: “Any Swiss citizen may carry a pistol, his pockets may bulge with pistols, without a permit, but if he kills somebody he is out of luck.”

In a 1994 gun debate, Senator Larry Craig, who is an NRA board member, argued that in Switzerland “there are as many guns as there are people,” yet the crime rate is low. “But there is also a fundamentally different social attitude in that country.” Now that’s an understatement. The Swiss may complain about their occasional “criminal tourists,” but there are too many American criminal subcultures with that “different social attitude” which results in a disgraceful rate of violent crime.

While the United States is victimized by embarrassing episodes of criminal degradation, the twentieth-century European experience suggests that tyrannical governments kill far more than private criminals. In 1933, the Nazis seized power via massive search-and-seizure operations for firearms against “Communists,” i.e., all political opponents. In 1938, in preparation for and during the Night of the Broken Glass, they disarmed the Jews. And 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. The Nazi invasion plans themselves state that, because of the Swiss gun ownership and shooting skills, that country would be difficult to conquer and occupy. The European countries occupied by the Nazis usually had strict gun controls before the war, and their registration lists facilitated confiscation of firearms and, in many cases, 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 possession of firearms by civilians may help 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, many Warsaw Ghetto Uprisings?

Traditionally, the Swiss Cantons had few firearm regulations. The first federal gun control law ever to be enacted became valid in 1999. Carrying of machineguns, but not possession thereof, is prohibited. Semiauto conversions of military machineguns may be bought with a permit, except that the retiring soldier needs no permit. Purchase of some types of firearms from a commercial dealer requires a permit, but private sales do not. Repeating rifles, both military and hunting, are exempt. Carrying a loaded weapon requires a permit. Surplus assault rifles may be purchased by any Swiss citizen from the Military Department, which has 200,000 for sale.

The bottom line is one of attitude. Populations with training in civic virtue, though armed, generally do not experience sensational massacres or high crime rates. Switzerland fits this mold. But the United States does not. As H. Rap Brown declared in the 1960s, “Violence is as American as apple pie.”

As counsel for four of the sheriffs who sued the federal government for trying to pull them off street patrol to conduct Brady Act record checks on predominantly law-abiding handgun purchasers, I wish to reply to Richard Aborn’s letter of Sept. 30.

So far, four federal courts have declared the federal command to local law enforcement to be unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment. One court upheld the law, but only because that court interpreted it to mean that record checks are optional.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) press releases about the number of persons initially denied do not reflect that almost all are eventually cleared. As an example, the police chief of Phoenix, Ariz. wrote in “Brady Bill Turndowns for Warrants” for the week of March 28 to April 3: “Most of these warrants were for ‘Failure to Appear’ for various offenses.”

Of 35 denials, all were related to warrants for traffic or misdemeanor offenses, except for four felony cases involving drugs and larceny. One denial was related to “Fishing without License” and another to “Dog License.” Such infractions do not disqualify one from the purchase of a handgun, but apparently these persons were treated as “fugitives from justice” until paying their tickets for speeding and fishing without a license.

The Brady Act and its waiting period do not even apply in half the states, because they have instant checks or other methods. How many women being stalked by dangerous men have been prevented by the Brady Act from purchase of a handgun to protect their lives?

“Armed to the Teeth, and Free,” Wall Street Journal Europe, June 3, 1999.

“Where Kids and Guns Do Mix,” Wall Street Journal, June 10, 1999.