The List

Armed, but Not Necessarily Dangerous

Is a country violent just because it has a lot of guns?

Update: The following look at gun culture around the world was originally written following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in January, 2011. But  as U.S. gun culture is once again the subject of national debate following the killing of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, it is unfortunately relevant once again.

In the wake of last weekend's shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people in Tucson, Arizona, lawmakers are once again examining the United States' extremely permissive gun laws. With nearly 90 guns per 100 people according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, America has by far the most robust gun culture on the planet and one of the world's highest rates of gun crime to go along with it. Looking at the next nine countries on that list, however, reveals a very mixed bag. How is it that the world's most gun-crazy countries include some of the most dangerous and the safest?

YEMEN

Guns per 100 residents: 54.8 (All figures: Small Arms Survey 2007)

The culture: Despite new laws in 2005 and 2007 that required guns to be registered and banned them from being carried openly in public, firearms remain a way of life in Yemen. Even with the law, it's still not unusual for Yemeni men to tote AK-47s, pistols, and hunting rifles around town. Bursts of celebratory gunfire are de rigueur at weddings and social events.

Kalashnikovs can typically be purchased at open-air markets for between $500 and $1,500 depending on quality; harder stuff, such as rocket-propelled grenades, can be obtained easily with the right connections.

An estimated 2,000 Yemenis lose their lives every year in gun-related incidents, a disturbingly high number for a country its size. The engrained gun culture perpetuates tribal violence that has been a major source of the instability that plagues Yemen. The country ranks 15th on Foreign Policy's Failed States Index and is considered a terrorist safe-haven by the United States. Because of the large number of unregistered weapons in Yemen, Small Arms Survey's numbers are probably on the low end. Some estimates put the number of guns in Yemen at around two to three per person. Unfortunately, U.S. military assistance to the country hasn't exactly helped matters.

SWITZERLAND

Guns per 100 residents: 45.7

The culture: Switzerland, which requires many of its citizens to own automatic rifles, but has one of the world's lowest violent crime rates, is a favorite example of U.S. gun-rights advocates. But Switzerland's attitude toward gun ownership is a far cry from that of the United States.

All Swiss men are required to undergo military training, and between the ages of 21 and 32, they are considered to be front-line troops and issued M-57 assault rifles and 24 rounds of ammunition to keep in their home. Once discharged, they are allowed to keep the weapon, or if they prefer, trade it in for a bolt rifle. Women aren't required to own guns, but it's strongly encouraged through government-sponsored training programs.  

In 2001, there were about 600,000 automatic rifles and 500,000 pistols kept in Swiss homes. There are few restrictions on the buying of weapons, and the government even sells off its surplus to citizens when new models are purchased. Many Swiss belong to shooting clubs, and marksmanship competitions are popular activities. A number of cantons have laws against carrying guns without a permit, but it's not unusual to see off-duty reservists toting their assault rifles in public.

The country did a bit of soul-searching in 2001 after a disgruntled Swiss citizen opened fire in a regional parliament building, killing 14 people, but the Swiss don't seem likely to part with their firearms any time soon. In most years, gun crime rates are so low that statistics aren't even kept.

FINLAND

Guns per 100 residents: 45.3

The culture: Finland was an overwhelmingly rural society until recent decades and still maintains something of a frontier attitude toward gun ownership: The legal age for buying a gun in the country is 15. Finland's gun culture is closely tied to hunting -- self-defense is not considered a legally valid reason for gun ownership -- but the use of handguns for target practice is common. Gun clubs are popular venues for bachelor parties and corporate events.

The country's casual attitude toward guns was called into question by two school massacres in 2007 and 2008, which killed a total of 18 people. While the country once had virtually no anti-gun lobby to speak of, public attitudes have begun to shift. Finnish politicians are now debating whether to raise the gun ownership age to 18 and ban semiautomatic weapons. Finland's laws have also put it at odds with the European Parliament, which has voted to set 18 as the minimum age for gun ownership throughout the European Union. But gun advocates in Finland point out that firearms are involved in only 14 percent of the homicides each year there, compared to 67 percent in the United States.

SERBIA

Guns per 100 residents: 37.8

The culture: The high number of unregistered and illegal guns floating around Serbia and the western Balkans is an unfortunate legacy of the conflicts that have racked the region since the early 1990s. During the communist era, Yugoslavia was a major international exporter of cheap infantry weapons.

During the years of fighting, nearly everyone in the conflict area had a weapon in the house. Despite government collection efforts since the war, there are still an estimated 900,000 unregistered weapons in Serbia. The former Yugoslav region's flourishing black market for weapons made it a popular source for organized criminal organizations and militant groups in Western Europe during the 1990s. Experts worry that arms dealers there might now be supplying terrorists.

Serbia today has relatively restrictive gun ownership laws. Citizens are not permitted to own automatic or semiautomatic weapons, and registration -- including background checks and safety training -- is required for all gun owners. Nonetheless, black-market AK-47s are reportedly still fairly easy to come by.

CYPRUS

Guns per 100 residents: 36.4 (Small Arms Survey keeps statistics for the entire island, though the majority are thought to be on the Greek side.)

The culture: Incredibly, with a population of only 870,000, Cyprus was named the world's second-largest importer of small arms after the United States by Small Arms Survey in 2005. The authors write,"This recurrent peculiarity is the consequence of an opaque transit trade."

But the arms trade, for the most part, doesn't factor into civilian ownership. There are only about 104,000 registered guns in Cyprus, nearly all of them hunting rifles. Like the Balkans, Cyprus's long history of internal conflict has left it with large weapons stockpiles in private hands, though many have been destroyed through international efforts. There are some concerns about growing organized crime on the island, but there are still fewer than 10 gun-related homicides per year.

SAUDI ARABIA

Guns per 100 residents: 35

Culture: Saudi Arabia's authoritarian government may frown upon movie theaters and female drivers, but it takes a remarkably laissez-faire attitude toward weapons. The use of firearms for hunting, protection, and public celebrations has a long tradition in Saudi culture, and until recently, regulations were virtually non-existent. In 2007, a new gun law set age limits -- you need to be 21 for a license but can train with adult supervision from the age of 12 -- a licensing system, and strict penalties for smuggling weapons or trading them with the intention of breaching internal security. The carrying of weapons is also banned in mosques, military installations, airports, and a number of other public facilities.

There are few reliable statistics on the number of unregistered weapons in the kingdom, but thousands are seized every year. In 2009, the government responded in a way that would make the National Rifle Association proud -- they made it easier to buy guns. The government for the first time began licensing private dealers (previously only hunting weapons could be purchased in sporting goods stores). Now, anyone with cash and a clean criminal record can now open a gun shop.

IRAQ

Guns per 100 residents: 34.2

The law: Iraq's culture of gun ownership was well-established before the U.S. invasion of 2003. (So much for the argument that a well-armed populace is a defense against tyranny.) These weapons -- combined with those commandeered from the disbanded Iraqi Army -- were to prove far more deadly to U.S. troops in the coming years than the chemical or biological attacks that many feared.

Under laws instituted by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in 2003, Iraqis were still allowed to keep guns up to 7.62 mm -- the caliber of an AK-47 -- as long as they were registered. A license is required to carry any gun in public. But even these relatively liberal laws have proved difficult to enforce. During an amnesty campaign to encourage Iraqis to turn in their guns at police stations before the new laws went into effect in 2003, not a single weapon was brought in to most locations, according to the BBC.

In fact, the main impact of the U.S. invasion on Iraq's flourishing black-market arms trade has been the creation of sectarian militias that helped drive up prices for firearms.

URUGUAY

Guns per 100 residents: 31.8

Culture: Until 2002, all you needed was a national ID card to purchase a gun in Uruguay, the most firearm-friendly country in Latin America. In the late 1990s, landowners in neighboring Brazil, which has much stricter laws, began amassing personal arsenals to protect themselves from gangs by doing their shopping across the border. In 2002, Uruguay instituted much tougher licensing requirements and began cracking down on illegal firearms.

Nevertheless, Uruguayans remain attached to their arms. According to the Interior Ministry's own statistics, the country has about 600,000 registered gun owners and about an equal number of unregistered weapons. Overall, the country is ranked as one of the most stable in Latin America, but its rate of gun homicide is one of the world's highest, just behind the United States.

For now, Uruguay is the only Latin American country in Small Arms Survey's top 10, but thanks to the flow of weapons to drug cartels from the United States, Mexico may soon be joining it.

SWEDEN

Guns per 100 residents: 31.6

Culture: In U.S. political rhetoric, "Sweden" may be a code word for socialist nanny-statism, but Swedes have their red-state side too. Moosehunting in the country's vast northern regions is an extremely popular sport, and the country has around 300,000 registered hunters. Hunters in Sweden are allowed to own four to six rifles for recreational purposes, but handguns are strictly regulated and usually only allowed for members of gun clubs.

Despite the tough laws, gun crime is on the rise in Sweden, though still insignificant by U.S. standards. In 2005 alone, there were 50 reported shootings in the city of Malmo, mostly within immigrant communities and committed with unregistered weapons. Police and the media have called for tougher penalties for illegal guns.

Norway comes in just behind Sweden on the list. But thanks to fears of gun crime and school shootings plus tough EU regulations, new laws throughout Scandinavia may make Europe's wild north a thing of the past.  

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The List

Mossad's Most Dastardly (Alleged) Plots

From Munich to the Mabhouh assassination, the secretive Israeli intelligence agency has pulled off some pretty elaborate operations in its time. But lately, Middle Eastern media outlets and politicians have been getting a bit carried away.

THE VULTURES OF ZION

Country: Saudi Arabia

The plot: Israeli scientists are training vultures to spy on Arab countries.

The evidence: This week, Saudi Arabian security forces took into custody a live vulture who was found near the rural town of Hayel wearing a bracelet marked "Tel Aviv University." While Israeli scientists say the bird was part of a migration study, local residents told the Saudi media that it was most likely part of a "Zionist plot." Speculation then took off on Saudi websites that Israeli intelligence was training the birds as part of an espionage mission.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University say that a number of the tagged vultures have reached Saudi Arabia since the study began. Most are now presumed dead, but one bird is still flying around the country -- no doubt gathering vital intelligence for the Zionist entity -- and thus far, the captured "R65" has shown no willingness to give up his comrade.

JERUSALEM JAWS

Country: Egypt

The plot: Mossad set sharks loose in the Red Sea to destroy Egypt's tourist industry.

The evidence: Ever since noted Zionist director Steven Spielberg released Jaws in 1975, nothing has been able to put a damper on a tourist season faster than a shark on the loose. That's exactly what happened this winter when five swimmers were attacked (one fatally) by a shark on Egypt's Red Sea coast near Sharm El Sheik, a popular tourist destination.

As if that wasn't enough, some expected this might not be an ordinary shark. Speaking on the popular television program Egypt Today, an expert identified as "Captain Mustafa Ismail, a famous diver in Sharm el-Sheikh," claimed that ocean sharks don't naturally live off of Egypt's coast and that someone must have introduced them to those waters. Ismail claimed that a diver friend in the Israeli resort city of Eilat had recently found a small shark with a GPS tag on its back, indicating that it was being sent to infiltrate the Egyptian coastline.

The governor of Egypt's South Sinai region added fuel to the fire, saying, "What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark in the sea to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question. But it needs time to confirm."

However, Egyptian marine biologists dismissed the reports, saying it was "sad" that state television had helped spread the conspiracy theory. As for the shark itself, another (dubious) press report several days later suggested it was killed by a drunken Serbian tourist who landed on its head after cannonballing into the water from a diving board.

MACCABEE METAL

COUNTRY: Turkey

The plot: Mossad stages a headbanger's ball featuring German shock-rockers to embarrass Turks.

The evidence: The 2010 Sonisphere festival in Istanbul was a dream come true for Turkish metalheads, featuring performances from the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Rammstein. But unfortunately, because of the festival's sponsorship and timing, what should have been an innocent celebration of power chords and screeching vocals became a political flashpoint.

The concert took place the same month as the Gaza flotilla raid, in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Moreover, the concert was organized by the German-based company Purple Concerts, which is run by Israelis. An article in the Turkish daily Vakit sensed the hand of Mossad, arguing that the concert "means to make fun of our citizens who lost their lives at the hands of the Israeli government."

In particular, the article objected to the serving of alcohol at the event and the presence of the German band Rammstein, which, according to the paper, "encourage[s] violence, masochism, homosexuality and other perversities." (Because nothing says Zionist conspiracy like angry Germans screaming in front of a big crowd.) Never mind that the Sonisphere tour was also unleashing these same perversities on 10 other countries in 2010.

THE SOCIAL (SPY) NETWORK

Country: Iran

The plot: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is an asset of Western intelligence agencies, passing information on to the U.S. and Israeli governments and plotting to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

The evidence: The recent Hollywood film The Social Network suggests that Zuckerberg's frustration over a college breakup led to his creation of Facebook. But according to an Iranian TV segment that went viral online in November, he had far more sinister motives. The producers did their homework. They note, "According to a report on the website brainz.org, which belongs to the American government, [Zuckerberg] is originally a Jew." The video argues that the real purpose of Facebook is "locating people to engage in special operations for Western intelligence agencies." A photoshopped, nonexistent article from Britain's Independent newspaper is also cited, claiming that "Facebook is an Israeli spying web site which has a duty to atract [sic] spies in favor of Israel and the U.S."

Given the attention lavished on Facebook's role in the 2009 Iranian election protests, it's not surprising that Zuckerberg would attract some attention from conspiracy theorists in Tehran. But Zuckerberg also received some unwanted attention in Pakistan this year, when a prosecutor launched a blasphemy investigation against him for allowing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to be hosted on Facebook. The site was also briefly blocked in the country. The cartoons are still on the site.

CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: AGENT OF ISRAEL

Country: Iran

The plot: Mossad agents, in cooperation with India's Research and Analysis Wing arranged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted Christmas Day plane bombing in 2009.

The evidence: According to a report on Iran's state-owned Press TV, an Israeli security company arranged for Abdulmutallab to board a plane in Amsterdam without a passport. An "Indian man" was evidently instrumental in arranging Abdulmutallab's passage, which is no surprise since "Israel and India are very close business partners, especially via their military contracts." Once onboard the plane, according to the account, another passenger spent the entire flight filming Abdulmutallab, even after he tried to ignite his crotch rocket.

The report, citing the Mathaba news agency, also posits that Abdulmutallab's home country of Nigeria is "clandestinely controlled by the Israeli army and Mossad" and quotes noted "military analyst and counterinsurgency specialist Gordon Duff, " (who also believes that WikiLeaks is an Israeli plot) opining that Yemen, where the would-be bomber reportedly trained, has no al Qaeda presence aside from "phony operatives" released by former U.S. President George W. Bush from Guantánamo.

Why arrange for such a plot? The article suggests the goal was to spread "Orwellian-style trauma and project Yemen, as well as the African continent, [as] the brand-new focus of the American so-called 'war on terror.'" But why Israel and India would want to focus U.S. attention on Yemen and Nigeria rather than on the Palestinians and Pakistan is a little unclear.

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