Following the tragic shooting last week in Newtown, Conn., two stories leapt out at me. The first was the astonishing tale of a teacher, Victoria Soto, who hid her first-graders in closets and took a bullet rather than risking the children's lives by hiding with them. The second featured a photograph of an Israeli woman with a military-style long gun slung across her back, herding children protectively. The contrast between the powerful Israeli woman and the unarmed American woman was striking. Looking at the two stories, I wished Soto had been armed and able to shoot first.
Israel, along with Switzerland, is one of the countries gun-control opponents trot out in their claim that guns aren't the reason for mass killings like the Newtown slaughter. With universal military service and seemingly ubiquitous firearms, Israel and Switzerland seem heroic. In these countries, many think, the teacher really could have shot the murderer. The argument runs like this: Both Israel and Switzerland have high rates of gun ownership and low rates of gun violence. Ergo, gun control is not the answer.
Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell used this trusty comparison again today when decrying the "shrill ignorance of ‘gun control' advocates." "Gun ownership has been three times as high in Switzerland as in Germany, but the Swiss have had lower murder rates," he wrote, going on to name Israel as another country with "high rates of gun ownership and low murder rates."
Predictably, he's not telling the whole story. Switzerland has tight gun control laws -- and so does Israel. Here are five facts that Americans should know about the role guns play in self-defense in the United States, Switzerland, and Israel.
The self-defense fallacy
In all three countries, self-defensive gun use is rare. Guns are six times more likely to be used against members of a household than against intruders, according to nationwide telephonic surveys. (Nonlethal weapons such as baseball bats are 12 times more likely to be used against intruders than guns.) And guns are 10 times more likely to be used by criminals than against them. Moreover, the use of firearms for self defense is almost certainly over-reported. More than 1 million Americans each year claim to have shot criminals. If this were true, the nation's emergency rooms would be filled with nothing but foiled criminals, because over 90 percent of criminals who are shot end up in the hospital.
Those who see firearms as vital for self-defense also often conflate military and civilian use. Jeanne Assam managed to halt a mass-casualty shooting at a mega-church in Colorado in 2007, but it turned out she was a former police officer who had been hired for security. Likewise, terrorist attacks in Israel have been stopped by off-duty soldiers using service weapons. Indeed, of the cases I have reviewed where Israeli or Swiss civilians supposedly used guns to prevent casualties, all involved off-duty or former soldiers or police, or went wrong when a civilian shot at someone who was not a terrorist.