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.
Fewer guns than you think
Despite universal military service, Israel and Switzerland have substantially fewer guns than the United States. When you include illegal guns, the United States has about one gun per person, Switzerland has half a gun per person, and Israel has 0.07 guns per person, according to the Small Arms Survey. Half of American households have a firearm, whereas only 30 percent of all Swiss households do, and most of those are army guns, according to my analysis of the International Crime Victimization Survey (ICVS). The percentage of Swiss households that report owning guns for self-protection is in the single digits. (Israeli firearm data is not available through ICVS, but the percentage of households with a gun must be in the low single digits, given the Small Arms Survey estimate of 0.07 guns per person.)
A privilege, not a right
Both Israel and Switzerland put the onus on would-be gun owners to explain why they need these weapons. Israel limits gun ownership to security workers, people who transport valuables or explosives, residents of the West Bank, and hunters. People who don't fall into one of those categories cannot obtain a firearm permit. Moreover, Israel rejects 40 percent of firearm permit applicants, the highest rejection rate in the Western world. Both Switzerland and Israel require yearly (or more frequent) permit renewals to insure that the reasons are still applicable. New Jersey is one of few U.S. states that requires a reason for buying a handgun.
Far from being a gun paradise, Switzerland is one of only six countries in the world that requires comprehensive details of the firearm, owner, and all firearm transfers to be reported to the federal government. It also requires two levels of firearm permits: one for acquisition and one for possession. U.S. states vary in their gun-control stricture, but many don't even require a permit to purchase a gun, and 34 U.S. states have only minimal requirements for concealed carry permits. Statistical analyses show that these "shall-issue" states have higher rates of homicide.
Strict and getting stricter
As stringent as Israel and Switzerland are, these countries are getting stricter. It took just one mass shooting 11 years ago in Switzerland to boost public support for gun control. Despite universal male service in the army reserves, only a quarter of Swiss households keep an army gun at home. Reserve members in many francophone cantons store their weapons in unit arsenals and town weapons depots rather than in their homes. German-speaking cantons still resist storing weapons in centralized depots, but they may pay the price in greater suicides with army weapons: Epidemiologic studies find that the cantons with lower household gun ownership have lower rates of firearm suicide and homicide-suicide.
Israel, too, required soldiers to leave their weapons on base during weekend leave as part of an effort to curb military suicides that began in 2006. Since the regulations were introduced, there has been a 40 percent reduction in the weekend suicide rate, while the weekday rate remained flat. Soldiers planning to commit suicide on weekend leave were apparently thwarted by their lack of firearm access, but by the time they returned to the base, the impulse had passed, reinforcing the public health literature that suggests that reducing firearm access reduces suicide rates.
Leave it to the pros
More than 15 percent of U.S. households report owning a gun for self-defense purposes, compared with only about 3 percent of Swiss households, according to my analysis of ICVS data. Unlike Switzerland, Israel has well-known security concerns, but it limits security to the professionals. Universal army service entrusts every 18-21 year old soldier with a gun, but only lieutenant colonels and above can own guns after their service ends. Schools employ armed commercial security guards, but teachers haven't carried guns since the 1970s. Since its founding, Israel has had a Civil Guard that employs civilian volunteers, in part, to fight terrorism. Such an effort would seem to be an opening for civilian gun ownership, but volunteers in Israel's Civil Guard are only entitled to a gun permit after 5 years of service. The country's security policies are designed to keep amateurs from carrying guns in the street -- even amateurs who have served 3 years in the army.
The bottom line
Gun advocates often laud the wise and mature gun culture that prevails in Israel and Switzerland, calling for the United States to follow these countries in promoting civilian firearm access for self-protection. But they're praising a fictional version of these countries. The real Israel and Switzerland have few guns and a great many restrictions on them -- and the United States would be wise to follow their example.