The List

America’s Exceptional Gun Culture

Four reminders about just how entrenched guns are in American society.

Though the issue has been largely on the political backburner for the last four years, last week's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has already prompted a new push for gun control laws by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. The president suggested in his speech in Newtown on Sunday that he would use "whatever power this office holds" to prevent similar events from happening in the future, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday that the White House would consider supporting congressional proposals for "common sense gun control measures like the assault weapons ban." (Even the National Rifle Association has pledged to make "meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.")

Such a push is likely to meet stiff resistance from Second Amendment advocates. But even if it passed, the United States would still be a major outlier when it comes to gun ownership and culture. As the following facts and figures from around the world make clear, when it comes to the right to bear arms, the Land of the Free is in a league of its own

The stockpile of civilian-owned guns in the United States dwarfs all other countries

According to the 2007 Small Arms Survey -- the best, most recent study of the number of guns available in the world -- civilians in the United States own roughly 270 million small arms, which is more than the next 17 countries combined (the runner-up on the list is India, with 46 million firearms. The rate of ownership in the United States -- 90 firearms per 100 people -- is also the world's highest (again the runner-up, Yemen, is a distant second with 60 firearms per 100 people). The report notes that there are around 650 million civilian-owned firearms in the entire world, which means more than 40 percent of these are in the United States, and that about 4.5 million out of the roughly 8 million new firearms manufactured annually are purchased in the United States. Keep in mind that the United States represents less than five percent of the world's population.

"Children in other industrialized nations are not dying from guns"

Gun violence is killing and injuring American children at an astoundingly high rate. In the United States, only car crashes and cancer claim the lives of more children between the ages of 5 and 14 than firearms, according to a 2002 study that appeared in the Journal of Trauma-Injury, Infection, and Critical Care. "Children in other industrialized nations are not dying from guns," the authors wrote. "Compared with children 5-14 years old in other industrialized nations, the firearm-related homicide rate in the United States is 17 times higher, the firearm-related suicide rate 10 times higher, and the unintentional firearm-related death rate 9 times higher. Overall, before a child in the United States reaches 15 years of age, he or she is 5 times more likely than a child in the rest of the industrialized world to be murdered, 2 times as likely to commit suicide and 12 times more likely to die a firearm-related death."

The investigators also found a clear link between elevated levels of guns and child mortality rates across U.S. states, suggesting that more guns lead to more child deaths not only across international borders but also across the United States. Critically, the authors concluded that children living in states with large numbers of guns were not more likely to be victims of violence or suicide that did not involve firearms. Instead, the presence of guns makes possible a kind of violence that few young people could inflict on themselves or one another otherwise.

The United States is the gun-related murder capital of the developed world

In no other developed country do as many people die in gun-related homicides than in the United States. According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, 3.2 out of 100,000 Americans were killed by guns in 2010. As a frame of reference, consider that Japan, a country with one of the world's most notorious mafias, the yakuza, has virtually eliminated gun-related homicides.

Of all the countries in the world, Honduras has the highest gun-related homicide rate, with 68.4 deaths for every 100,000 people. But Honduras, like its fellow Latin American countries Colombia (27.1 gun-related deaths for every 100,000 people) and Mexico (10 per 100,000 people), has been engaged in a brutal drug war against well-funded and well-armed cartels and gangs. These factors are not at play in the United States, which is vastly richer and has a significantly more effective state apparatus.

The United States is nearly alone in enshrining gun rights in its Constitution (sort of)

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, in full, reads: "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." Over time, this amendment has been interpreted as guaranteeing individuals the right to possess a wide variety of firearms and, in many cases, to be able to carry those guns concealed on one's person or openly in a hip holster. U.S. courts have repeatedly upheld that interpretation, most recently in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices struck down Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns and rejected the notion that the Second Amendment permits individual gun ownership only for those participating in a "well regulated militia."

It is important to note that critics of the Heller ruling argue that it applies a distorted reading of the Second Amendment that deliberately removes the text from the context of its drafting. Many historians claim that the amendment was drafted in response to British efforts to disarm unhappy colonists, and that the maintenance of private arms was seen as an integral part of preserving the ability to muster a militia. In this reading, the Second Amendment does not protect the individual right to bear arms.

The Heller ruling places the United States within a decidedly small club of nations -- alongside Guatemala, Haiti, and Mexico -- that guarantee the right to bear arms in their constitutions. According to the United Nations, these countries also experience relatively high rates of firearm-related homicides. While data is unavailable for Haiti, the United States and Mexico both saw around 10,000 gun deaths in 2010, while Guatemala, a significantly smaller country with only 15 million people, witnessed 5,000 gun deaths. If easy access to guns is supposed to guarantee safety and reduce gun violence, the experiences of these countries simply don't support that theory.

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A League of Our Own

The NRA is wrong -- gun culture in Israel and Switzerland isn't anything like it is in the United States.

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.

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