If you follow gun rights and gun safety issues at all, you've undoubtedly seen this viral meme in your social media stream:
Aside from the truly questionable safety issue of someone riding around on a bicycle with a presumably loaded weapon (what would be point otherwise?) slung over your back, the picture implies quite a lot, doesn't it? Here are two happy-go-lucky young white women without a care in the world, free to ride around the bucolic countryside with semi-automatic weapons. And because of that freedom, the rate of gun deaths in their country is among the lowest in the world, which supposedly means a couple of things simultaneously: First, it means that widespread gun ownership must prevent gun violence. Second, it means that having lots of guns doesn't cause gun violence. Therefore, if you are upset about gun violence you should want every young American woman to be carrying loaded weapons slung over her back on her bike rides.
Let's take a look at what's actually likely to be going on in that picture. Switzerland's high rate of gun ownership is tied to the fact that it does not have a standing army so virtually every male citizen is conscripted into the militia where they receive comprehensive weapons training. Since they are a militia, they keep their government issued weapons (without ammunition) at home. Therefore, many of the guns in Swiss homes were issued to them by the government and most Swiss gun owners are highly trained in gun safety. This is in contrast to many untrained American yahoos who hang around Starbucks with loaded AR-15s leaning dangerously against the table top while they sip their mocha frappucino.
When Swiss militia members complete their service they are allowed to keep their weapon once they've been approved for an acquisition permit and can prove they have justification for having it. Private ownership of guns, along with ammunition, is also allowed under an acquisition permit with certain restrictions, including against those with criminal records and history of addiction and psychiatric problems. And with a law worthy of Orwell's worst nightmare, every gun in Switzerland is registered by the government.
Unless those two laughing women on the bicycles are transporting those weapons to a gun show or are members of the militia reporting for duty (in which cases the guns must not be loaded) or they are security personnel licensed to guard Roger Federer, they are probably breaking the law. "Open carry," as we understand it in the United States, is only allowed in those very limited circumstances.
So, the first part of the meme's implicit argument, that large scale gun ownership prevents gun violence is disproven by the good old USA. Switzerland may have have high gun ownership per capita but so do we. And our crime rate is the highest in the developed world -- by a mile. Clearly having a bunch of guns is not the key to a low crime rate.
The second part of the argument, that large scale gun ownership doesn't cause a high crime rate is more complicated. Certainly nobody is saying that guns fire bullets all by themselves. What most people who seek restrictions on gun ownership believe is that having easy access to firearms makes it too easy for flawed humans to make lethal choices in situations that do not have to be lethal. To the gun control advocate, the "freedom" to own guns for fun and profit doesn't outweigh the freedom to not be shot. To the gun proliferation advocate, the more guns the more freedom. That argument will not be resolved by anything Switzerland does or doesn't do.
What is interesting about the Switzerland comparison is something entirely different. As we've seen, Switzerland's rate of gun ownership is tied very directly to its militia. And one cannot help but think of our own 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states:
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.
Why would the founders put that militia stuff in there like that if they were simply creating a fundamental right to bear arms? Switzerland's militia is a good illustration of why they did that. The gun owners in Switzerland aren't armed in order to repel a home invasion by criminals. They are armed to repel a foreign invasion. Granted, that is now something of a symbolic gesture considering modern armaments, but it's fundamental to the way the Swiss think about their guns. And it is very different than the way we think about this.
This article by the BBC magazine discusses the gun culture in Switzerland and it features a quote which sums up the Swiss attitude:
"The gun is not given to me to protect me or my family. I have been given this gun by my country to serve my country - and for me it is an honour to take care of it. I think it is a good thing for the state to give this responsibility to people."
Contrast that with the common American attitude:
"The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."
You can see that the Swiss militia inculcates the idea of gun ownership as a responsibility to protect the nation while to the American gun proliferation advocates, the reason for the 2nd Amendment is to protect the citizens from the government. Those happy Swiss ladies on their bicycles aren't likely to be rushing off to a right wing Militia rally against Swiss government tyranny. There is no right wing militia in Switzerland. And that, of course, is the whole point of the "well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of the state" portion of the 2nd Amendment. The founders undoubtedly assumed that the nation would have a militia instead of a standing army. But more importantly they assumed that citizens of the democracy would not find it necessary to take up arms against the state they were creating because they would consider themselves to be the state.
There are many, many ways in which the Swiss gun culture and the American gun culture are different and probably dozens of reasons why gun violence is so much higher here than there. But this difference in the way we see guns and the relationship of the citizen to the government is stark. And it has something to do with the fact that we ignore that first part of the 2nd Amendment and fetishize the second.
By the way, that famous quote about the right to bear arms being there to protect ourselves from tyranny, which is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, is apocryphal.