Disarming the Swiss

Two years ago — on September 27, 2001 — a lone gunman shot and killed shot 14 people in the cantonal parliament in Zug, near Zurich. To the Swiss justice minister, Ruth Metzler, the country’s liberal gun laws were responsible. Joined by the Swiss People’s party, the Radical party, and the Swiss business federation, Metzler has called for registering guns, banning others, and tightening controls on buying guns as obvious solutions to make sure nothing like that happens again.

Ever since Switzerland’s founding in 1291, an armed citizenry has been a cornerstone of its defense. The Swiss Militia also inspired American revolutionaries from John Adams to Patrick Henry and served as the model for the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which 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.”

The tradition still lives in Switzerland today. All able-bodied males from 20 to 42 years of age are required to keep rifles or handguns at home. Gun shops are everywhere. A Zurich tourist brochure recommends people visit September’s Knabenschiessen (a young person’s shooting contest): “The oldest Zurich tradition . . . consists of a shooting contest at the Albisguetli (range) for 12 to 16 year-old boys and girls and a colorful three-day fair.”

Yet, Swiss gun laws have already started to give up some of this freedom that they are so well know for. In January 1999, nationwide regulations greatly restricted people’s ability to carry concealed handguns. But the new proposals — including registration — represent the greatest challenge to Swiss traditions. As some Swiss point out, registration in other countries has often preceded confiscation.

Registration could supposedly help identify criminals and prevent them from getting guns. For example, if a gun is left at the scene of the crime, registration could allow it to be traced back to the criminal who used it.

Nice theory, but it just doesn’t work. Despite spending tens or even hundreds of thousands of man-hours by police administering these laws in different areas of the United States (such as Hawaii, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.), there is not even a single case where the laws have been key in identifying someone who has committed a crime.

Other countries have experienced similar problems. In Canada from 1997 to 2001, only in 3 percent of handgun murders there was it even possible that the weapon might have been registered to the perpetrator and no evidence is available on how helpful registration was in any of those cases.

The difficulties are very simple to understand. Criminals very rarely leave their guns at the scene of the crime. In the few cases where guns have been left at the crime scene, they are not registered. It should come as no surprise that would-be criminals virtually never register their weapons. They are simply not that stupid, and try their best to keep away from authorities.

While tighter controls on purchasing guns may allay some people’s fears, there is not a single academic study showing that background checks reduce violent crime. What really deters criminals are higher arrest and conviction rates and longer prison sentences for the crime, not increasing penalties for how the crime was committed.

The irony is that to stop crime Switzerland is seeking to emulate the strict gun-control regulations of its neighbors, when the reverse should be the case. Neighboring Austria, France, Germany, and Italy, all with stricter gun-control laws, had murder rates during 2000 that were 21 to 112 percent higher than Switzerland’s. With the exception of Austria, they all also have far higher robbery rates. Only Italy had fewer reported rapes. In England and Wales, where handguns are totally banned and few people are allowed to own rifles or shotguns, the murder rate was 68 percent higher, the rape rate 188 percent higher, and the robbery rate a staggering 493 percent higher.

If Switzerland has made any mistake, it is that their gun-control laws are already too strict. After Jan. 1, 1999, Swiss concealed-handgun owners were required to have a permit and had to demonstrate to the authorities that they needed a weapon to protect themselves or others against a precise danger. The folly of taking comfort in regulation is clear, however: Was anyone made safer by the fact that the Zug attack took place in an area where guns were banned, a so-called “gun-free safe zone”?

If even one of the people in the Zug parliament had been armed, could the attack have been stopped? This should not be too surprising: Suppose you or your family is being stalked by a criminal who intends on harming you. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying “This Home is a Gun-Free Zone”?

It is pretty obvious why we don’t put these signs up. As with many other gun laws, law-abiding citizens, not would-be criminals, would obey the sign. Instead of creating a safe zone for victims, it leaves victims defenseless and creates a safe zone for those intent on causing harm.

American politicians also understand this. From congressmen at the U.S. capitol to state representatives and city councilmen in state capitols and city halls, politicians across most of the county allow themselves to carry guns for protection.

My new book, The Bias Against Guns, examines multiple-victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 and finds that when states passed right-to-carry laws, these attacks, while fairly rare, fell by 60 percent. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell on average by 78 percent. When attacks still occurred in right-to-carry states, they overwhelmingly happened in the special places within those states where concealed handguns were banned.

While the emotional response to passing even more gun laws is understandable, laws that primarily disarm law-abiding citizens relative to criminals can have perverse effects. Switzerland has long had one of the lowest murder rates in Europe and part of that may be precisely because they trust their citizens to defend themselves. Even more perverse is how gun control can create problems that lead to calls for still further regulations. Instead of making citizens safer, gun-control laws can leave them as sitting ducks.