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The Gun Show

Michael T. Hertz: There is a deep divide in our country between those who think that our gun laws must be strengthened in order to prevent tragedies like 3-year-olds killing themselves.

Yesterday I came across a familiar story: a Kansas policeman's 3-year-old son found a gun at home and accidentally killed himself. So I pasted the link to the article into an email that I sent to a very reactionary man I know (and with whom I often have arguments about gun control). For the email subject line I put: "If a policeman's gun isn't safe in his own home, what guns are safe?" He wrote back: "Yes, Michael, this happens all the time, thousands and thousands. We should outlaw the police. Quick, call Obama for another executive action."

Gun Sense in America

The Gun Show—Michael T. Hertz

His reaction was a little bit weird but no more so than the reaction of many others. There is a deep divide in our country between those who think that our gun laws must be strengthened in order to prevent tragedies like 3-year-olds killing themselves (or the San Bernardino massacre) and those who think otherwise—like Donald Trump, who would prefer to ban all Muslims from entering the country rather than preventing people from getting automatic weapons or guns that can easily be made automatic.

There is a deep divide in our country between those who think that our gun laws must be strengthened in order to prevent tragedies like 3-year-olds killing themselves

It was this in mind that I saw today a large demonstration on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall against guns. "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America." I took a picture, and then a man with an accent came up to me and asked what this demonstration was about. He was German, he said. I explained what was going on, and he nodded his head and said that it would be difficult in the United States to do something about guns. "It's part of the culture."

I then launched into my favorite story about guns. When I was a student (in 1966) I lived for three months in Geneva, Switzerland. And for a month I shared an apartment with a Swiss man and a German man. The Swiss man had a rifle and bullets in the closet. And he told me (in a matter of fact way) that every man in Switzerland over the age of 18 was a member of the national militia and had a rifle at home.

"Behind only the US and Yemen in the number of guns per capita, there are around 29 guns for every 100 people in Switzerland. And in a country of only 8 million people, that means at least one in four households has a gun." Yet despite "the strong gun culture, there are rarely more than 40 gun homicides a year, compared with the US with its 30,000 gun murders a year and 31 every day."

The German man I met in Los Angeles told me that there had been a change in Swiss law regarding the military guns. And he turned out to be right. "The biggest change to the [Swiss] firearms legislation was made in 2007, requiring soldiers to store their bullets in an arsenal rather than in the households, but they were allowed to continue to keep their firearms at home. However, people who own private guns can purchase ammunition freely, as long as their weapon is registered." So Switzerland continues to have a very liberal policy towards guns.

The German man told me that the 2007 change in ammunition policy for military weapons issued to militia members was due to concerns about suicides and intra-family murders. If that is true, I can't find any articles saying so. That argument is currently used by Swiss advocates of stricter gun control laws. ("Firearm deaths in Switzerland take place at just one-seventh the rate that they occur in the United States. But researchers say guns are often used in suicides and crimes of passion in Switzerland." )

There were two horrific mass killings in Switzerland in 2013. But the last vote on more gun control (in 2011) resulted in 56% of the voters rejecting greater control on military weapons at home and more restrictions on private ownership of guns.

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So – why the difference between Switzerland and the United States insofar as mass killings and gun murders are concerned? "One of the reasons the crime rate in Switzerland is low despite the prevalence of weapons — and also why the Swiss mentality can’t be transposed to the current American reality — is the culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation. Kids as young as 12 belong to gun groups in their local communities, where they learn sharpshooting. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association runs about 3,000 clubs and has 150,000 members, including a youth section. Many members keep their guns and ammunition at home, while others choose to leave them at the club. And yet, despite such easy access to pistols and rifles, “no members have ever used their guns for criminal purposes,” says Max Flueckiger, the association’s spokesperson.

“Social conditions are fundamental in deterring crime,” says Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton in Great Britain, who has studied gun violence in different countries and concluded that a “culture of support” rather than focus on individualism, can deter mass killings."

"If people have a responsible, disciplined and organized introduction into an activity like shooting, there will be less risk of gun violence…That sense of social and civic responsibility is one of the reasons the Swiss have never allowed their guns to come under fire."

If social conditions are a key element, the Swiss situation cannot be easily transposed to the United States. Americans with their culture of violence combined with their political rights to liberty and not going to generate social and civic responsibility the way the Swiss do.

One might also mention that the Swiss have a better system for taking care of the mentally ill. Both the United States and Switzerland are wealthy countries, both spend a lot of money on health care, and both provide for insurance through private insurance companies. How, the "largest difference between the two countries is that Switzerland has mandatory universal health insurance and more regulation over the health insurance companies and negotiated costs of treatment."

Americans need to own up to their problems. They pride themselves on their "exceptional" country, but many Americans won't admit that gun violence is a major problem. The United States doesn't have as many gun deaths as many Third World countries, but it is by far the highest in such deaths among First World countries.

We really have a choice here to end mass killings. There are three major components to such deaths in the United States. One is the extreme prevelance of weapons. A second is the failure to take care of the mentally ill. And the third is the culture of violence and lack of a "culture of support" and the social and civic responsibility like the Swiss. We have elected to glorify violence, and in our "individual freedom" society we do not have nearly enough social and civic responsibility. (The number of homeless people wandering around Los Angeles demonstrates the latter. The Swiss do have homeless people but not in nearly such numbers.)

There's little likelihood that the United States is going to change its culture or would even want to. There's some hope that it might start paying attention to the mental health issues but that will be a long time coming. So the only likely way to reduce gun deaths quickly is to lower the number of guns and regulate gun ownership. There are all sorts of arguments concerning this method, but there aren't too many other ways of achieving the goal of reducing the mass killings.

If you don't want to control guns, then suggest other ways of preventing gun deaths. And – no – arming the citizenry to the teeth won't do it. It will just result in more children dying from gun deaths in their homes.

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Michael T. Hertz