You may have seen it -- an email circulates and tells you Switzerland ranks No. 3 in the world when it comes to gun ownership. The email goes on to tell everyone that gun ownership is the reason Switzerland remains safe and stable. The email implies that without its guns, Switzerland might well be a failed state... just like Somalia.
As a dual citizen of the United States and Switzerland, and as someone who has lived for more than 20 years in each country, I feel not only qualified to set the record straight on this absurd gun comparison between both countries--but entitled.
Yes, I admit it: we have a lot of guns in Switzerland. They are mainly military guns. Assault weapons if you want. This comes from a very old tradition, which states that this small neutral country located in the heart of Europe shall be protected by its civilians. And because our territory is so small and previous attackers have been so powerful, the country needed to have a way to quickly mobilize its civilian soldiers. This is why, after they passed their yearly training, soldiers started taking their guns home, with their helmets, their ammunition and their combat boots. I clearly remember seeing the heavy padlocks on the closets of just about any Swiss home I visited in my youth; it detained the very special equipment that could never be touched. I also remember hearing guns shot while swimming at our local public pool, as the shooting range was right there, tucked into the edge of the forest. I remember seeing soldiers on the train hauling their guns and heavy backpacks as they reported to their barracks for their yearly training. Yes, growing up in Switzerland, I saw a lot of assault weapons. I saw them on the backs of trained shooters who I clearly felt were undergoing military training to protect us in case of an invasion. Seeing them and their guns never scared me.
But in recent years, things have changed in Switzerland. The new generations of citizen soldiers have demonstrated that the respect their forefathers had for the military gun no longer exists. As a result, new preventive measures had to be taken: while military guns are still stored at home, the ammunition is now stored at the arsenal. Nowadays, the assault weapon must be disassembled and stored in two separate closets. This way, if anyone steals the gun, they will be left with a useless piece of steel instead of an agent of death.
So yes, military guns are still stored at home in Switzerland, but they are powerless pieces of equipment.
Not the case in the United States.
For the past 20 years, I have lived on the West Coast, first in California and now in Oregon. The United States is my adopted country. In suburban Portland, where I live, there are three gun shops within walking distance of my house. Nobody I hang out with is a soldier, but many appear wanting to be by owning guns that they feel they must carry with them at all times. These same people tend to love watching re-runs of the TV series Cops and favor sitting with their backs against the wall in public places because that's how a soldier sits when at war. They see the worst in everyone. Like John Wayne, they feel that they must be ready to take the law into their own hands at any time because their government will without a doubt fail them, and at that time they will have to protect themselves from their countrymen -- not from the invasion of a foreign country, but from one another.
And that is the biggest cultural difference on the subject of gun ownership between Swiss and U.S. nationals: Americans are at war with one another; they are armed to fight whatever scheme their paranoid minds have created for them. Or, they imagine themselves heroes; patriots who will tackle offenders and restore law and order, thanks to the guns they own. In contrast, in Switzerland, people have guns because it is part of their civic duty. They have guns so they can protect one another from potential external invaders, such as the Germans and Russians in previous years.
Interestingly, in my 20 years in the U.S., I have never felt the need to protect myself from my government or my neighbors. I have found Americans to be respectful, law-abiding citizens with whom one can easily reason. My house has never been broken into, and my neighbors always volunteer to keep an eye on it when I travel for an extended period of time. In general, people are fundamentally good in America, and I am quite certain that our government will not turn on us.
Gun ownership in Switzerland might be high, but it has zero correlation with the stability of the country. In other words, it is not because many families have an unloaded and disassembled gun in their padlocked closet that crime is low. It is because Swiss people are trained to understand the danger of owning a gun; because they trust one another; because they empower their government to serve them to the best of its ability -- and because they do not glorify weaponry.
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