American gun control from an international perspective

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Photo illustration by James Gardner

The opinions of international BYU students suggest that there is no clear-cut solution when it comes to reducing gun crime. However, students like David Mongillo from Geneva, Switzerland, believe that the United States could learn a lot from the gun policies in their countries.

In the gun control conversation, Switzerland presents an intriguing case. Despite having the third highest gun ownership rate in the world (after the United States and Yemen, as per the most recent Small Arms Survey), the Swiss maintain a murder rate that is significantly lower than many countries with the most stringent gun control laws globally — including those in Australia, France and the United Kingdom.

According to the most recent statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Switzerland’s murder rate is .7, compared to Australia’s 1.0, France’s 1.1 and the United Kingdom’s 1.2, all per 100,000 people.

Mongillo explained that at age 19, every male citizen in Switzerland is required to begin mandatory military service. Once they begin training, they are each issued a SIG SG 550 fully automatic assault rifle. “That means that almost every Swiss household has a gun,” Mongillo said.

Switzerland has no standing militia; in case of invasion, trained Swiss citizens would band together, using the case of 50 bullets they are also issued by the government.

Additionally, any citizen over the age of 18 can purchase a firearm but must have a permit and clear background check. However, ammunition is difficult to acquire — it is very expensive, and every round purchased must be recorded by the vendor.

Mongillo attributes the low firearm crime in Switzerland to a deep-rooted pacifistic attitude and understanding of weapons combined with reasonable constraint gun policies.

“I remember as a teenage boy riding the public bus or tram home and often seeing various soldiers and/or citizens riding the public transportation with their assault rifles hanging from their shoulders,” Mongillo said. “Not once did it phase me because I knew that the Swiss attitude was one of pacifism and neutrality.”

In regard to what America can learn from Switzerland, Mongillo believes that the 23 executive actions Obama announced on Jan. 16 could be a step in the right direction.

“I don’t believe the Founding Fathers wanted such lackadaisical control of guns. Perhaps they envisioned something more like what Switzerland has done,” he said. “I think Obama is on the right track by requiring better background checks and banning fully automatic assault weapons. … By all means, protect yourselves with guns, but do you really need an armory with thousands of bullets?”

Bruna Souza, a chemistry major, comes from a country with gun policies and crime rates that are completely the opposite of those in Switzerland. Souza explained the super-strict gun control laws in Brazil permit the possession of firearms only to government officials. Technically citizens can keep guns in their homes, but obtaining a license is very difficult (if not impossible) because of stringent policies.

“I believe we can say that Brazil is very strict on gun control,” Souza said. “However, we still have one of the highest rates of death by firearm in the world. … I think it’s safe to say that our very strict gun control laws aren’t working at all. It would be all very funny if it weren’t so tragic and even embarrassing.”

Souza explained her belief that gun control does not work as a method to combat criminality, because the development of a black market for firearms is inevitable and unstoppable, as Brazil demonstrates.

“Violence does not solve violence, and because of that I am not in favor of owning a gun to defend myself and would not feel safer by doing so,” Souza said.

Conversely, Souza’s sister, Paola Gautier, a nonprofit management major, values the right that Americans have to defend themselves with arms.

“In America, though there are still plenty of crimes, I can at least attempt to defend my own home if I choose to. Criminals have to take a greater risk when entering someone’s house. This makes me feel safer,” Gautier said.

Gautier went on to describe the way many Brazilians view the United States’ relatively easy access to guns.

“When school, mall or theater shootings happen in America, people and the media in Brazil immediately blame American gun laws,” she said. “They think it’s absurd how easy it is to buy a gun here and can’t imagine feeling safe. People ask me if I get scared of going to school here. How ironic, coming from someone that lives in a country that has four times more murders than America.”

According to Gautier, “America could learn one thing from Brazil: strict gun laws do not prevent or reduce criminal activity. Brazil only saw an increase in number of deaths by firearm since its stricter gun laws were passed.”

Although strict gun control laws have not solved the problem of firearm crime in Brazil, Singapore alternatively presents a case in which stringent gun policies have worked well. In Singapore, strict laws with stiff penalties prevent anyone but government officials from possessing firearms. Consequently, the small island-country (population of about 5 million) has very few, if any, deaths by firearm each year.

Ee Chien Chua, a Singaporean student studying public relations, feels that his country has perfected the recipe of minimizing gun crime. He believes that America could learn from its example, perhaps by first re-analyzing the modern relevance of the Second Amendment.

“I feel that the Amendment is not applicable in today’s day and age. The amendment was written and consented to in a time when the U.S. was still a small country and was in fear of going back to war with Britain,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. I feel that gun control should be a lot more strict because there is no need for guns in the same way it was 200 years ago.”

However, Australian Elliot Holder presented the argument that even where gun control is strict and gun violence is consequentially low, other forms of violence can prevail.

“I feel like guns aren’t the issue, it’s the protective measures set in place,” Holder said. “In Australia, I felt unsafe on numerous occasions because even though people didn’t have guns, they still had knives and there were very few protective measures in place, not enough police or safeguards.”