Why America Can't Go Swiss on Guns
Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP
Why America Can't Go Swiss on Guns
Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP
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When it comes to firearms, Americans aren’t just of two minds, but of two different nations entirely.

The republic that first enshrined American gun rights back in 1791 bears little resemblance to the country we live in today. Largely agrarian and provincial, Colonial America saw firearms as  a natural extension of daily life, but that mindset doesn’t entirely capture the thinking of the Constitution’s framers in the late 18th century. While the economics and rural culture of the United States at the time made firearms quite commonplace, the founders’ philosophical disposition toward the ruling regimes of Europe, specifically that of the British Empire, also helped to direct their motives. As historian Bernard Bailyn argued, the framers were drawn to philosophy and the classics because:

They had hated and feared the trends of their own time, and in their writing had contrasted the present with a better past, which they endowed with qualities absent from their own, corrupt era. The earlier age had been full of virtue: simplicity, patriotism, integrity, a love of justice and of liberty; the present was venal, cynical, and oppressive.

From the very outset guns represented to early Americans a practical tool in the prevention of not only tyranny, but of resistance to a way of life that had become entirely foreign to them. The complexion of the United States looks rather different today, however, and if, as some suggest, the American story is nothing more than an ongoing dispute between its Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian impulses, that divide may be nowhere more apparent than on the right to bear arms.

Geographical Bullet Points

Today the United States is a country divided by politics, geography, culture, and creed. As a recent survey released by the University of Maryland indicates, these fissures are increasingly diminishing Americans’ national identity, and ensconcing secondary identities built around political tribes of faith, place, and politics. Indeed, many of these rifts are apparent in the country’s contemporary gun debate, as a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center discovered. For instance, there is what the Pew report’s authors call “a vast urban-rural divide in gun ownership rates.” While nearly half of all adults surveyed in rural parts of the United States reported owning at least one firearm, fewer than 20 percent of respondents living in the country’s urban areas could say the same.

That geographical schism dovetails with the increasingly partisan sorting habits of Americans. Put another way, we tend to live among the like-minded. The distinction is perhaps felt most acutely in the Northeast -- home to so many of the nation’s largest cities, universities, and media outlets -- where rates of gun ownership are by far the lowest in the country. This vast divergence in regional sensibilities affects the political enthusiasm for gun control across the United States, argues data journalist Dante Chinni, and reveals a strong geographical gap between those who own guns and those who wish to see them more aggressively regulated. For Americans in the rural South and mountainous West, the logic of gun ownership flows straight from the revolutionary rhetoric of the founders, who feared not only far-off imperial and cultural threats, but corrosive and pernicious enemies even in their own midst. 

“There is a long list of reasons why tightening gun laws is a difficult task, including lobbying money that supports members of Congress,” writes Chinni. “But when you look closely at the numbers, one side is simply more invested in the debate than the other.”

Much like terrorism, mass shootings in the United states are relatively infrequent yet profoundly traumatizing. They strike at citizens’ sense of security and freedom in their everyday lives, and expose weaknesses in the state’s ability to guarantee either. The Sept. 11 attacks did just that, providing the entire country with a collective cause for action. Trillions of dollars have been spent since 2001 to restructure U.S. government and national security policy to ward off terrorist attacks in the homeland, and regimes have been toppled toward that collective end.

No such mobilization is likely forthcoming in reaction to mass shootings, precisely because there exist today two Americas on the question of gun ownership. And while writers and wonks are quick to point to firearm regulation in other industrialized countries, often absent from such analyses is a recognition of the two American minds regarding the right to weapons.

Take the oft-cited case of Switzerland. Relatively permissive by European standards when it comes to guns, the small, landlocked European nation has a well-established firearm culture that is inextricably linked to compulsory service and firearms training for practically every able-bodied Swiss man. Gun ownership in the country is quite common -- those who serve in the national militia reserve the right to purchase their firearm from the government at the completion of service -- and like most Americans, the Swiss needn’t acquire a license to purchase hunting rifles or semiautomatic weapons. However, in Switzerland, firearms and ammunition are tightly regulated at the cantonal level, and guns are viewed less as a personal entitlement and more as part of a collective responsibility by the public to defend against invasion and occupation.

Not coincidentally, the Swiss also happen to register among the most satisfied populations in Europe with their government and other public institutions, and they peg their own well-being to the performance of these bodies. This trust allows for levels of government monitoring and mental-health profiling -- including local databases of known “troublemakers” -- that would likely make even a blue-state civil libertarian wince.

The Swiss entrust a great deal of faith in their government to strike the right balance between regulation and rights, because there is on the whole a national understanding on firearms. The same cannot be said of the United States.

Tribal Conflicts

In remarks delivered last week, National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre lashed out at “socialists” and overreaching federal law enforcement agencies eager, as he argued, to use shootings like the one this month in Parkland, Florida, to confiscate firearms and impose tyranny on the American people. “Every time in every nation in which this political disease rises to power, its citizens are repressed, their freedoms are destroyed and their firearms are banned and confiscated,” he said.

This is, for the most part, hyperbolic nonsense on LaPierre’s part -- some of the most unstable, undemocratic, and unaccountable parts of the world are flush with firearms -- but as far as political rhetoric goes it is quite effective. The NRA exists not so much today as a resource for gun enthusiasts, or even as advocates for the normalization of a national gun culture like that found in Switzerland. The NRA instead serves largely as an extension of one worldview on gun rights, and one predominantly associated with a particular political party. With its appeals to matters of liberty, entitlement, and “birthright,” the NRA seeks to further grow the divide between Americans on firearms, and in turn exacerbate the political paralysis on regulation.

Gun control advocates have been encouraged in recent days by efforts from the finance and business communities to cut ties with the NRA. Calls for boycotting the lobbying organization have gained steam on social media platforms, and for many Americans who want to see gun ownership tightly restricted there resides the hope that if government can’t fix the problem, then perhaps the market can.

It’s a false hope, however, and one that grossly misreads just how determined gun advocates are to preserve their enshrined right to bear (and own) arms. And although the election of Donald Trump has, ironically enough, hurt gun manufacturers, there is little reason to believe that market pressure from America’s elites and cosmopolitans will weaken the resolve to stay armed. Ultimately, like in Switzerland and other industrialized nations, the solution must be a political one, but the consent for that solution must first be informed by the governed.

“[T]he Second Amendment was not meant to safeguard the right to hunt deer or shoot clay pigeons, or even protect your home and family from an intruder,” argues John Daniel Davidson, senior correspondent for The Federalist. “The right to bear arms stems from the right of revolution, which is asserted in the Declaration of Independence and forms the basis of America’s social compact.” It’s likely that fewer people would die in gun-related violence, Davidson concedes, if firearms were more tightly regulated in the United States, and on that point the research is in agreement: Fewer guns lead to fewer gun deaths.

It’s a compelling public-health argument for those who reside in coastal enclaves and large cities far removed from U.S. gun culture, but it is anathema to those living in the other America.

The national appetite for stricter firearms regulation will ebb and flow with each shooting, but it’s in the halls of Congress -- where two Americas meet to cobble together a single national agenda -- that those efforts will face their most daunting test.

Kevin Sullivan is a former editor of RealClearWorld. Follow him on Twitter @kevinbsullivan. The views expressed here are the author’s own.