Want to Keep Gun Rights? Strengthen the Social Fabric

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock killed more people in 15 minutes than Islamist terrorists did in Western Europethis year: 59 people in Las Vegas compared with 57 killed in attacks in London, Stockholm, Paris, Manchester, London again, Barcelona. So the backlash against guns in the U.S. is understandable: In Western European countries, with their tough gun laws, most attacks — using vehicles, knives or self-made bombs — tend to be less deadly. Tightening gun regulation is one possible answer; but not one that gets much traction in the U.S. Many suspect, rightly, that this doesn’t get at the core problem. That leaves another avenue, which gun rights advocates rarely consider though it offers an opportunity for them to find common ground with their opponents.

The U.S., of course, is the undisputed world champion in gun possession, with some 89 firearms per 100 residents. But some European countries also have strong gun cultures and relatively lax gun laws that allow for high possession rates. Switzerland and Finland are both in the global Top 5 of firearm possession, with 46 and 45 guns per 100 population, respectively.

The gun possession rate in both Switzerland and Finland may have gone down sharply since the 2011 Small Arms Survey, which provided these data. But both countries still have strong gun cultures and lenient laws. In Switzerland, many households still keep firearms at home for the eventuality of a foreign invasion. So the country has long been the poster child of U.S. gun rights advocates, who like to point out that the gun tradition there hasn’t led to a high firearm homicide rate: It’s only 0.7 per 100,000 population, according to GunPolicy.org, compared with almost 11 in the U.S. In Finland, one needs a license to buy a gun, but “gun collecting” is a valid reason to obtain one and the number of weapons per person is not limited. The gun homicide rate is just 0.2 per 100,000 population. 

Norway and Iceland are two other countries with high gun possession rates — 27 and 30 per 100 people, respectively — and no gun homicides to speak of. The laws here are milder than in Finland. A Norwegian gun license can be granted for personal protection, and fully automatic weapons are allowed; in Iceland, the rules are about as relaxed as in the U.S.: no license is required, just a background check.

So why doesn’t a relatively large number of guns in these countries result in U.S.-style mass shootings or high gun homicide rates? Here’s a suggestion from Peter Squires, a criminology and public policy professor at the University of Brighton in the U.K., who has researched gun violence in different countries since the mid-1990s:

The more cohesive, trusting, tolerant and responsible a society is, the less risk that gun ownership itself represents.

It’s easy to see how Switzerland, Finland, Norway and Iceland fit into that logic. They are small, wealthy, relatively homogeneous societies with strong local communities. They are also some of the happiest countries on Earth: According to this year’s World Happiness Report, they are all ranked above the U.S. 

The team that compiles the Global Happiness Reports scores countries on objective parameters such as per capita economic output and life expectancy as well as on subjective ones, such as perceptions of corruption, a society’s generosity or the strength of the social support networks it provides. The Nordic countries and Switzerland are leaders on both scales. As for the U.S., Jeffrey Sachs, one of the economists behind the report, wrote a special chapter on “Restoring American Happiness” for the 2017 edition. It points out that while per capita gross domestic product in the U.S. has tripled since 1960, measured happiness hasn’t. In fact, it has been in decline recently. Sachs wrote:

The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth.

Sachs, of course, is a partisan figure, an adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders during last year’s presidential campaign. But he’s certainly not the only qualified observer who has noticed the fraying of the U.S. social tissue, the decline of social capital and the atomization of communities.

These phenomena are impossible to link directly to cases such as Paddock’s. Nobody knows why he spent years accumulating an arsenal, and there’s no indication so far why he finally opened fire on a crowd of strangers. Even his girlfriend apparently had no idea what he was planning to do. Theoretically, this could have happened anywhere. Since 2000, two people in Switzerland opened fire at random people, although the attacks were far less deadly than Paddock’s. In 2011 in Norway, Anders Breivik targeted youths at a camp, killing more people than Paddock. There’s no way to protect any society from an attacker with a grievance or an ideological axe to grind. But it’s in the U.S. that the mass shootings occur with frightening regularity, so there’s a more urgent case for a multi-pronged approach to the problem.

I’ve met extremely diverse Americans who own multiple guns. They range from a woman in rural Iowa with political views well to the left of Hillary Clinton’s, who nevertheless enjoys hunting, to a “three-percenter” survivalist in northern Florida with views far to the right of the Republican mainstream. None of these people would appreciate it if their gun freedoms were taken away. It will be extremely difficult to shift the U.S. public opinion significantly enough to tighten regulation, let alone to reduce the gun possession rate, even to the Finnish or Norwegian level. Even if it ever happens, it will likely take decades.