Switzerland is an odd little country in several ways. Among others, it’s not part of the EU, despite being surrounded by it; it just posted surprisingly good financial results; it still has a comparatively large conscripted militia; and it has its soldiers keep their firearms at home. In other words, Switzerland is a large-scale experiment on gun control.
Switzerland’s voting on the latter point on February 13th, after an initiative was handed in that demands the army firearms be kept in the arsenal, that all firearms be registered, and that someone who wants a gun needs to prove his ability to use it and his need for it. I’d been indecisive on the matter. A national firearms register will cost a lot of money and make a nice dent in those surprisingly good financial results mentioned. An octogenarian gun collector would have to prove his ability or render the guns inoperable in order to be allowed to keep them. On the other hand, the army rifle is a killing instrument readily available to a large number of Swiss men, and guns don’t really have an awful lot of civil uses.
The arguments on both sides are mostly the usual useless stuff. Dead teddies with a bleeding shot wound face off with scary gangsters pointing guns. We’ll either kill our families or destroy the fabric of Swiss culture.
Time for a few numbers and facts.
In 2008, 259 people died in Switzerland because of firearms; 239 of these were suicides. (link) In 1998, the numbers were 466 and 413.
In 2009, Switzerland had 236 homicides and attempted homicides; 55 of these involved firearms, and in those 55, 24 people died. (same source as above)
A 2008 study compared suicide methods across Europe and found the rate of firearm use more than three times as high in Switzerland than the European average (about 33% versus about 10%). (link)
Roughly 60% of homicides and attempted homicides are apparently due to foreigners, who wouldn’t have access to army firearms. (link)
Apparently, knives kill more people than firearms. (link)
In 2009, 349 people died in Switzerland on the roads. (link)
And then, there’s an interesting observation following a drastic change in the Swiss Army. In 2004, the army was reorganized, the maximum age of service lowered from 40 to 30, and it was made a lot more difficult to keep the army firearm after leaving the army. Comparing the data from 1995-2003 with the data from 2004-2008 shows a reduction of firearms suicides among men aged 30-40 by 48.6%. (link) It seems that weapon availability has a lot to do with the suicide rate. It also makes sense that the more popular methods can’t be outlawed, because people use knives in the kitchen and ropes to tow cars.
So, stricter gun laws would probably reduce the number of firearms suicides. If we assume costs similar to Canada, roughly 100 million a year, and that we can cut firearms suicides and murders by half, we’re looking at spending ca. 700’000 a year per prevented death.
However, the study on the effect of weapon availability on firearms suicide rate also says that the changes in firearms suicide rate are lost in the overall statistics on suicides because of the large increase in assisted suicides. If we’re willing to put that much money toward firearms suicide prevention, we should probably put serious effort toward decreasing the assisted suicides as well – but that’s not nearly as easily legislated as banning guns.
In short, we can spend a lot of money to perhaps reduce our suicide rate by 15%, moving down from 17.5 suicides per 100’000 people to 14.9 and thereby from rank 17 to rank 24 worldwide. Or we can continue pretending that guns don’t kill people. Do you understand why I’m still undecided?