Moving past a violent culture

The Berkeley Circus

A simple ratio of gun ownership to gun homicide shows an average American person is three times more likely to be killed by gun homicide than an average Swiss person is. Americans not only have more guns, but they’re also more likely to use those guns to commit homicide. But it’s not just guns. More people in America are killed by knives, body parts or blunt weapons than by rifles every year. It’s not just a culture of guns that’s killing Americans — it’s a culture of violence.

The argument for increased gun control often goes something like this: “More powerful guns can kill more people more quickly, so we should restrict access to more powerful guns in order to limit deaths.” This was the thinking that led Bill Clinton to pass the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, a ban that restricted access to semi-automatic rifles in the United States. And yet, 225,000 fully automatic rifles — weapons much more potent than their semi-automatic counterparts — have caused two deaths in the past 80 years. It’s not about the kind of guns or even about the number of guns allowed — it’s about the kind of people we let purchase those guns. A gun is just a tool. The key to gun control isn’t about changing the tool; it’s about changing the kinds of people that own those tools.

America has a prolific gun culture — one that’s almost unique in its ubiquitousness. We have the most guns — not only per person but also in the country as a whole. China, which has four times as many people, has eight times fewer guns. But one country has a gun culture that almost mimics that of the United States: Switzerland.

In Switzerland, shooting for sport starts from as early an age as 10. Shooting ranges are found in every community, and owning a gun is easier than owning a dog or a car. And yet the pervading culture is not violent. Street crime is almost nonexistent. Gunshots do not ring through the night as opposing gangs duke it out in the streets of Zurich. And that represents the biggest difference between Switzerland and the United States: not the kind of gun being used but how the gun is being used.

For the most part, the Swiss use their guns for fun and sport. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association boasts 150,000 members and 3,000 clubs, including a youth section with children as young as 12. Furthermore, 75 million rounds of ammunition are fired every year in target practice and gun shows. Americans, on the other hand, use their weapons for violence.

In 2011, there were 414,000 incidents of firearm-related crimes and 467,000 victims of those crimes in the United States — and 95 percent of all gang-related homicides involved guns. So the problem is much more institutionalized than simply being a matter of access to guns. People in Switzerland see guns as fun. We see them as instruments of murder.

And so, when President Obama was calling for more gun control this week in response to the Navy Yard shooting, he had the wrong idea entirely. The real question shouldn’t be about what weapon the shooter was using — coincidentally, it was a shotgun, which Obama has never talked about banning — but rather about what could have been done to prevent the shooting altogether. Aaron Alexis suffered from PTSD after helping out in the 9/11 rescue mission, but our stigma around mental illness and the lack of proper medical care prevented him from getting the treatment he needed.

James Holmes — the shooter in the Aurora, Colo., massacre — was suspected to be suffering from a mental illness and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial.

Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook shooting, was thought by his brother to have a personality disorder and mild autism. He never received proper care for those illnesses.

So when President Obama asks Congress to pass new gun control laws, he’s only asking for a bandage to cover the wound. Gun control helps cover up the effects, but it won’t help fix the cause. To fix the solution once and for all, we’ll need something much more difficult: a complete reversal of America’s infatuation with violence and prejudice.

It will require better treatment for mentally ill patients, yes, but we will also have to change our stigma around mental illness, our use of guns as tools of murder and, above all, our fascination with violence as a society.

There are not overnight fixes, nor are there one-size-fits-all policy solutions to address these problems. That said, until we figure out how to deal with the thorny issues behind gun violence, Switzerland will remain a reminder of what we could be — and what we are not.

Kevin Gu writes the Thursday column on politics. You can contact him at [email protected].