America's Unique Gun Violence Problem

Oct 7, 2017
Originally published on October 7, 2017 6:45 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we want to bring in some international comparisons. It might not surprise anybody to know that the U.S. has more guns than any other country. But other Democratic highly developed countries like Switzerland and Germany also have high rates of gun ownership, but they don't have anywhere near the number of mass shootings. So we wondered if there was something different about U.S. gun owners or if there's something unique about the U.S. that put this country on a path to where these mass shootings have become more common and increasingly lethal. We've found two people to speak to this. Adam Winkler is a professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law. He's the author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America." He joins us from Los Angeles. Professor Winkler, thanks so much for joining us.

ADAM WINKLER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And also with us, Priscilla Imboden. She has served as U.S. correspondent for Switzerland Radio. And she's now back in Switzerland, where she's been reporting on gun ownership in Switzerland. We reached her in Berne. Priscilla Imboden, thank you so much for joining us.

PRISCILLA IMBODEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Professor Winkler, let me start with you. We know that there's a lot of lack of understanding about gun violence in America. For example, we reported just last week that Americans are far more likely to die in suicide-related gun violence than a mass shooting. So having said that, though, I still want it acknowledged that Americans are far more likely to be killed by a firearm than in any other similar peer country in the world.

So you've been writing and talking about the history of guns in America. So there are two questions for you, Professor Winkler. Was it always this way? I mean, did America always have a far higher rate of homicide by gun than a peer country? And is there a point in history that we can look at where it got to this point?

WINKLER: I think if we wanted to look to a historical period that put us on this trajectory, it's probably World War II because after World War II, and even before World War II, there was a big push in Europe to disarm the civilian population. They had been dealing with warfare on their own territory for so long. In Europe, they got a hold of most of their guns in the early part - in mid part of the 20th century. In the years since, America has really armed up. And today, we have as many guns as there are people.

MARTIN: So often people point to the influence of the National Rifle Association, the NRA, in advancing gun ownership, this very high rate of gun ownership in the United States. And not just the rate of gun ownership, but the fact that Americans who do own guns tend to have several of them and that they have access to kinds of weapons that are not available in other countries. Why is that? I mean, what role would you say the NRA has played in this?

WINKLER: Well, the NRA has played a very important role in this. The NRA is, of course, a political powerhouse that fights against gun control efforts and has waged a very successful war since the mid-1970s against gun control efforts. And the NRA's power comes from a lot of single issue pro-gun voters because they're very intense. And one of the rules of democracy is that a small and intense mobilized active minority will be very powerful and can overcome majorities, especially if those majorities are relatively weak in their support.

So we see 90 percent support things like background checks. But Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, said that when universal background checks was being considered, phone calls to her office were 7 to 1 against. And this was a sign, she said, that, look, the voters who really care about this issue, who are going to vote on this issue, who are going to tell their friends to vote on this issue, who are going to mobilize and contribute to candidates, they're the people who oppose gun control. And unfortunately, the gun control supporters have relatively weak support. And they're not organized in the same way and aren't nearly as politically influential as a result.

MARTIN: But, OK, let me bring Priscilla into this. I don't want to forget her. But when it comes to the numbers of households with guns, the U.S. and Switzerland are, in fact, quite similar. Recent surveys put the rate at which American households own guns is somewhere between 32 and 36 percent, very similar to the number of households in Switzerland, am I right? Why is that? Talk to me a little bit, if you would, about why it is that Switzerland has the rate of gun ownership that it has.

IMBODEN: Yes, it's true. It is very similar, the rate of gun ownership to the United States and Switzerland. And the reason is that, well, there's two reasons. One reason is that Switzerland has a militia army. And so all men between 18 and 34 are obliged to do military or civil service. And if they do military service, they get a semiautomatic gun which they store at home. So half of these guns belong to active military service people. And also people who used to be in the military service, they're allowed to keep it at home. So that's one of the things. The other thing is there is a very active culture of recreational shooting in Switzerland. People will go to the shooting range on weekends and shoot as a sport. And they have guns, too. And it's - but it's in a very sort of organized manner.

MARTIN: So talk to me about how - well, first of all, when is the last time Switzerland had a mass shooting?

IMBODEN: That was 2001. It was a disgruntled elderly man who went into a local Parliament and killed 14 people.

MARTIN: And how did he do that? I mean, was it with one gun? Was it a semi-automatic? Or how did - how was he able to do that?

IMBODEN: Well, yes, he had a semi-automatic. He had a - some kind of a homemade bomb as well. He had a few revolvers. And at the time, there was no security at the entrance to these public buildings - or in this case, the Parliament. He could just walk in and shoot.

MARTIN: So how - and this is a bit of an amorphous question, but I know you've been reporting on this. Do you think that the Swiss think about their guns differently than American gun owners do?

IMBODEN: Well, yes, I do. I believe that the motivation to have guns here in Switzerland is very different than the motivation in the United States. People have guns either because they're in the military, in which case they're trained, and they also have been sorted out. I mean, they don't let everybody go into the military. If somebody is mentally unstable, they - not go to the military and they do not get guns. And also the other motivation is sports. And there's nobody in Switzerland who buys guns to defend themselves against danger, or even less, defend themselves against the state. That's just something that does not exist in a mindset over here.

MARTIN: And, Professor Winkler, do you want to pick up the thread there? Do you think that American gun owners think about their guns differently than the citizens of other gun-owning countries do?

WINKLER: Well, certainly, guns are very much part of the American identity, given that we're a country that was founded by an armed revolution. And so much of our cultural identity since has been tied up with things like the Wild West. But one thing we have to remember, and it helps explain why there are so many guns in America even if we're seeing declining rates of gun ownership, is that for many, many shooters in America, it's a sport, a hobby, a recreation that they do every weekend the way golfers go play golf every weekend or the way car enthusiasts go drive their cars every weekend.

And just as a car enthusiast would collect multiple cars, even though technically for transportation they don't need another car, they do it because they like it. They like the other car. They like the way it feels. They like to drive it. It's the same thing with firearms. A lot of gun owners who are real enthusiasts and weekend hobbyists want to have multiple guns because they think they're - different guns are enjoyable to use.

MARTIN: So, Priscilla, before we let you go, I was curious about your experience. As I mentioned, you reported in the United States for a number of years. You just went back to Switzerland to serve as a political reporter there. But I was wondering, as a person who grew up in a country with a lot of guns, with a culture of gun ownership, when you came here, I was wondering what you noticed or how it struck you?

IMBODEN: Well, for sure, just the amount of mass shootings that happen in the United States. That was a surprising thing for me to see because I'm not used to that, living in a more peaceful country here. And one thing that's also a big difference which makes - definitely makes a difference in the homicides is that robbers and burglars in Switzerland are generally not armed, and in the United States, they generally are. And so that's where things happen. That's where people then get killed if there is any interference with what they're trying to do. That's one of the differences.

And we also don't have the same kind of political debate. The NRA in the United States, as was stated here in this discussion round, is extremely influential, has had a lot of power in politics in the United States even though the popular - the population generally is more critical towards the distribution of guns in the households all over the place. Here in Switzerland, the debate is a little bit different. We have some gun lobbies. We have some organizations that will fight against stricter rules, but they do allow a minimum of control. And there's no debate about if people with mental health issues are allowed to have a gun or not. They are not. So it's a very different type of debate. It's a lot less extreme than the United States.

MARTIN: And, Professor Winkler, the argument that many people give about why it is that the U.S. cannot adjust its stance around gun ownership is twofold. One, it is the constitutional argument. But the second is cultural, which is that this is a very different country than other countries. It's much more multiracial. It's much more diverse than a number of our peer economies. And the people just don't have the same level of trust that other countries might, where they saw their fellow citizens as being more similar to themselves. And I just wondered, you know, if you feel that - what your perception of that is?

WINKLER: I think the answers really are more cultural than constitutional. I mean, the Supreme Court only read the Second Amendment get to protect an individual right to bear arms in 2008. It wasn't like before 2008, we didn't have a gun problem or a mass-shooting problem. And, indeed, the courts since that 2008 case have upheld the vast majority of gun control laws. By one count, about 95 percent of cases challenging gun control have resulted in the law being upheld. So the courts have not been the major impediment to gun control, the NRA has them.

MARTIN: That's Adam Winkler. He's a professor of constitutional law at UCLA's School of Law. He's the author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America." We reached him in Los Angeles. Also with us, Priscilla Imboden. She's a political correspondent for Switzerland Radio. She's been reporting on gun ownership issues there in Switzerland. And she also served four years as a U.S. correspondent and spent a lot of time reporting on issues in the United States. Priscilla Imboden, Adam Winker, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WINKLER: Thank you.

IMBODEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.