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Mythbusting: Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias

My post "12 facts about guns and mass shootings" included a mention of Israel and Switzerland, societies where guns are reputed to be widely available, but where gun violence is rare. Janet Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center School, has actually researched this question, and she wrote to tell me I had it wrong. We spoke shortly thereafter on the phone. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: Israel and Switzerland are often mentioned as countries that prove that high rates of gun ownership don’t necessarily lead to high rates of gun crime. In fact, I wrote that on Friday. But you say your research shows that’s not true.

Janet Rosenbaum: First of all, because they don’t have high levels of gun ownership. The gun ownership in Israel and Switzerland has decreased.

For instance, in Israel, they’re very limited in who is able to own a gun. There are only a few tens of thousands of legal guns in Israel, and the only people allowed to own them legally live in the settlements, do business in the settlements, or are in professions at risk of violence.

Both countries require you to have a reason to have a gun. There isn’t this idea that you have a right to a gun. You need a reason. And then you need to go back to the permitting authority every six months or so to assure them the reason is still valid.

The second thing is that there’s this widespread misunderstanding that Israel and Switzerland promote gun ownership. They don’t. Ten years ago, when Israel had the outbreak of violence, there was an expansion of gun ownership, but only to people above a certain rank in the military. There was no sense that having ordinary citizens [carry guns] would make anything safer.

Switzerland has also been moving away from having widespread guns. The laws are done canton by canton, which is like a province. Everyone in Switzerland serves in the army, and the cantons used to let you have the guns at home. They’ve been moving to keeping the guns in depots. That means they’re not in the household, which makes sense because the literature shows us that if the gun is in the household, the risk goes up for everyone in the household.

EK: As I understand it, there’s a stronger link between guns and suicide than between guns and homicide. And one of the really interesting parts of your paper is your recounting of the Israeli military’s effort to cut suicides among soldiers by restricting access to guns.

JR: Yes, it’s very striking. In Israel, it used to be that all soldiers would take the guns home with them. Now they have to leave them on base. Over the years they’ve done this -- it began, I think, in 2006 -- there’s been a 60 percent decrease in suicide on weekends among IDS soldiers. And it did not correspond to an increase in weekday suicide. People think suicide is an impulse that exists and builds. This shows that doesn’t happen. The impulse to suicide is transitory. Someone with access to a gun at that moment may commit suicide, but if not, they may not.

EK: I was surprised by one statistic in your article: You said that Israel rejects 40 percent of its applications for a gun, the highest rate of rejection of any country in the world. And even when you get approved, you say that “all guns must have an Interior Ministry permit and identifying mark for tracing.” That seems like it might make people think twice before they shoot from a gun they know the government can track.

JR: That’s a requirement. I don’t know a great deal about the ballistics issue there. But that is in the regulations.

EK: Israel and Switzerland are both small, highly cohesive countries. So some say that the difference in gun crime shows that there’s something about American culture that’s leading to these atrocities. Do you buy that?

JR: Israel is not a peaceful society. If there were a lot of guns, it may be even more violent. Israeli schools are well known for having a lot of the kicking and punching type of violence. I don’t know that Switzerland has that reputation. But Israel does, and it seems that the lack of guns promotes the lack of firearm violence rather than there being some nascent tendency toward peacefulness and cohesion. That cohesion may or may not exist, but not having guns prevents guns from being used in violence. People do still commit homicide and suicide but they do it with less lethal means. The most common form of suicide in Israel is strangulation, which is striking, because it’s not that common elsewhere.

EK: Not to derail the conversation, but given that most industrialized countries have quite strict gun laws, if they don’t use strangulation, what do they use?

JR: I don’t know what other countries have, but I’ve read about suicide in Israel, and it’s striking there, because there’s an age discrepancy. Between ages 18 and 21, when people are in the army and have access to guns, firearm suicide is very common. At other ages, strangulation is very common. So it does seem to suggest that people commit suicide with what they have access to even in the same society.