Swiss girls just wanna have guns
Rob Lyons reports from Zurich's annual shooting competition – for schoolchildren.
There was uproar in August after a nine-year-old girl accidentally shot her shooting instructor with a machine gun at a venue called Bullets and Burgers in Arizona, USA. This was just the latest inevitable outcome, we were told, of a culture obsessed with guns. But as I saw in Zurich, Switzerland on Monday, the US is not alone in being so comfortable with such weapons, and there is no simplistic connection between teaching young people to use guns and high rates of homicide.
The occasion was the final shootout in the annual Knabenschiessen (‘Boys’ Shooting’) competition. Children from 13 upwards can sign up and have a go with automatic weapons (though in this case, one shot at a time), firing at targets that looked to me to be about 200 metres away. Standing behind the shooters, I could barely see the centre of the target. It was a mystery how anyone could hit it with a gun. Yet the delighted winner, 17-year-old Milena Brennwald, managed an impressive set of hits around the bullseye, becoming just the fifth girl to win the competition (they never bothered changing the name when they allowed girls to take part a few years back) and despite never having been a member of a shooting club.
The competitors enjoy the Knabenschiessen.
If some American and British commentators are to be believed, Brennwald and her 16-year-old opponent were being lured into a veritable culture of death. Yet according to figures in 2007 from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the gun homicide rate in Switzerland (0.77 per 100,000 people) was only about a quarter of that in the US (2.97 per 100,000 people), despite legally owned weapons being ubiquitous. According to the latest figures, overall homicide rates in Switzerland (down to 0.6 per 100,000 people) are lower than in the UK (one murder per 100,000 people), despite guns being almost completely banned in the UK.
Gun homicide is far more common in poor, relatively unstable societies in Latin America and the Caribbean than in rich countries like the US and Switzerland. Access to weapons is merely one factor and far from being the most important one. Intentional homicide with firearms is about 20 times more likely in Honduras than in the US.
Guns, however, are a normal part of society in Switzerland, used in farming, civil defence and sport. My friend from Zurich pointed out to me that it is not uncommon to see people travelling on the trams with an automatic weapon slung over their shoulders, on the way to the local shooting range, and barely an eyelid is batted. It is social conditions and individual moral choices that determine whether gun-related crime is a serious issue or not. Banning guns may make metropolitan liberals feel good, but as Brennwald, a veritable Alpine Annie Oakley, shows, guns can be an entertaining form of sport that allows men and women to compete on equal terms. More importantly, banning guns won’t rid society of the problem of homicide – but it does deprive us of the pleasure of shooting.
Rob Lyons is a columnist for spiked. He will be speaking at the debates Feeding the world: can we engineer away hunger?, Energy futures: how can we keep the lights on? and Multinationals: curse or blessing for the developing world? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.
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