Armed, but Not Necessarily Dangerous

Is a country violent just because it has a lot of guns?

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KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images; Flickr user nicolasnova; AFP/Getty Images; MILOS VUKADINOVIC/AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty IMages; STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images; MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images; MIGUEL ROJO/AFP/Getty Images; MARC PREEL/AFP/Getty Images

Update: The following look at gun culture around the world was originally written following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in January, 2011. But  as U.S. gun culture is once again the subject of national debate following the killing of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, it is unfortunately relevant once again.

In the wake of last weekend’s shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 other people in Tucson, Arizona, lawmakers are once again examining the United States’ extremely permissive gun laws. With nearly 90 guns per 100 people according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, America has by far the most robust gun culture on the planet and one of the world’s highest rates of gun crime to go along with it. Looking at the next nine countries on that list, however, reveals a very mixed bag. How is it that the world’s most gun-crazy countries include some of the most dangerous and the safest?


Guns per 100 residents: 54.8 (All figures: Small Arms Survey 2007)

The culture: Despite new laws in 2005 and 2007 that required guns to be registered and banned them from being carried openly in public, firearms remain a way of life in Yemen. Even with the law, it’s still not unusual for Yemeni men to tote AK-47s, pistols, and hunting rifles around town. Bursts of celebratory gunfire are de rigueur at weddings and social events.

Kalashnikovs can typically be purchased at open-air markets for between $500 and $1,500 depending on quality; harder stuff, such as rocket-propelled grenades, can be obtained easily with the right connections.

An estimated 2,000 Yemenis lose their lives every year in gun-related incidents, a disturbingly high number for a country its size. The engrained gun culture perpetuates tribal violence that has been a major source of the instability that plagues Yemen. The country ranks 15th on Foreign Policy‘s Failed States Index and is considered a terrorist safe-haven by the United States. Because of the large number of unregistered weapons in Yemen, Small Arms Survey’s numbers are probably on the low end. Some estimates put the number of guns in Yemen at around two to three per person. Unfortunately, U.S. military assistance to the country hasn’t exactly helped matters.


Guns per 100 residents: 45.7

The culture: Switzerland, which requires many of its citizens to own automatic rifles, but has one of the world’s lowest violent crime rates, is a favorite example of U.S. gun-rights advocates. But Switzerland’s attitude toward gun ownership is a far cry from that of the United States.

All Swiss men are required to undergo military training, and between the ages of 21 and 32, they are considered to be front-line troops and issued M-57 assault rifles and 24 rounds of ammunition to keep in their home. Once discharged, they are allowed to keep the weapon, or if they prefer, trade it in for a bolt rifle. Women aren’t required to own guns, but it’s strongly encouraged through government-sponsored training programs.  

In 2001, there were about 600,000 automatic rifles and 500,000 pistols kept in Swiss homes. There are few restrictions on the buying of weapons, and the government even sells off its surplus to citizens when new models are purchased. Many Swiss belong to shooting clubs, and marksmanship competitions are popular activities. A number of cantons have laws against carrying guns without a permit, but it’s not unusual to see off-duty reservists toting their assault rifles in public.

The country did a bit of soul-searching in 2001 after a disgruntled Swiss citizen opened fire in a regional parliament building, killing 14 people, but the Swiss don’t seem likely to part with their firearms any time soon. In most years, gun crime rates are so low that statistics aren’t even kept.


Guns per 100 residents: 45.3

The culture: Finland was an overwhelmingly rural society until recent decades and still maintains something of a frontier attitude toward gun ownership: The legal age for buying a gun in the country is 15. Finland’s gun culture is closely tied to hunting — self-defense is not considered a legally valid reason for gun ownership — but the use of handguns for target practice is common. Gun clubs are popular venues for bachelor parties and corporate events.

The country’s casual attitude toward guns was called into question by two school massacres in 2007 and 2008, which killed a total of 18 people. While the country once had virtually no anti-gun lobby to speak of, public attitudes have begun to shift. Finnish politicians are now debating whether to raise the gun ownership age to 18 and ban semiautomatic weapons. Finland’s laws have also put it at odds with the European Parliament, which has voted to set 18 as the minimum age for gun ownership throughout the European Union. But gun advocates in Finland point out that firearms are involved in only 14 percent of the homicides each year there, compared to 67 percent in the United States.


Guns per 100 residents: 37.8

The culture: The high number of unregistered and illegal guns floating around Serbia and the western Balkans is an unfortunate legacy of the conflicts that have racked the region since the early 1990s. During the communist era, Yugoslavia was a major international exporter of cheap infantry weapons.

During the years of fighting, nearly everyone in the conflict area had a weapon in the house. Despite government collection efforts since the war, there are still an estimated 900,000 unregistered weapons in Serbia. The former Yugoslav region’s flourishing black market for weapons made it a popular source for organized criminal organizations and militant groups in Western Europe during the 1990s. Experts worry that arms dealers there might now be supplying terrorists.

Serbia today has relatively restrictive gun ownership laws. Citizens are not permitted to own automatic or semiautomatic weapons, and registration — including background checks and safety training — is required for all gun owners. Nonetheless, black-market AK-47s are reportedly still fairly easy to come by.


Guns per 100 residents: 36.4 (Small Arms Survey keeps statistics for the entire island, though the majority are thought to be on the Greek side.)

The culture: Incredibly, with a population of only 870,000, Cyprus was named the world’s second-largest importer of small arms after the United States by Small Arms Survey in 2005. The authors write,”This recurrent peculiarity is the consequence of an opaque transit trade.”

But the arms trade, for the most part, doesn’t factor into civilian ownership. There are only about 104,000 registered guns in Cyprus, nearly all of them hunting rifles. Like the Balkans, Cyprus’s long history of internal conflict has left it with large weapons stockpiles in private hands, though many have been destroyed through international efforts. There are some concerns about growing organized crime on the island, but there are still fewer than 10 gun-related homicides per year.


Guns per 100 residents: 35

Culture: Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian government may frown upon movie theaters and female drivers, but it takes a remarkably laissez-faire attitude toward weapons. The use of firearms for hunting, protection, and public celebrations has a long tradition in Saudi culture, and until recently, regulations were virtually non-existent. In 2007, a new gun law set age limits — you need to be 21 for a license but can train with adult supervision from the age of 12 — a licensing system, and strict penalties for smuggling weapons or trading them with the intention of breaching internal security. The carrying of weapons is also banned in mosques, military installations, airports, and a number of other public facilities.

There are few reliable statistics on the number of unregistered weapons in the kingdom, but thousands are seized every year. In 2009, the government responded in a way that would make the National Rifle Association proud — they made it easier to buy guns. The government for the first time began licensing private dealers (previously only hunting weapons could be purchased in sporting goods stores). Now, anyone with cash and a clean criminal record can now open a gun shop.


Guns per 100 residents: 34.2

The law: Iraq’s culture of gun ownership was well-established before the U.S. invasion of 2003. (So much for the argument that a well-armed populace is a defense against tyranny.) These weapons — combined with those commandeered from the disbanded Iraqi Army — were to prove far more deadly to U.S. troops in the coming years than the chemical or biological attacks that many feared.

Under laws instituted by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in 2003, Iraqis were still allowed to keep guns up to 7.62 mm — the caliber of an AK-47 — as long as they were registered. A license is required to carry any gun in public. But even these relatively liberal laws have proved difficult to enforce. During an amnesty campaign to encourage Iraqis to turn in their guns at police stations before the new laws went into effect in 2003, not a single weapon was brought in to most locations, according to the BBC.

In fact, the main impact of the U.S. invasion on Iraq’s flourishing black-market arms trade has been the creation of sectarian militias that helped drive up prices for firearms.


Guns per 100 residents: 31.8

Culture: Until 2002, all you needed was a national ID card to purchase a gun in Uruguay, the most firearm-friendly country in Latin America. In the late 1990s, landowners in neighboring Brazil, which has much stricter laws, began amassing personal arsenals to protect themselves from gangs by doing their shopping across the border. In 2002, Uruguay instituted much tougher licensing requirements and began cracking down on illegal firearms.

Nevertheless, Uruguayans remain attached to their arms. According to the Interior Ministry’s own statistics, the country has about 600,000 registered gun owners and about an equal number of unregistered weapons. Overall, the country is ranked as one of the most stable in Latin America, but its rate of gun homicide is one of the world’s highest, just behind the United States.

For now, Uruguay is the only Latin American country in Small Arms Survey’s top 10, but thanks to the flow of weapons to drug cartels from the United States, Mexico may soon be joining it.


Guns per 100 residents: 31.6

Culture: In U.S. political rhetoric, “Sweden” may be a code word for socialist nanny-statism, but Swedes have their red-state side too. Moosehunting in the country’s vast northern regions is an extremely popular sport, and the country has around 300,000 registered hunters. Hunters in Sweden are allowed to own four to six rifles for recreational purposes, but handguns are strictly regulated and usually only allowed for members of gun clubs.

Despite the tough laws, gun crime is on the rise in Sweden, though still insignificant by U.S. standards. In 2005 alone, there were 50 reported shootings in the city of Malmo, mostly within immigrant communities and committed with unregistered weapons. Police and the media have called for tougher penalties for illegal guns.

Norway comes in just behind Sweden on the list. But thanks to fears of gun crime and school shootings plus tough EU regulations, new laws throughout Scandinavia may make Europe’s wild north a thing of the past.  

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.