• A number of countries have found ways to effectively curb gun violence.
  • Their experiences could inform efforts to deal with the problem elsewhere.
  • In the US, there have already been hundreds of mass shootings in the first few months of 2021.

When Switzerland cut the size of its military in half nearly two decades ago, something interesting happened: the number of men fatally shooting themselves every year measurably declined.

In a country where sport shooting merits a public holiday and members of its conscription army keep their weapons at home, this natural experiment pointed to a compelling benefit of limiting access to firearms. Switzerland is just one of a number of places that have hit upon ways to successfully curb gun violence – and other countries could learn from their experiences.

Australia banned military-style weapons in 1996, kicked off a buy-back program paying market rates for prohibited guns, and limited firearm licensing to “genuine” reasons including vermin control (“personal protection” didn’t make the list). The number of gun deaths in the country fell by nearly 56% between 1996 and 2019.

In Israel, which has a conscription army model similar to Switzerland’s, researchers also found a link between reduced access to military-issued firearms and a decline in suicides. In Germany, which suffered a series of school shootings in the 2000s, fully-automatic weapons are now banned and anyone under 25 applying for a gun license must undergo a psychiatric evaluation; annual firearm homicides in the country fell by 90% between 1995 and 2015.

Easy access is one of the main drivers of global gun violence, which tends to disproportionately impact communities of colour and women. In Brazil, for example, 70% of the more than 140,000 children and teenagers killed in firearm incidents there between 2001 and 2018 were Black.

The global burden of gun violence is heavily weighted in the Americas – Brazil, the US, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Guatemala accounted for slightly more than half of all firearm deaths in 2016, according to one estimate, Worldwide, firearms deaths increased by 20% between 1990 and 2016, according to the same study.

In the US, where people have ready access to guns, there were 147 mass shootings in the first three and a half months of this year alone.

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There are proven methods for addressing the issue.

Some countries are in the midst of ambitious related efforts. After a gunman killed 51 people in a 2019 rampage, New Zealand responded with a buy-back scheme that netted more than 56,000 weapons, a tightening of gun laws last year, and a registry designed to make buying a firearm similar to being licensed to drive a car.

Some have pointed to an increase in gun-related charges in New Zealand as evidence that police are now taking gun crime more seriously; the prime minister said it only underlines the need for a strong legislative response.

In other countries things have moved in the opposite direction, however. In 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro delivered on a campaign promise to overturn the country’s relatively strict firearm regulations. Since then, there’s been an estimated 65% increase in gun ownership in the country.

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For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • “I was a teenage rifle owner, then an ER doctor.” One American physician-turned journalist writes that while guns used to be on a continuum with bows and arrows, they now seem better lumped in with grenades and bombs. (Kaiser Health News)
  • Prior to recent changes in EU law, readily-convertible firearms could be bought with few restrictions, modified into lethal weapons and trafficked within the region, according to this analysis. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute)
  • People can have trouble grasping the meaning of absolute numbers like annual gun deaths, so this professor of medicine devised a way to calculate the odds each American child will die from a firearm during their lifetime. Turns out it’s about 1%. (STAT)
  • No federal gun-control measure has been signed into law in the US for nearly three decades, despite polling clearly showing that most Americans support stricter laws. This podcast delves into why. (FiveThirtyEight)
  • More than 15 years before Brazil loosened its firearm restrictions under Bolsonaro, the country passed a remarkably stringent gun law – which, according to this analysis, notably reduced firearm-related homicides. (VoxEU)
  • In the US, suicide accounts for more than half of all gun deaths. According to this analysis, one reason adults are more likely than teenagers to kill themselves is simply because they have easier access to firearms. (Scientific American)
  • Germany has sought to curb access to guns both at home and abroad. According to this report, the country has been the biggest provider of development assistance related to controlling “small arms and light weapons” in sub-Saharan Africa. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute)

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Image: World Economic Forum